Begin Again

Costa Rica

As we set out for our writing and yoga retreat in Costa Rica this year, the excitement began before we even left Toronto. As we found each other in the check-in line at Pearson International Airport, we squealed and hugged, and jumped up and down with the pleasure of meeting friends with whom we had not written for a year or more.

Over the usual wait at the gate and the five hour flight and the van ride to Hatillo, we caught up. One of the questions I always ask at the beginning of a retreat is, “How’s your writing going?”

I ask because I am genuinely curious. But I also ask because I am gauging what the temperature of the workshop will be on the first morning. Where are all these writers at, both as a group and individually?

This trip I got a range of answers that included:

“Life’s been crazy! I haven’t been writing at all.”

“I’m so rusty – I’m afraid there’s not going to be anything in my pen.”

And from the new participant who had never “written” before and who didn’t consider herself “a writer” a frank, “I don’t know what I’m doing on this trip!”

That first morning, as class was beginning, one of the writers showed me the brand new journal she had bought for the retreat – a gorgeous, tooled-leather, hard cover book. She turned to the first blank page and looked up at me with pretend terror on her face. “I don’t know if I can write anything,” she confessed. “I’ve forgotten how to do this.”

I had my own anxieties on this trip; mine were about yoga. It had been 6 months since I was last on the mat and 10 months since I’d done yoga for more than a single day at a time. Lately my body had been feeling very stiff and out of shape.

At 7:00 a.m. on Day One, despite my misgivings, I unrolled my mat in the yoga palapa. I sat cross-legged and dropped into watching my breath. And then I followed Esana’s beloved, calm voice through a gentle, one and a half hour restorative re-introduction to my body, my breath, my focus.

When we moved into forward bends, I stretched until sensation stopped me. When we did the tree pose, I wobbled and wiggled like a sapling in the wind. When we lay in shavasana at the end, I felt peace suffusing my body – an somewhat-forgotten but much loved entity.

As I suspected, I wasn’t as flexible as I had been the previous spring. But I was able to do a yoga practice. I was present and my body was so grateful.

During the hour and a half we had for breakfast and reflection after yoga and before the writing workshop, I discovered that the yoga practice had provided the introduction I needed to lead that first day of writing.

I’d had all this anxiety about whether or not I’d be able to “do” yoga since it had been so long. But in fact, all it took was showing up on the mat and paying attention to Esana’s prompts and the wisdom of my own body. As long as I simply did my practice to the best of my ability, I was fine.

I saw the parallel between that and what William Stafford said when asked how he dealt with writer’s block. He answered, “I don’t believe in writer’s block. If I get stuck, I lower my standards and keep going.”

I saw the parallel between that and what William Stafford said when asked how he dealt with writer’s block. He answered, “I don’t believe in writer’s block. If I get stuck, I lower my standards and keep going.”

So I promised the group that our voices would be there, waiting for us, just the way our bodies had been three hours earlier. If we could “lower our standards” for the first few exercises, and just put our voices on the page the way we put our bodies on the yoga mats – in a spirit of self compassion and gentle stretching – the words would be there.

We began with gentle journaling prompts. We reminded ourselves, in writing, of why we wrote and of what we loved about writing. (to read Deepam Wadd’s response to this prompt, click here).

And though our pens may have been a bit stiff and creaky to begin with, they quickly limbered up.

By the time the retreat was over, that one writer’s thick journal was half full. It held memoir scenes, the beginnings of a novel, and several beautiful imagistic poems (even though she introduced them by protesting, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not a poet.”)

All of us filled many pages with new writing, including the first-time writer. On the last day we thumbed back through the now-full pages, astonished at the volume and quality of what we had produced.

Our voices were, indeed, just waiting for us to remember and re-invigorate them. Just like our bodies they were initially a little stiff, but soon so grateful for the practice, delivering rich rewards in response to this investment of attention and exercise.

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In the summer of 2013 I was invited to do a TEDtalk on “Shining the light on our Changing Communities”. I talked about the therapeutic writing program I do with incarcerated women. You can view the talk here.

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