Its been years since I last went to a writer’s retreat. Squaw Valley came at just the right time offering me a healing I’d been long in need of. There’s a unique community offered by artists gathered together all struggling to write the next thing and to keep working. That creative energy feeds me like little else.
More than 70 people from all over the country gathered for a week in the mountains, specifically the Olympic Village at Squaw Valley, to write poems. I wrote, though much of my non-writing free time was spent in bed sneezing and blowing my nose so often I quickly filled a Trader Joe’s shopping bag with tissue. I nearly thought I’d come home early what with not being certain I could stand a whole week with a sinus infection. But turns out one of the poets amongst us was a doctor who generously wrote a prescription that helped me.
My head opened off and on several times, getting me through daily poetry workshops and allowing for a couple of nature hikes with Man of Great Knowledge, Will Richardson. The hikes I looked forward to (they weren’t extensive, but were quite rich in detail and information) if only to broaden my vocabulary, offer me different language with which to see the forested world beyond just saying “things” are “pretty”.
Most nights though, I barely slept. I struggled to breathe and sat up watching footage of hurricanes and tornados on late night Weather Channel specials. Being congested late night while watching a cruise ship pummeled by mountain sized ocean waves is a uniquely appropriate gift. One night while I was up, the area was rattled by an earthquake.
After I began getting some sleep, being so far up in the mountains, some 6000 ft. above sea level, my dreams became vivid and popped with color and strangeness. I saw my grandfather again, only in worker’s overalls and on crutches. I came up behind him in a supermarket and he turned to me and immediately took out a egg sized peppermint ball he’d been eating and tried to feed it to me like a bird. I refused; even in my dream it was kinda gross. But he was insistent and otherwise mute and I still politely refused and moved away from him over to frozen foods.
While still quite congested, one night I drifted into a dream where I stood beneath a bridge waist deep in water. Across from me, the city I saw was dark and the sky inflamed with war. I watched a huge explosive be dropped blocks away and the sky began filling with rolling, greasy black clouds. I knew the clouds were poisonous and I was alone. I also knew I couldn’t swim and was uncomfortable in water, but the only way to save myself was to plunge my face into it. As the black cloud raced towards me, I went under only to wake up gasping.
Later in the week, I realized all my dreams take place in the streets of an alternate Oakland, the city where I was born, that remained in permanent twilight. One long dream meandered from beneath a freeway overpass where I rode a bucket downhill in order to escape a group of young thugs. In that dream I seemed to run errands for the owner of a store of some kind, me racing from one part of town to another and back, from one Victorian house to a modest store front, from making deliveries and picking up packages. The dream starred friends I barely speak with any longer and was flavored by mild I’m Running Late panic. Rooms were populated with rare antiques and toys, live music played on platforms in the middle of intersections. I dreamed in color. My dream shot with Steadicam consciousness.
In spite of my annoying illness, the week was spectacular and I was surrounded by great people, strong artists and even by many of the poems that emerged. I failed to realize how special the week was until I’d come back to Oakland in time to do a reading at a local café. The audience was mostly of listless seniors. At one point, someone’s cane slapped the floor loud as a gun shot. Even that struggled to wake me. I found myself reading new work then looking up at the room and not knowing what to think of the faces staring back at me.
My friend arrived late in the reading and long after my set was over and since she was going to drive me home, I decided as a thank you to read her all the new poems that came out during my workshop week. Afterwards, since she’s an Aries, she went through her glove-compartment poetry and handed me one to read aloud back to her. Its exhausting listening to my own voice all night. How long had I been talking? I couldn’t pray hard enough for her to drive me home quickly just so I could finally shut my mouth.