“Admit me to the school of skittering
minnows and the raw skin of the sycamore
where silent, water-light movies play
beneath the leaves and limbs.”
Cathryn Hankla, from RIVER SCHOOL, Artemis 2020
Nimrod Hall in Bath County has been one of the best places on earth for me for years. I go on retreat there every summer, for time to write but also for time to renew my sense of “what’s right in the world.” Like most places Nimrod has had its share of intrigue and problems, but it’s still a transcendent getaway, a reminder to me of what’s possible, what’s good, what’s humanly admirable.
The writers who have been with me at Nimrod know I avoid saying good-bye. I just don’t like those words—they’re so final. Like our beloved Cowpasture River, I prefer to roll on. So I choose to say, instead, “Take Nimrod with you.”
Since I won’t be going to Nimrod this summer—the Summer Arts Program is closed now due to covid—I’ve been thinking, myself, about what that means to me. How can I take Nimrod with me, keep it with me for as much as another year until I’m able to return? I’ve come up with four “gifts” Nimrod has given me year after year.
Less really is more. Proprietor Frankie Apistolas taught me that I need not pack a suitcase for a stay at Nimrod; a laundry hamper would work just fine. For many years I’d return to “my” room—Frankie’s growing-up bedroom on the second floor of the old, original farmhouse. The furnishings were “antique” in the well-worn version of old, original furniture. A dresser, a chest of drawers, a big double bed, a bedside table, and a rocking chair. Some years I brought a folding table; in the past decade I threw a towel over the mirror and used the dresser for my writing desk. I needed so little but found myself filled with the delight of simplicity, of shedding all my “stuff” back home. We didn’t have television or phones in the rooms. It took years for Verizon service to connect us to the outside world. But I found a peace and even joy in that simplicity. My brain sharpened. My sense of kindness, not envy, was enhanced. I smiled more.
Respecting my writing time is up to me. From grad school in 1985 until now, I’ve written five novels (three published), two short story collections (many of the stories published), a memoir (soon to be published), a chapbook of poems (coming out in August), and many isolated poems. I’ve had a full writing life. When people asked me, before I retired three years ago, how I was able to write when most people can’t “find the time,” I used to answer, fliply, “I don’t clean my house or watch tv.” Nimrod taught me, more than anything, to respect my writing time. When I first designed “a typical day” for writers at Nimrod, one agenda item was absolute: Sacred Writing Time. That meant no distractions, no visiting, no conferences, between after breakfast and before lunch. People could nap, take walks, soak in the tub, but the time was devoted to writing and thinking about writing. That Nimrod lesson has stuck with me and enabled me to set aside the solitary time to write. That hasn’t always been in the morning, like it is at Nimrod, but the lesson is “If I don’t respect my writing time, who will?”
Other peoples’ writing and ideas help me forge and deepen my own. As writer-in-residence I’ve always had a “sidekick,” the REAL writing teacher. For over twenty-five years that’s been Cathryn Hankla. It pleases me to say that many of the writers who’ve attended (and many have come back year after year) have called us “the dynamic duo.” We shared a writing philosophy: Bring writers voices’ to the front. Let them be heard. We wanted to help all of the writers find and sharpen those voices. Workshops and readings invited praise first, then questions about troublespots, and, finally, suggestions. Interaction was based on respect. This is the only way I know to teach. But the wonder is, it’s actually a way to learn, from one another. People talk of “being afraid” of workshops; many started in that posture when they first arrived at Nimrod. Most left our gatherings fired up to write. That’s the point.
Nature is there for me, sustains me, sustains my writing life, if I only pay attention and dive in. The Cowpasture. The Smith graveyard. The bull gates. The walks, the tubes, the night swims: those nature adventures glued us together at Nimrod. I saw ball lightning from my second floor porch—I never knew there was such a thing as ball lightning. I met Naked Lady Lilies—and came to wait to see them year after year. The garden vegetables, tomato and cantaloupe and squash—were fresh veggies EVER better? Nature’s bounty and beauty have fed me and healed me year after year.
I hope other Nimrod artists and writers will add their comments on the ways they “take Nimrod with them” into their creative and active lives. I’m a different person because of Nimrod, a better writer and woman. How do I take Nimrod with me: It’s in my mind, my heart, my soul.