Letter from the Director – April 2024

Go Deep

Iris, the Tennessee State Flower

“I don’t ask for the sights in front of me to change, only the depth of my seeing.” – Mary Oliver

We hosted a weekend poetry retreat this past weekend. It was filled with loveliness, both lovely people and lovely poems. We talked about writing and how we can interact with emotions that might fuel our words. We explored poetry as wonder, lament, anger, and joy. What became evident as we discussed each topic was this:

The writer’s work is to notice, not just physical things, but the deeper, holier weight of emotion. By noticing and examing the tender sentiments of the heart, we move closer to what it means to be human. 

This is not shallow work. You cannot write about anger without entering into the world of injustice. You cannot write about lament without opening the door to dark sorrow. (Well, that’s not really true. You can, but your words will lack authenticity and readers will recognize that.) How do we write about these things then, when the natural tendency is to avoid them? We dive in. We go deep. Only then do we begin to see the essence of the thing, it’s true nature. 

It’s the same with wonder and joy. The “good” emotions deserve to be examined deeply too. Joy, in particular, is a radical stance. It goes against the world’s mindset. It is a conflict and a tension between us and society, a daring in-your-face positivity that changes our view of life. We can’t find that view if we stop at simply being “happy.” Joy is deeper, wider, uncontained by circumstance. It stands within time, but beyond time too.

In the Mary Oliver quote, she doesn’t ask for a change of circumstance. She simply asks to see the circumstance in a more complete way. There have been plenty of times that I’ve wanted my circumstances to morph into something else. Anything else! But life rarely works like that. Instead, the opportunity is to stand in the center and really experience what’s happening. Invite yourself to the party of being human. Go deep into wonder, sorrow, anger, and joy. What happens when you make a friend out of grief, when you sit with it and hold its hand? What happens when you move all the way through anger to compassion? What happens when you boldly live joyfully in the midst of your own suffering?

What happens? I want to find out. Just as we can see a flower and appreciate it for its color and form, we can also see a flower in a deeper way. We can see the grains of pollen on the anther of the stamen and imagine seed, future growth, future beauty. It takes the will to go beyond the surface, to explore past the easy point or the comfort zone. It takes time. 

So, I wish you time. And I wish you daring. And I wish you the courage to go deep, even if you don’t want to at the moment. That will be the very moment you learn something essential about yourself and about the world. 

Blessings,
Sandy

Letter from the Director – March 2024

The Beauty of Becoming

“Enjoy the beauty of becoming.” – Mandy Hale

I recently did something I’ve always wanted to do. I took a pottery class. It was a wheel throwing class which means you use a wheel that spins to create pieces out of clay. I’m a very creative person and I expected to be able to make some decent things. Maybe not amazing things, but something recognizable as a cup or a bowl. It was not to be!

Creating thrown pottery is a lot harder than you might think. Artistic, creative me was actually pretty awful at it! I asked the teacher over and over, “What am I doing wrong?” She answered, “You are a beginner. You are doing nothing wrong. You are learning.” 

It was a perfect response and it settled me. Once I accepted the “beginner” mindset, I could enjoy the process. I tried and failed, tried and almost succeeded and failed, and tried and failed again. My teacher told me my creations were beautiful. I laughed – not out of a dismissal of her words, but because of the pure joy it was to be a beginner. It was fun. I was covered in splatters of wet clay. My face, my shirt, even my shoes had gray streaks on them. I let go of perfection. I let go of being the best. I let go of everything except the beauty of becoming. Becoming a beginner again. Becoming the creator of imperfect things. 

Oh, Friends, what a joy it is to cast your lot with imperfection. Because then, you get to experience the beautiful work of becoming more. That’s growth and satisfaction rolled into one. 

I returned to the pottery store to paint my imperfect pieces. I hadn’t realized that to get a brilliant coloration on your pieces, you needed to paint them with 3 coats of paint. It took me 4 hours to paint my 3 imperfect and rather small pieces, but I relished every second. I was becoming . . . what? I was becoming a beginner and with that I was becoming true to my own definition of success. To succeed means to begin with a heart open to joy.

