Magic in the Gathering

I’m home again after a week of company and travel, synthesizing and absorbing it all, figuring out what I learned. The first several days home were spent in pleasant reverie, resting, visiting my flowers and grandkids, soaking in my routines, and gazing out windows. Alan hung a new suet bird feeder, meant to keep our bird friends happy. It was, of course, discovered first by those aggressive squirrels, but I laughed as I watched their Olympic level gymnastics. They stretched and leapt while twisting, hanging by their hind feet or tail, reaching with front claws, swaying and swinging as their weight threw them askew, and then batting at the cage before falling to their feet, gracefully sticking the landing. 

And then back to reveries aswirl in the kaleidoscope of my tired mind. It was so unlike past experiences and I wanted to smooth my hands and thoughts over the many events.

Since my online course with Natalie Goldberg in Spring 2019, my life hasn’t been the same. Her practice of sitting meditation and free writing (writing thoughts quickly and continuously, without concern for form, style, or grammar) wasn’t new to me; I’d read her book Writing Down The Bones back in the 80s. I used her method with homeschooled kids long ago. What was new was the course, and the writing groups that spawned from there.

Dozens of us from all over the world continued writing together on Zoom, reading aloud and listening deeply without comment. I host one group that meets twice a week, and attend a few others, with overlapping membership. Successive waves of new writers join each year after taking the now annual course, while others have drifted away.

If not for the pandemic and lockdown, these groups might not have continued. The enforced time at home and shared crisis drove us together, bringing us into community. As our lives slowed down we sank into the practice. For all the discomforts and horrors of the pandemic, this practice and community has been one of the gifts for many of us.

In April, two writers from my group came to visit for a week – a face to face immersion with familiar strangers. They convinced me to drive to Sacramento with them at the end of their visit, where we’d meet up with three others from our group. 

Strange as the whole thing felt, I kept saying yes, seizing the adventure. I was trepidatious about such a long visit though we knew little about each other’s day to day habits, desires, and moods. I loved their online persona; would I like them as much in person?

We had a checkered knowledge of each other. People write from their perspective of course, and not in a straightforward story from A to Z. We know each other in a way that few others do. I wasn’t sure how it would pan out, but was excited to test the possibilities.

I was up front beforehand. I like socializing interspersed with quiet, space around the edges of fun. I’m not used to long term chaos. I go to bed at 9:30 and rise early, but don’t speak before 8am. I am an introvert. There’s no bread in our house, but there’s coffee and tea. I have a 3 mile body. They shared their own similar and differing habits; things that don’t always come out in writing or on screen.

While my guests said they were glad I’d been honest about my limitations, and wanted to be good guests, they started off tiptoeing around me, and I worried I’d scared them off before they’d even settled in! That’s the problem with boundaries; you draw clear lines and before you know it, there are barriers. We danced around which boundaries to nudge aside and which to honor.

The initial moments of hesitation were over quickly and we fell easily into friendship. After picking up our second guest at the airport, we walked over the muddy paths of Mt. Tabor, taking in clouded city views, climbing down and up the 96 stairs near the reservoir. We skipped the superficial pleasantries that can bog down a friendship. We already knew pieces of each other’s histories, passions, disappointments, despairs, and delights. A whole week together meant the conversation could ebb and flow. “But what about this,” we said, and “tell me more about that.”

Three Amigas!

I led them around Portland with pride, showing off some of my favorite places. It was as if I owned the place, an odd feeling for me here. Aren’t I still the newcomer? We walked across Tilikum Crossing Bridge as I tried to remember the other bridge names. We walked along the Willamette River, lost in conversation. We wandered through Powells Books, a shrine for us all. We ate at Dove Vivi, St. Honore and Phuket. I took one to the Columbia Gorge, where we hiked Latourell Falls, and stopped at Vista House and Multnomah Falls. I tried to remember all the wildflower names, and also got better at taking selfies. Is that a good thing?

