One morning in early August, I woke at 3 a.m., bounding out of bed in the small, strange room where I’d slept alone. My laptop was calling me! I was on a solo retreat — designed, created, and curated all by me.
Less than a week earlier, I hadn’t even thought of a retreat. My husband Barry and I were wrapping things up before flying from California to England, the first major trip we’d planned since the start of COVID. As I took care of one detail after another, my mind kept wandering back to the “Jay Project,” an essay I had been working on for years about my younger brother, who died at 16 in a head-on car crash. I had always longed to find a way to describe our short-lived but tender relationship. The trouble was, with no deadline, I kept postponing it. Writing about Jay felt deeply important, but other assignments always seemed to take precedence.
Not now, I told myself, once again. This isn’t the time; I’m too busy.
Or was I? No matter how much I tried to shrug it off, the urge to devote uninterrupted time to the “Jay Project” would not leave me alone. Finally, I shut up and listened. Three days later, I found myself at a secluded Airbnb.
Once I got past all my excuses, organizing the retreat was simple. Looking back, I see eight keys to my success. If you’re also reluctant to give yourself the gift of dedicated time alone, away from home, I hope these will encourage you to curate your own retreat.
1. I Made It A Priority
Compared to most people I know, I already have a life free of demands: I’m not raising kids or taking care of an aging parent, nor do I have a job where I have to be available at a certain time. I don’t even own plants. And, Barry not only respects my need for solitude, he seeks it himself. In other words, no one was stopping me but me. I had to stop ignoring my intuition and take myself seriously!
2. I Didn’t Delay
Three days after I booked my Airbnb, I was in. Some retreats are long in planning, but in my case, either I was going to do it that week or wait months — maybe never. Acting on intuition works best for me when I commit quickly. It’s all too easy to overthink it, doubt myself, and change my mind.
3. I Stayed Close To Home
Although I love visiting new environments, I had neither the time nor desire to spend hours driving, so I settled on an Airbnb barely 15 minutes from our home, in a semi-rural part of Arcata, California, a nearby university town.
4. I Made Sure The Place Wasn’t Lavish (AKA Expensive)
Since “I can’t afford it” is one of my classic excuses, I didn’t want to shell out mega-bucks. The rental I found was simple and rustic, but sufficient for my needs: a small bedroom, just big enough for a bed and an easy chair; a mini-kitchen with a table for writing, a stove, fridge, and coffeemaker; and a bathroom with a shower. It cost all of $49, about $100 less than other Airbnbs in the area.
5. I Gave Myself Just A Day
“I don’t have time!” is another of my excuses, but as it turned out, a small pocket of time was all I needed. Check-in was 3 p.m., check-out was noon, and after less than a day, I came away deeply satisfied with the work I did.
I had learned the power of mini-retreats from my friend Sue Ann, a mother of five, who, back in the ’90s, would occasionally go to her husband around 4 p.m. on a Saturday, amid the bedlam of the kids, and say, “Honey, I’m leaving. I’ll see you at church tomorrow.” She’d drive off, pick up some take-out, and check into a nearby Comfort Inn for a night of reading, watching movies, eating (no cooking!), and resting. The next morning, revived, she’d go back to being Mom.
6. I Made My Own Rules
“Retreat” has many connotations. For women, it often implies a pampered stay at a costly health spa. Friends of mine, for example, love to visit Orr Hot Springs in California’s Mendocino County, which they say is beautiful and deeply restorative. I’m sure it is, and maybe I’ll get there one day. But it’s a 3-hour drive from where Barry and I live in Eureka and costs $250 a night — too many obstacles for me.
Other friends define “retreat” as 2 or 3 days of 45-minute back-to-back silent meditation sessions. My retreat was somewhere in the middle — neither pampered nor monastic. I used WiFi, drank wine with my black bean chili, and watched Netflix before falling asleep. I even scheduled a 6 a.m. Spanish session on Zoom with my beloved Mexican tutor, Camila. I wouldn’t deprive myself of that! I got to fill her in about my retreat, a juicy bonus.
7. I Created A Loose Structure
After arriving and settling in, I made a cup of tea and embarked on what would be my routine: read, write, walk, edit, journal. Repeat.
I had brought scribbled notes, typed drafts from pre-computer days, faded handwritten letters Jay had written me in the ’70s, and journal pages. I started by reading and underlining excerpts, then began to write. As I shuffled the words around, adding here, deleting there, every click of a key seemed to honor the brother I love.
After a period of writing, I’d look up, realize there was a world out there, and that it was still daylight. I’d stand up, stretch, put on my walking shoes, and head out into the hilly tree-lined streets, thinking and not thinking. I carried a pen and paper in case something came to me while outside, and something always did. My walks were just as important to the creative process as the writing.
8. I Trusted My Thoughts
At one point during the retreat, I despaired. “I’ve been trying to write about Jay for half my life,” I told myself. “I’ve never been successful. Besides, he’s been gone so long, who cares? Yes, I’d love people to have a sense of how special he was, but I don’t know how to say it.” I lay down in a heap on the bed and cried.
“Why is it so important to me?” I asked myself later in my journal. “He died 45 years ago. Isn’t it time to let him go?”
And then, early the next morning, as I was back at the kitchen table writing, a piece about him mysteriously fell into place. It wasn’t new information; it was the same information but in a different light.
9. The End Result
Just before leaving, I emailed my high school friend Miriam and asked her if she would give me feedback on the essay. “It’s a complicated story,” I wrote her, “and I don’t know if I need to give more background and details, or not.” A writer and facilitator of writing workshops, she turned out to be an even stronger editor and ally than I had hoped for.
A couple of weeks later, I sent the essay to a highly regarded market, one that is difficult for even nationally respected authors to ace. I decided to aim for the top, no matter how slim my chances. Because the volume of submissions is so massive, I’ve read that the editors take months to respond.
My time away offered me many insights, but the biggest one came about gradually, in the weeks since then. Of course, I hope the essay will be accepted. But even if it isn’t, I’ve already accomplished what I set out to do. I gave the project — I gave Jay — my all. In those 21 hours, alone and unguarded, I left no stone unturned. The writing, the walking, the weeping — they were all my way of honoring him. I can rest now.
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