A whole month at our wilderness cabin in Montana–that was my grand experiment in August. Would I get bored or lonely? How would I spend my days, and would the silence at night become oppressive? Would I start hearing frightening noises at 2 a.m.?
I wasn’t strictly alone for a whole month. My family came the first week, a friend visited for a few days the third week, and my husband’s sister hiked with me to Timberline Lake. The cabin is one of about twenty in the area, many owned by the same families for generations, so we have a long history together. There was always another light on somewhere. Still, it was the most time I have ever spent in my own company.
I brought many things to do but no agenda; my philosophy was to start every morning with coffee on the screened porch, staring at the mountains and watching the hummingbirds and chipmunks. I let each day shape itself.
At first I had little physical energy. I appreciate the fact that the cabin is at 7600 feet; I have an excuse to sleep a lot. I needed the rest after a month of pit orchestra work and four months of deep grief for my sister. Crocheting a blanket for my first grandchild was a way of resting, meditating, and healing while satisfying that annoying Protestant Work Ethic I have inherited.
I also puttered. Sheets needed organizing, twin and double in different bins. Pillows had to be on the right chairs for color and comfort. I brought up two new pictures to hang and ended up moving several after days of imagining possibilities. I transformed the porch from cluttered storage area to peaceful haven. In my rare forays into civilization I bought new curtains and rugs and tried them all out in several rooms before deciding where they belonged–for now. Puttering can be done one small task at a time as the mood strikes, between cups of tea and rows of crochet.
I had fallen far behind with my online Latin translation groups. Latin is another form of puttering for me, a puzzle to keep my brain sharp. I warmed up with my fun assignments from Hobbitus Ille and then caught up to my Aeneid and medieval Latin groups. Someday someone can write in my obituary, “Kathryn succeeded in translating the Aeneid at a rate of thirty lines per week over ten years.” Or not.
Eventually I worked up to actual writing, which takes little physical energy but a great deal of emotion. An essay took shape in my coffee cup one day, inspired by my annoyance at Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. What’s in Kansas, anyway? You’re in Oz, for crying out loud, and you have fabulous friends, a good witch on your side, and magic shoes. There’s a hell of a lot beyond your front door. Quit whining and look around yourself. Of course, then I realized that I was Dorothy and I was really yelling at myself.
Another morning I decided to take a picture of the hummingbird. I pulled a chair outside, just behind a tree, turned on my camera, and scared it away. While I was waiting for it to be lured back to the feeder by the irresistible magic syrup, a moose and her baby walked by, and I got a great shot of the baby and all of the mother but her nose. Then I went after the chipmunk, baiting it with peanuts and thirty-year old popcorn. (Waste not, want not.) At last the hummingbird came and drank long enough for several pictures. Out of the hundred I took that morning two and a half were good–one bird, one rodent, and one moose calf.
Pictures like that need a story to go with them. I wrote that too: a story about all the special things at Camp Senia for my grandson-to-be. And then I needed more pictures to go with the story. Sometimes life proceeds like hot dogs and buns.
At last I decided to break in my hiking boots with a short hike. Ten miles later I decided they fit well. Getting started is always the problem with exercise–I’m great once I get going.
What I didn’t do were the two things that I truly intended to do.
First, serious music practice, the kind where I get down to the finger muscles and make them work together using infinite patience and analysis. It’s the kind of practice that no one wants to listen to, and I don’t care about bothering the moose. I did play. I spent a morning immersed in Telemann’s Fantasias, and another skipping through my three volumes of Van Eyck’s variations. I liberated my Native American flute from its display case and played random chants on the porch. I enjoyed two sessions with Red Lodge recorder players who had randomly found me via the mysterious early music grapevine. But there’s a difference between playing and practicing, and something was holding me back from what I really needed to do.
And secondly, that damn novel I keep restarting about a woman taking a solo retreat at a mountain cabin. This time I wrote down ideas, dreamed up characters, imagined dialogue, debated about adding romance. But I wrote not a word. I took some comfort from Annie Dillard, who reminded me that Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn while living in New York, There’s something to be said for living life fully and then writing about it later. At this rate, though, I’ll finish translating the Aeneid before I write my own epic.
Two months later, I’m still mulling about this. It’s always the getting started that’s the problem, even on a solo retreat with no distractions. The water’s fine once I dive into the pool, so please, someone come push me in!