Spring is seducing middle Tennessee right now with patches of yellow and bright green. There are warm days interspersed with chilly days. There is rain combined with sunshine. The beauty of becoming it all around us. So it is also with our writing projects. No matter where we are in the process, the writing is becoming what it is meant to be. Celebrate and enjoy that! It’s great to finish a piece of writing, but it’s also great to be in the “becoming” stage, to fully live in the evolution of our own good work, imperfect and messy . . . and beautiful nonetheless.

Blessings,
Sandy

Letter from the Director – February 2024

A Leap of Faith

“Creativity is always a leap of faith.” – Julia Cameron

February. What do you do with this month? It’s cold, it’s not so cold, it’s rainy, it’s cloudy. There are some months I don’t quite know what to do with. February is one of them. It’s a curious month, made even more curious when Julius Caesar decided to add a day to the month every 4 years to make up for the quarter days in Earth’s yearly trip around the sun. We call it Leap Day, February 29th. And this year, we’ve got one.

When I’m feeling a little out of sorts or like I’m not sure what I should be doing with my energy, I usually turn to art. It calms me, stabilizes me, makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something or at least creating something with my hands and mind. I’ve done a lot of art this year so far. (I’ve done some writing too!) My main art project has been to create a book of words and colored drawings. It is my love note to myself. It says the things I need to hear and believe. I have rejoiced in its creation, and every time I read through it, I feel the same deep satisfying belief that these are holy words coming to me through me but also are part of the greater unconscious that watches and guards me. 

And then I thought about sharing the love. A dangerous thought perhaps, a “leap of faith” perhaps, but one that seemed vital to the work I intend to do on myself this year. I decided to start an art and conversation group, stating no artistic skill was necessary and no one needed to be a great conversationalist. The group would meet at my house once or maybe twice a month. It was an invitation to join something, learn something, share something, with no expectations or stress. But, would anyone be interested? Was I alone in my need for community and purpose? I put it out there in the universe known as Facebook and also sent a few personal emails. Thirty people responded with interest. Thirty!

Here’s what I learned. People crave connection. People crave creativity. If we open ourselves to being a conduit for others to receive something good for their souls, we receive that same goodness in return. The leap it took to put my idea out into the world was not such a dangerous one after all. I’m still setting all the details in place and I’m about to send the official “here we go” email to everyone. I’m thinking our first meeting date should be Leap Day, February 29th. What do you think? Sounds good, doesn’t it?!!

Blessings,
Sandy

Letter from the Director – January 2024

The Magic of Beginnings

“And suddenly you know: It’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings.” 

Meister Eckhart

January arrived cold and wet to Tennessee, but today the sun shines meekly over frosted fields. I listen to the wind carve the corners of the buildings and rustle the awnings on the kitchen deck. If I keep my coat and hat on and shield myself from the breeze, the sun warms me enough to feel comfortable. I feel clear-headed, which is nice after climbing out of the hard endings of 2023. 

I like the quote we’re sharing today. I like it because it has the word magic in it and the phrase it’s time to start. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get fed up with waiting. Even though I can be good at the type of waiting known as procrastination, there are times I just want to go, to start, to move. It’s like waiting for a triathlon race to start on race day. You have to arrive early only to stand around for an hour or two, getting more nervous and antsy, until the race is officially underway. The worst part of racing for me is before the beginning. Once I start, I’m good. 

I also like the thought behind the phrase and suddenly you know. I learned a new term recently: Perseverative Cognition. It’s a fancy way to say overthinking, rumination. If there were a contest for this, I would win. I can overthink my way to the moon and back. But, sometimes you don’t have to think too hard or too long. Sometimes you know – suddenly, doubtlessly, remarkably. You know. When you know something important, the most logical thing to do next is to act. Once you know and act, it seems appropriate and logical to trust that you’re doing the right thing. 

Five years ago, I knew what I knew about writing and I acted by starting RWC. I trusted that a retreat center for residencies and weekend workshops would bless other writers. I think it has. If I go back to the word magic, I smile. Magic infers wonder and enchantment, a supernatural knowing within a mortal existence. I tend to think the colony has a bit of magic. I feel it when I’m walking the trails, sitting on the front porch with my journal, or even when I’m cleaning the kitchen. The magic is almost tangible for me.

