The Moss Wood Writing Retreats

Back in June of last year I had the extraordinary experience of attending my first-ever real writing retreat, Moss Wood in Cape Rosier, Maine. From a Wednesday to a Sunday during one glorious week I escaped the heat of Texas, trading it for the jacket-worthy chill of Penobscot Bay.

The Moss Wood Retreat occurs in a house right on the water, above a pebble beach and backed up by a forested hill whose spongy ground sinks beneath your shoes when you go for a hike.

The ground looks hard, but the forest floor gave way just as much as the bright green moss suggests.

 

The house is generously sized, with an inviting living area warmed by a stove furnace and a large, furnished, screened-in porch overlooking the water. The upstairs boasts several bedrooms and a bathroom for the writers attending the retreat. As soon as I arrived on Wednesday afternoon and went up to my room, I was arrested by the stunning view from my bedroom windows, which lined an entire wall. I was not in the big city any longer, which should have been obvious, but for someone like me who hardly ever gets out into nature enough, it took me a while to fully appreciate the tectonic shift in my body as I adjusted to my new environment.

I think I must have stared out the window for fifteen minutes when I first arrived, just listening to the water from the second story as it lapped at the pebble beach below the house.

 

The retreat leader the week I attended was Gregory Maguire, one of my favorite authors and an extremely gracious man.

Selfie with Gregory Maguire, author of many, many excellent books, including the Wicked series, Lost, and his newest, Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker.

 

There were seven other writers there, including myself and Moss Wood’s director, Patricia McMahon, and assistant director, Conor McCarthy. Each day and evening offered our group hours of high-level conversation about literature, narrative craft, our own individual journeys as writers. And the attendees were an excellent mix of published and competent authors. We workshopped, we shared, we wrote new material. I came away inspired, validated in my work but also enriched by what I’d learned, ready to grow.

Selfie with Patricia McMahon, Moss Wood’s director and the author of so many wonderful books for children, including Just Add One Chinese Sister (co-written with Conor McCarthy), One Belfast Boy, and The Freaky Joe Club Mysteries.

 

The setting at Moss Wood offers tremendous opportunity for indulging in the natural world for those who are interested. If I wanted to spend all my downtime hours working away on a manuscript, I had the full support of everyone there, and there were times when I did this. But the siren call of kayaking on the bay and hiking the hill with my fellow writers snagged my attention, too, and I loved every minute!

The view from the shaded pebble beach on a clear day, where we collected seashells and unusual rocks.

 

About half the time we had spectacular weather, cool and sunny and relaxing. The other half the time, we had foggy days and sometimes cold rain — and I loved this too. The difference in temperatures between what I had left behind in Houston and what Maine was giving us could be measured in dozens of degrees. It was my favorite kind of weather, no matter the weather, all week. I loved the novelty of needing a sweater and a scarf on a mid-June afternoon!

This was the view from my room on the morning I woke up to fog. The horizon seemed to have vanished, as if swallowed up by The Nothing. It rained some that day but cleared up enough for kayaking later.

 

At night, the view from my bedroom window was a void, the darkest expanse I could imagine, with no lights to penetrate the landscape. And while there were stars aplenty when the clouds dissipated, I couldn’t really even see them well through my window screens. One evening, around 11:30, as I puttered around getting ready for bed, I happened to notice a fiery orange light across the bay. I wondered if one of the houses down the reach had turned on a strange floodlight or something. It was odd and, in the unfamiliar, abject quiet of a near-sleeping house, disturbing. I speculated on what it might be, each product of my overactive imagination slightly more unsettling than the last. As I watched the horizon, it occurred to me the light couldn’t be a massive flame because it was stable — but it was growing.

A few minutes later I realized this light was the moon, a burnished copper bowl rising like a cheshire smile from the water, its visible half so breathtaking and enormous that I couldn’t stop watching it glide upward. The next morning at breakfast, I mentioned this to my colleagues, and one new friend, Elizabeth, said that sounded like something she’d love to see. So I checked my phone for what time the moon was scheduled to rise that night, and we hoped for clear skies. She said to come to her room a few minutes before, and if she was still awake, she’d join me.

At the right time, I went across the hall and saw the light was on under her door and knocked softly. She came over and we watched the moon together, observing as it heaved itself silently from the invisible water and dripped its reflection back down. It was a profound sight. Elizabeth, who lives in Manhattan, can’t see the moon from her apartment, and I just love gazing at the moon when it’s so low to the horizon, enormous and gold and close enough to float up into the sky while we watch. This isn’t something I can see very often in my city, either, as flat and clogged by buildings as my own landscape is.