Five days later we hopped in the car for the ROAD TRIP; 700 miles, shoulder to shoulder bonding, laughter and an intimacy I’d forgotten was in me. What better way to learn about your new companions than on a road trip?

I’d been wanting to revisit the southern Oregon coastline, plus the inland route was warming up to the 90s. We drove south past Eugene on I-5, passing truckers and traffic, stripmalls and car dealerships, before turning onto Highway 38. Then, non-stop breathtaking forested Coast Range vistas during the height of spring blooms. We met up with the Umpqua River and passed elk herds as well!

We hit 101 on the coast in late afternoon greeted by a cold windy fog, not the sunny sand strewn meandering I’d envisioned. Still, we gasped and oohed at the huge sea stacks and beaches that peeked through the fog as ebbing sunlight filtered in the canopy of conifers.

We spent the night at a funky lodge on a ranch in Gold Beach, complete with outdoor fire pit, goats, dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, geese, horses, wildflowers, a waterfall, and jovial hosts. As we worked around sharing a bathroom, I realized that I’d rarely traveled with non-family members.

After 46 years together, Alan and I have our own rhythm and pace, shared preferences and styles, working around each other in a choreographed ballet. We enjoy the advance planning part of our travels, but now I was learning to improvise like I did in my younger days.

The three of us varied in habits of course. They are night owls, I’m not. They don’t eat breakfast, I do. We eat at different times, and one was a vegetarian. They’d been traveling for months, unsure where they’d land next. I was leaving home for 56 hours. I adapted, embraced the adventure, so unsettling at first, but I reached back into my hippie roots. I could do this!

Meyers Creek Beach – only actual beach sighting instead of the stunning views

The next morning we followed 101 through dense fog to California’s Redwood State Park. The sun burned its way through as we wandered in this sanctuary of giants, communing with one of the few remaining old growth forests of Pacific Redwood. There’s no way to describe that sort of majesty. I could tell you that the Big Tree is 75′ around, 300′ tall, with a diameter of 24′. Impossible! Yet there were many trees of similar stature, one after another, and we were left astounded and awed. Spring flowers rounded out the delight. Pictures don’t do it justice. Go, before it’s gone.

After a perfect lunch at Cafe Phoenix in Arcata, we followed 299, connecting 101 back to I-5, winding over the Coast Range and following the Trinity River. It was another stunning display of evergreen mountain vistas (snow capped in the distance), a rushing river, white clouds, blue skies, and abundant flowering Pacific Madrone and Western Redbud, among wide swaths of other flowers that passed in a rush.

We crawled into Sacramento at dark. As I readied for bed at our rented house, I thought about how I love to travel. With each mile and vista, my soul expands, waves in the wind, and my heart opens. How lucky I am! At the same time, I was exhausted, and challenged by being out of my routine. I fell into a sound sleep.

Then, the culmination of the trip, joining three more writers who I’d “known” for four years. We all kept shaking our heads with incredulity to be in physical contact. I picked up a bottle cap off the floor for our hostess, and she exclaimed, “I can’t believe Nancy is here in my kitchen handing me a bottle cap!” We were all giddy with delight.

We wrote and read, laughed and teared up around the kitchen table. The intense green of surrounding trees colored the inside walls, and the cat nudged each of us in turn. Going deeper with each round of prompts, with no mute button, we experienced each other’s responses – the sighs, pen scratches, chuckles, guffaws, and tears. Being face to face made listening easier. By the end, these women I’ve only known from a distance, behind a screen, became as dear as any long time companion.

I mused over our similarities and differences. There was 40 years between the oldest and youngest. Three were raised Catholic, three raised as Jews, and now several are Buddhists of varying degrees. Half of us are partnered, and half are parents.There were two psychologists, a poet, a lawyer, and several of us teachers of various things. Four of us are retired. We came from Sacramento, Portland, the Adirondacks, Manhattan, and Spain. Our hair was six different styles and colors. Still, we had more in common than not, and none of us felt a gap because of lifestyle or stage in life. We were all writers, in love with words and books, delighted with this consummation of our lengthy online companionship.