As I was clearing the brambled edges of the creek bed recently, a thought rose to my awareness. I let it dance a little bit in my brain. I let it tease me. I worked as I contemplated this thought, my physical labor in tune with my mental effort. The sun on my back warmed me and suddenly I knew it was time to trust in more than the visual, known routines of the last five years. 

That doesn’t mean RWC will stop being a haven for writers’ residencies and retreats, but it does mean we’re making some slow changes. It means we’re going to have more closed weeks so that Heather and I can focus on more than the day-to-day upkeep of this place. It means we’re going to simplify and strategize and decide what’s important and what is not. It may not be completely clear what the end result is going to look like right now. I have many ideas and I’m sure it will evolve. I trust that it will be a magical evolution. 

For now, I invite you to consider a residency in 2024 or to attend one of our new retreats just announced. Both experiences come with special blessings.

I wish you a great start to a great year, and that you suddenly know what you need to do, trusting in the magic that comes when you follow your heart into the brave beginnings laid out in front of you, waiting for you to say yes

Blessings,
Sandy

Letter from the Director – December 2023

Ponder

It’s the last month of the year. December, even with its celebrations and excitement, still feels like an ending to me. The weather is getting steadily colder, the nights, longer and darker, the air, drier. Something in the stance of December invites me into deep thinking, contemplating my place in the world, my purpose, and my future. There is a somber tone to the month, even as I enjoy the bright lights and rich food of the holidays. I balance the cheer with quiet nights reading or creating art, pondering, and holding deeper thoughts and emotions. If I watch December end, will the new year bring new beauty?
 
I think we serve ourselves well when we allow these moments of introspection to move into our receptive mind and speak what we need to hear. If we listen carefully, we’ll often discover truths that are necessary for our next step into ourselves. The past has a tricky voice. We can’t live there, but we can hold its lessons and benefit from them. We can only change and grow in the present. Ponder that for a while!

I’ve recently experienced a painful ending. As I was journaling about it, a thought fluttered through my brain and onto the page. It said, “Welcome the pain.” My first inclination was to dismiss those unruly words, even scratch them out hard, but I didn’t. I sat with them, much as I sit with my art supplies when I’m preparing to create something new. I repeated the words to myself and then said, “Hello pain, come in.” I offered it comfort, space, and grace, and the ache that was like a knot in my gut began to loosen and ease. I think it’s true that when we don’t resist what we need to move through, moving through it becomes easier. Not easy, but easier. 

In 13 days, the Winter Solstice will occur. It’s the shortest day of the year. It is also the longest night. As the solstice approaches, I’m pondering two hard thoughts:

  • Sometimes we have to hold the deepest darkness with us as a friend before we can welcome the ever-increasing light. 
  • Being in the shadow space of a situation isn’t easy, but there are lessons inside it we can’t learn anywhere else. These lessons are important.

As I’m sure you can guess, I don’t have answers or conclusions for these thoughts. The only thing I know for certain is that they are worth pondering. Perhaps, that’s what I take with me into the new year, which, by the way, is sure to come, and which will have a new and perfect beauty all its own.

What are you pondering this month?

Blessings, 
Sandy

Letter from the Director – November 2023

Gather

I tout myself as an “idea” person. I come up with more ideas than I can possibly implement here at the colony. To be honest, not all of them are good ideas, so it’s wise to let some of them go, but many are worthwhile. I just don’t have the time, the money, the equipment, or some other necessary item to take some of my ideas past the “idea” stage. I put those in the “someday” category, or the “maybe” category,” or the “when you’ve done everything else, here’s one more thing to try” category. I don’t want to forget them, so I write them down in my Idea Journal. There’s no particular order or structure to it. It’s a jumble, a conglomeration of randomness, a gathering of the wispy thoughts bouncing around in my mind all the time. Having the ideas all in one book, though, makes for a handy cache when I’m ready to start something new. 

I gather words and phrases in a different journal. These are snippets I’ve stumbled upon while reading, listening, or simply observing the world. When I’ve reached a writing draught and every phrase I think of seems downright stupid, it’s helpful to pull out my word journal and peruse the jewels on those pages waiting to be rediscovered. Sometimes, I use the words exactly as written, or I use one of the forms of the words, or sometimes the word itself launches me into a new way of thinking and relating, and I use it as inspiration and arrive at a completely different place. 

