I doubt if I will ever go to Europe, and mostly I’m okay with that. But Italy has long topped my bucket list. But here I am on Whidbey Island, spending my hypothetical Italy money on six and a half days less than three hours from home. Being radically cared for.
It’s been raining almost non-stop and I am in heaven: ensconced in a tiny cottage with a wee wood stove and all the wood I need, a large desk, a sleeping loft. The efficiency kitchen holds one set of flatware, one small plate and one large, one mug, one water glass, one wine glass. Because I am just one here, with no one to care for other than myself.
We have two and a half hours of writing instruction most days, with our master teacher, Theo Nestor. And I have hours alone to read, write, sleep in my tiny Fir Cottage. Seven sister writers and our teacher eat sumptuous dinners prepared by one of three chefs.
I return to my cottage after dinner, in the circle of light from my flashlight, seeing just what is two steps ahead. I carry a basket of just what I need for two meals the next day: an egg and a tablespoon of olive oil, ground coffee for the French press, a quarter cup of milk, two pieces of Dave’s Killer Bread—one for breakfast toast, one to go with delicious homemade soup for lunch—two pats of butter. When I finish my two meals, the refrigerator will be empty.
This is how I want to live. With just enough, no more, no less. Just enough to eat, just enough room to live. Satisfied with what is right in front of me.
I hear of the attacks in Paris, and I am horrified. And concerned that the world rallies around the first worlders, as we ignore the terror of daily attacks on the innocents in Beirut, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so many other places, whose terrible lives we accept as the way things are. But I can’t dwell there this week. I’m in Italy.
I go to bed and wake up to the patter of rain on the roof a few feet above my head. I don’t sleep well until the last night. I could stay in bed as long as I want, no cat walking on me, no clomping foot falls over my head; but I’m up at 5:30 the first morning—after that it’s my favorite time. I build a fire and wait for it to warm the cottage, not turning on the space heater to hurry it up. I am in a slow down space here.
I make tea, and sit under the afghan in the window bench and watch the day come, reading the 11 journals of those who stayed in Fir Cottage before me. After a stormy day on Tuesday, the power on the island is out for nearly 24 hours. Adventure.
I know things didn’t go well at home the day I left, or the next or the next—unfortunately I am getting cell service. Mama is confused and anxious. I’m afraid this might be my last get-away—it’s just too hard for her. But I can’t dwell there this week. I’m in Italy.
The farmhouse library is filled with more than a thousand books by writers who have followed the muse at Hedgebrook. I find more than a dozen authors I have read.
I take the fifth bath I have had in three and a half years—three of them on this island—in an immense claw foot tub. In the candlelight I sink slowly under the water. I’m drowning. How will I survive this? I will. It’s temporary for me. Does my mother feel like she’s drowning? She will not survive. What is it like to be stripped bare? To not know when you go to bed at night if you will surface again? To not know if you will remember the previous day? She is not afraid of dying; she is afraid of not dying. And so she resists assistance. Maybe it makes her feel less whole, and feeling diminished feels like living death. It is maddening to those of us who care for her. Why is it so hard to be compassionate? Because I am afraid of dying.
I have not been productive here. I have only a little more idea what I am doing with this memoir. I had hoped for huge insight and renewed excitement for the project and to learn more than it feels I have. After all, it was my Italy. But I trust it will come. What I have learned is inside me and will come out in its time. An owl in the woods speaks before dawn the day the power is out. “All will be well,” she calls. All will be well.
Gloria Steinem, a Hedgebrook board member, stayed in Fir Cottage her first time here. She wrote in 1997 in the Fir Cottage journal, “This is my process—accept it—it works; all fears to the contrary.”
Unlike many of those who write in the journals, I have no trouble building a fire, thanks to extensive fireplace and campfire experience. But it takes a couple of days to remember to stoke it frequently—when the door is closed, I don’t notice it’s burning low—and I often nearly lose the fire. Life takes fuel to keep it burning bright, and not just now and then. That is my lesson for the week—to keep feeding my fire.
In February, 2005, another Fir Cottage resident wrote, “Leave your expectations behind. We have enough put upon us in our regular lives. The time here is not for that. Relax. Don’t worry so much. Whatever work you do here is the work you were supposed to do.”
I relaxed. I reveled. My fire is stoked. Thank you, Hedgebrook. Thank you for radically caring.