After a convivial lunch, we walked around Sacramento’s varied and delightful William Land Park, admiring the exuberance of more spring flowers as well as ducks, and then I was off to the airport and we said our goodbyes. The airport was quiet, and I sat stunned. What just happened?

Airport goodbye to new old friends!

It’s taken a week to recover and synthesize it all. I’ve never talked or listened so much and so intensely. I pushed myself to adapt to late night hours but couldn’t manage to sleep in. It was a week of chaos and disruption, eating indulgently, and feeling out of my comfort zone. But it was also exhilarating, the discomfort offset by the delight that this writing practice brings, and by new friendships and future possibilities.

After four years of practice we successfully pulled off a writers’ gathering and enjoyed each other’s company. I know now that it can be repeated anywhere. Talk of a New York gathering is gaining momentum. Hmmm.

What I really want to say is that it’s good to find renewal and change in so many ways. Not all transformation comes in cataclysmic shifts. It comes in the forests, among waterfalls and wildflowers, and in gathering with community. It also happens by doing things I’ve never done before, or by doing things in new ways. These incremental adjustments move me along the path of renewal and change.

Each time I venture off my well trodden path, there’s a tentative leap, like the squirrel diving from branch to branch. It’s a process I have to repeat, a practice. I hope it gets easier, even while I age and get more set in my ways. I have to push harder now, open wider, be present, let go, all those groovy words that sound so good but are hard to embody for more than two seconds. But with each leap, I find my balance better, gain more ease and grace, and, I can even stick the landing.

26 thoughts on “Magic in the Gathering

  1. I just love this Nancy…..the leaps and the landings…..the getting used to the new and out of our comfort zones…..the joy that you all exude and the deep kinship I feel with this story…..Most of all, I feel inspired and longing for more of these gatherings!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So lovely. I can’t help but be jealous of the road trip. I’m in on the next one. Yes? What a joy. It is to know you. What a marvelous path we share with such marvelous people ! Julia

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So frigging stoked for you! What a mahhhhhhvelous amazing thing! Truly! 700 mi road trip and sharing a house and all the goodness. I can feel your energy around the entire adventure and just love it. These lucky ladies to get all that time with you. Can’t wait to hear about y’all’s next one. I wonder have you guys named the gang? Go Nancy Go — jump first and the net will appear for sure this is proof xoxox

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I always knew that stories about what grew in the days of the pandemic would begin to trickle out slowly. We hunkered down, pulled our loved ones close and looked for other ways to reach out from our unexpected isolation. I think we are drawn to connections like a moth to a flame. I’m so impressed by how you have managed to make something wonderful out of such a challenging time. It’s courageous, too, to come together in real time, free of expectation, to deepen those bonds in real time and space. You’re an inspiration in so many ways. So glad to know you and so happy for your new face to face friendships. Well done, my friend 🧡 And thanks for all the photos!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Traveling with women friends is so much fun! I have risked saying ‘yes’ to a few trips and have no regrets. The discomfort of the NEW has always been minimized by the excitement of discovery and the confidence that comes with figuring out how to live differently.
    Your trip sounds amazing! The pictures of the redwoods remind me that I must visit Muir Woods next time I’m in the Bay Area. Thanks for vicarious adventure!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a delight to read this post and feel myself a part of all the fun. It was great to see photos of our dear writer friends. I hope and pray I’ll be able to enjoy a similar in-person experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Loved all that you were able to squeeze into this story. What great memories you all will have of this time together. House guests, a long road trip, living together for those days in Sacramento and then parting. It must have been a wonderful experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Even though I was at the Sacramento gathering, reading this was quite beautiful. You truly captured what was extraordinary about connecting with heretofore “virtual” friends and realizing the authentic connections we’ve made through writing together. Thank yoU!!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s