There’s another type of gathering that I get to experience multiple times a year at RWC. It’s the gathering of people who’ve signed up for a themed, all-inclusive weekend retreat. Writers come from many different states to sit around the large table with us and talk and learn. We’ve hosted 32 retreats in the 5 years the colony has existed and every single one of them left me awed and inspired. The writers are the reason! When like-minded people gather to share their energy along with their willingness to learn and grow, magical things tend to happen. I’ve witnessed such magic at RWC.

We’re brainstorming about retreats for 2024 right now, cataloging ideas, titles, and themes. I’d like to ask you, newsletter readers, about YOUR ideas for retreats. Are there specific things you’d like to see us offer? Are there specific things you can teach and lead? Give us your thoughts in response to this newsletter and if we think it’s a good fit for us, I’ll email you. It’s fun to think of all of our writer energies converging as we gather new ideas. Thanks for gathering with us!

Blessings,
Sandy

Letter from the Director – October 2023

Rooted

When I travel, I take photos of the plants I encounter as I explore the land. I use an identification app to name them, and then I draw or paint them. This is a way I become more attuned to the environment, and more appreciative of my experiences. I love botanicals. If I truly want to understand a place, I study its plants as well as its civilization.

I’ve studied the plant life of Tennessee for a long time. I’m particularly drawn to wildflowers. I think of coneflower and black-eyed Susan, bergamot and passion flower,  iris and primrose – the plants I grew up with and recognize as part of my landscape. When I see beautiful plants from another region, I feel much appreciation and awe. When I see the Tennessee natives, I feel a sense of home. 

I feel embedded in the land and cities of this state. My ancestors are buried here, and my experiences and lifeblood circulate here. I am rooted in Tennessee, so deeply that I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Even though I’ll happily visit other places, my heart always longs for where I feel belonging. 

This connection is important to me. It gives me purpose and passion. The work I do here, I do with satisfaction, knowing it is meaningful work in a meaningful place. To be able to create here, to write here, in the place that holds such soulful connection is a blessing. I end all my correspondence (and these newsletters) with the word “blessings” because it fits so well the way I feel every day. Blessed to be able to do this work. Blessed to write. Blessed to meet writers and welcome them to the colony. Blessed to dream, plan, imagine, and have new ideas. All the wispy joy that comes with those thoughts doesn’t just float around untethered on golden wings. It’s bound, it’s rooted to something solid and deep. It must be that way. Roots and wings go together. One without the other makes for an unbalanced existence. 

When I think about my writing roots, many things enter my mind. One is my poetry mentor, Bill Brown. Bill taught me everything I know about writing poetry. I would not be the writer I am if not for him. I also feel rooted in the poetry of Mary Oliver and Robert Frost and the stories of John Steinbeck. I don’t fashion my writing after theirs, but I feel a connection with them for other reasons. When I was a child, my parents gave me a book club subscription for John Steinbeck books. Every month, I’d get a new book that I read immediately. They also gave me the collected works of Robert Frost, a book I still have in my library. Even though I didn’t understand much of Frost’s poetry at the time, I labored over those pages. The tentacles of belonging to the writing world were birthed from those gifts. They reach farther now, stretch into a landscape I’ve built at the colony, and wear the wings of dreams, but their roots are basic and unsophisticated – the way most roots are. 

This month, my wish for you is the awareness and appreciation for what holds you to this writing life. What are the places, the people, the circumstances, the memories that nourish and sustain you? It’s worth a nod in that direction, to acknowledge the roots that allow you to grow taller and wiser, that hold you to yourself, but also set in motion the desire to stretch and dream. May you find the blessing in your roots and wings.

Blessings,
Sandy

Letter from the Director – September 2023

Imagination

I want to talk about bucket lists. You know, those lists we make of things we want to accomplish before we “kick the bucket.” Do you have one? I have a loose one, not written down, existing only in the contours of my mind. I’ve contemplated making my list more official, filed on the desktop of my computer or written on an index card and pinned to the bulletin board above my writing space. I haven’t done that. I like keeping the list in my thoughts, where there’s room to expand and reenvision, where no idea is limited by the physicality of a piece of paper. I want my special goals to be free to roam the universe. 

