Breathing In Lincoln

Up in the mountains, 20 miles west of Ashland, six writers came and went over the course of the week. Laura Stanfill and I stayed there the whole time. It was my second visit to Lincoln. The first time was magical. That time last summer, from the moment I stepped foot in my little apartment named Dmitri (one of five apartments that make up the Bunkhouse), I sunk right into my novel. I dropped deeply in love with pure uninterrupted time to write. But this time I was a mess when I got there. All the work I’d done on my novel since I’d left Lincoln last summer had ended in a less than perfect critique, an agent saying no thanks, and a deepening worry that I might not be cut out for this. But if not this, then what? Could I give up writing? The possibility of that, the failure of it, stood face-to-face with the relief of no longer having to push through the painful parts of writing. These two, these choices, had been doing a battle in my chest for the past two months and I’d not talked about it much with anyone because I felt embarrassed about it. It seemed a trivial complaint. I have a good life. What right do I have to complain when so many are struggling? But still there was that ache, there in my center.

The first few days at Lincoln, the battle continued. There were times I felt I might not keep breathing for the pressure of it. I kept trying to find my place in the novel: what it was really about, why did I want to write it, what story did I want it to tell? There were moments when I thought I found it and then I lost it again. Fine threads of answers appeared and slipped away and appeared again in a different color.

Each of us, we writers at Lincoln, spent the days alone: writing, walking, reading, sometimes napping, preparing our own meals and sitting alone to eat them. Full days of not talking to a soul, except the people in our stories. We met at seven each evening in my apartment, Alyosha, and shared treats and drink and words and writing. On the second night, I told them of my struggle. I cried. They listened. And on their way out that night, each of them gave me a gift. A book, a hug, an offer to read my work.

After they left, I did some yoga, I wrote for awhile, I meditated. I’d never meditated but I knew it was time for me to do something to tackle this pain, the ache, head on. Each night I did the same thing and then I slept a long quiet sleep. On the third morning I woke up and that ache wasn’t there.

My novel was.

I wrote.

I took a long walk every day, the same walk, so I wouldn’t have to think about where I was going, so the arc of my novel could hover around me, so I could talk it through, out loud. I walked further each time, made it to the creek, the quarry, and further on.

Lincoln is an old milling town that is now a shared community that offers spiritual and contemplative retreats. College students come here for a semester to learn about shared community and to study their beliefs more deeply, they are challenged. Others come for contemplative retreats. There’s the old mill pond, a labyrinth, a vast library, funky old buildings filled with funky old furniture. Here students are asked to let go of the daily distractions of life: cars, cell phones, internet.

I’m not a religious person. Far, far from it. But there’s a feeling here, a gentleness and a sense of intense presence that slowly takes hold. It’s in the rooms and the walls and the forest, even in the horses paddocked behind the bunkhouse, and in the approving clucks of the chickens for our carrot peels and radish greens, for the overripe grapes that earn a deep satisfied coo. All these things make me consider there might be something more, something that brought me to this place that had helped me find my way back to easy breath, an unclenched jaw, connection with these writers, and a pure night’s sleep.

They mill their own wood at Lincoln, making use of the original intent of this place. With some of that wood they are building a chapel in a small and beautiful glade. The bottom floor is framed in. I walked out onto it when I first got here and saw the view they’d have from the chapel windows. The sweet smell of sawdust and the high pitch of a saw reminded me of my childhood, when the new barn was built on our farm and men worked together in an easy way and the women brought food and the kids practiced hammering nails into leftover boards.

On my seventh day at Lincoln I was on my way back from my walk. Everything had changed, I’d found my joy, the peace that comes of writing, the reason I do it. Two men were in the shed, a piece of freshly planed wood between them. The carpenter had his head bent over that board. His hands were steepled. I’m pretty sure he was praying. I looked away and walked past. I went by the unroofed chapel, where a puddle of water from last night’s rain had formed on the floor. It mirrored the trees, the clouds, the glint of sun.

I came back to my cabin and didn’t stop for water or food or to take my coat off. I took up my words, each one whispered to the page, whispered out loud in my room, each one settled into its place in my story.

Jackie Shannon Hollis