I want to talk about bucket lists and imagination. One thing about choosing items for a bucket list is the need to fight the urge to limit yourself. Let your imagination soar. Put huge, unwieldy, megaliths on your list, and don’t take them off. It matters less what you put on the list than it does your attitude about what you put on the list. Ask yourself to imagine without constraints, as if anything is possible. 

I want to talk about bucket lists, imagination, and the sky. Have you guessed by the photos accompanying this letter that one thing on my bucket list was skydiving? That’s me in the photos – tandem jumping with an instructor at Music City Skydiving. It was awesome. When we leaned out of the plane at 14,000 feet into freefall, my instructor decided to do a backflip – without telling me! For a second, I thought we were falling in a wild, out-of-control sort of way and I hoped it was recoverable because my kids were waiting for me below. We did recover and then, all I saw was sky. Beautiful, open atmosphere and altitude. I was falling. I felt like every rule I’d ever composed for my life was in the past and unnecessary, and I was completely, passionately free. The fall took only 60 seconds, and then, with the pull of a cord, I was tethered again to reality as we floated toward earth.

I want to talk about bucket lists, imagination, the sky, and the ground. When we landed, I gripped the grass for a moment and tried to find perspective for the experience. I couldn’t. It was unlike anything I’d ever felt or known. It was a thrill, yes, but it was also deeper. It was as if I’d taken my heart out of my body and said, “fly.” Back in the solid and grounded state of my life, I appreciated the surety and safety of what I’d always known: standing, walking, talking, the trees, the buildings, the people waiting for me. I felt settled again and it was good, but I also realized I had experienced something new – a freedom that somehow changed me. 

I want to talk about bucket lists, imagination, the sky, the ground, and writing – because you knew this had to end with writing. Maybe you’re not expecting it to end with questions though. Here are some things to ponder.

  • What’s on your writing bucket list?
  • Can you let your wildest imagination have a say in the goals you make for your writing?
  • Where, what, when, or who is your sky – that ethereal, mystical ‘thing’ that makes you feel completely new and free?
  • Where, what, when, or who is your ground – that stable, dependable ‘thing’ that makes you feel safe?
  • What are you doing with your writing? Are you satisfied or is there something more or different that’s calling for your attention?

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Respond to this newsletter email if you’d like to share. Meanwhile, I continue to send you . . .

Blessings,
Sandy

Letter from the Director – August 2023

Confidence

Back in the spring of 2021, I bought a John Deere 5045 tractor and a 12-foot flex wing bush hog. Had I ever driven a tractor before? No. Had I ever cut large fields of grass with a bush hog? No. Did I have any business buying machinery that I had no idea how to use? Ummm, probably not, but I did it anyway. I had 30-plus acres of field and pasture to mow and care for and I needed to step up to the task. 

I’m not a timid person, but a diesel engine, hydraulic lines, and a PTO shaft were far out of my comfort zone. I had no previous experience on which to build my tractor knowledge. I was starting at ground zero. The tractor and bush hog were delivered by the Sales Manager of Tri Green Equipment in Franklin, TN. He drove a hefty pickup truck pulling a long flatbed trailer. His name was Josh. Josh unloaded the equipment and proceeded to tell me how to use it. It was a one-hour lesson on the basics of tractor driving and bush hogging. It was far from complete, but I understood (sort of) what he said. He suggested I drive the tractor to the barn and park it there. I did. He gave me the user’s manuals and left. Later that evening, I poured a glass of wine and read them both in their entirety. I realized I had much to learn. 

How do you become proficient at something for which you have little or no previous knowledge? You read about it. You watch YouTube videos. Nervously, I took the tractor and bush hog out for a first mowing session in the north field behind the barn. It’s a rocky, lumpy, bumpy field but I was mowing high and driving very slowly. It took me over 2 hours but I finished the field. I felt like a champion.

I knew I had to conquer the hilly field with the crazy three-quarter turn and slopes. To prepare, I read about tractors flipping backward and flipping sideways and operators being crushed under the machines. It was sobering and I knew I wasn’t quite the champion I thought I was. So, I did something I don’t really like to do. I asked for help. My neighbor in College Grove rode with me on the tractor while I mowed that field, giving me pointers and suggestions about how to handle the slope and angle. I started to understand how to do it. 

Over that summer and the following summer, I mowed the hilly field many times, each time gaining a little more insight, a little more confidence. I don’t fear it or have anxiety. I have respect for the equipment and what I’m asking it to do. I also have experience and some data points that allow me to feel secure. I do a very good job, but it wasn’t an instantaneous achievement. It took time. More importantly, it took humility and being ok with not being ok with my knowledge of driving a tractor and bush hog. 

We’re often impressed with confidant people, those humans who show their mastery of something in an assured way. I remind myself, though, that confidence comes with the steep price of experience. We can be confident because we’ve conquered the learning curve and given ourselves the gift of time. It works that way with writing, too. A confident writer often has years of effort and fortitude. There were probably successes but I can almost guarantee there were plenty of failures along the way. (Ask me about my failures on the tractor!) That’s how life works.

Confidence in writing goes hand in hand with learning. Here at RWC, we offer learning opportunities in the form of all-inclusive weekend retreats on all sorts of writing-oriented topics. Coming up this fall, we have:

  • Sep. 29 – Oct. 1, 2023 — Nurturing the Creative Self: A Weekend of Mind, Body, & Spirit for Writers (a couple of spots left)
  • October 6-8, 2023 – Forest Bathing: A Walk in the Woods for Writers (full with a wait list)
  • November 3-5, 2023 – Claiming Your Magic: A Retreat for Women Writers (a couple of spots left)
  • November 17-19, 2023 — Peace Retreat: For Readers, Writers, & Dreamers (a couple of spots left)

We invite you to come learn with us!

Blessings,
Sandy

Letter from the Director – July 2023

Exploration

My youngest son, Nicholas, is 25 years old. He has a good job, a comfortable apartment, a lovely girlfriend, and many friends with whom to share social outings. I look at Nick and think he must feel very content with his life. And he does. But he also has a longing for adventure, for “something different,” and that fuels a desire to expand the boundaries of his life. In January, Nick decided he would take a short trip once every month to a place he’d never been. He would step out of his comfortable life and into a new experience. He would explore. He would challenge himself to become more than what he already was.

Perhaps this is simply the restless discontent that sometimes comes with youth, but as his mom, I have to say I understand the desire. As a fellow traveler in this world, I am jealous! I want to explore and have adventures too. I want to feel free and live in an open-ended world with fewer constraints and obligations. I want to be more than I am. Before you say that is simply the restless discontent that comes with being a writer (or a writers’ colony director), let me suggest it might be more than that. It might be our heart telling us not to settle for what we already know, but to reach for what we could know but don’t know yet. It is the voice of curiosity and exploration calling us to follow. 

It’s July, and Nick, so far, has stayed true to his word. He’s traveled from Hawaii (work trip) to England (trip with friends), from Austin, TX (trip with girlfriend) to Charleston, WV (trip with me!). He’s taken hundreds of pictures and sipped coffee at dozens of coffee shops. He’s lived in a way that challenged his status quo and brought him an awareness of the world that he hadn’t previously had. He gained this by making a decision, by deciding to act in a different way than usual. He’s growing as a person because of it. 

I sometimes think I get stuck in a rut here at the colony. In July, the rut looks like this: mow the lawn, weed the garden, clean the farmhouse, repeat. While the repetition of chores may be necessary for the summer months, I try not to let my writing lay dormant in the same old dry ground. I try to shake it up occasionally. One thing I’m doing right now is joining a new writing group. My resolve to produce new poetry has been less than successful so far this year and I think new eyes and new feedback might be inspiring. I’ve also tried my hand at some CNF essays. Expanding ideas on the page has been cathartic, even though I don’t feel like I’m very good at it yet. 

Here’s a truth about exploring: You don’t have to be good at it! As long as you move toward the newness, the change, the diversity, you’re doing it correctly. Here’s another truth: Exploring doesn’t have to mean travel, although goodness, if you can travel, why don’t you?! Exploring can mean changing your internal landscape of habits and routines, moving from “known” to the daring possibilities of the “unknown.”

What do you want to explore this year? As we move past the halfway point in 2023, it seems to be a good time to set down the usual and pick up something different. A new delight. A new experience. A new adventure. 

And if you need some adventurous travel tips for the rest of the year, I know a really great 25-year-old you can ask! 

Blessings,
Sandy