 

Selfie with Elizabeth Lim on the last day of the retreat. Her new book Reflection: A Twisted Tale, comes out March 27th.

 

Going to Moss Wood was about more than just making new friends and colleagues, although it was definitely that, too. Having time to engage in the art and practice of writing — and in the business of writing — is more than a challenge from August through May due to the intense and demanding pace of life as a full-time high school teacher. Not being able to do my own writing enough during the school year is not only detrimental to my mental health, it hampers my ability to be creative in the classroom. All of the classes I teach are either writing classes specifically or have a very heavy writing component, and the more I work to improve my own writing skills, the more effective a teacher of writing I am. I have seen this circumstance play out frequently over the last twenty years of my career in education.

The Moss Wood Writing Retreat was a generative, nurturing experience, and a marvelous escape from the daily minutiae which seems to dominate my life. Although I missed my family very much — and will be forever grateful for their support of my going — I think the last time I didn’t have to worry about the constant barrage of household tasks and parenting obligations for so many days at a time was my and Aaron’s honeymoon, which happened some time around the turn of the century. So it was nice to get away for a bit and do something radical just to care for my own creative self. In fact, it wasn’t until I had been at Moss Wood for a couple of days that I realized this is what I had done. (I pushed away the mom guilt by reminding myself how important it is to be a good role model for my kids, a woman who doesn’t constantly put herself last. My therapist would have been proud.)

One of the things I appreciated most about being at Moss Wood — and understand, there were many things to love about it — was that I felt intellectually and creatively nourished. Here I was, in an idyllic setting for five days with a small party of similarly passionate writers, with no other obligations than to write, to talk and think about writing, to enjoy my surroundings, and to eat delicious and lovingly prepared food. (And oh my goodness, the cuisine was amazing. I still miss it!) Attending Moss Wood made me feel like a version of my best self. And as happy as I was to get back home to my family, I could have stayed at the retreat for several more days, too, maybe just to kayak once more or feel the cold wind after lunch or finish writing a short story I began while I was there.

As you plan out this year, if you are a writer, consider Moss Wood. In my perfect world, I would snag all my best writing friends and head up there every summer. In fact, I haven’t given up that ambition.

Ah, well. Maybe one day.

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Vacationing in Purgatory: The Spice Lady of Maine

In light of this being the “last official weekend of summer” — or at least, the last official weekend for summertime traveling — I thought I’d post about an extraordinary vacation Aaron and I took about ten years ago, the summer after we were married. We were going to Bar Harbor, Maine, where he and his family are from, with his parents and his brother Jason’s family (consisting at the time of Jason’s wife, Kim, and their two-year-old daughter Samantha). Aaron was hoping to do some historical investigation into his family’s history on the island, which was extensive and dated back over two hundred years, and so I welcomed the idea of this trip to Maine, even though it meant we would be missing my cousin’s wedding that same week – a family reunion on my side, of sorts, being replaced by a family reunion on his.

Aaron’s parents were making their own travel arrangements and would not be staying with us, but Kim and Jason and Aaron and I thought it would be fun for us to have our vacation entirely together. We were right about that, I think, but I made some serious errors in booking our travel arrangements; I had taken on the task quite willingly because I had the most free time, and because I wanted to impress my new in-laws with my enthusiasm. Famous last intentions.

* * *

Getting to Maine by air is not as easy as it sounds. Unless you have a private plane, you cannot simply fly into Bar Harbor. One cannot apparently fly directly into Maine from anywhere in the country father away than the other side of Maine. Getting there and getting home were exercises in creative frustration. Three weeks after Tropical Storm Allison had dumped thirteen feet of water on Houston in a single night, her remnants were still lashing the northeast, wreaking havoc with our travel plans. We’d started out flying from Houston to Philadelphia, then to Boston, and then to Bangor, where we’d stay one night and visit my mother-in-law’s people the next day before continuing on to the island by car. But the flight to Boston was canceled when the airports there were closed down by the weather; when one major northeastern city’s airports shut down, it wrecks the rest of that region of the country for air travel. After twenty frustrating minutes with some overworked ticket agents, we had to settle for rerouting to Rhode Island. The flight to Providence was several hours delayed and double-booked. From there we rented a car and drove; in the middle of the night, it took us only five hours to get across four states. We made it to our hotel in Bangor a little after three in the morning. Aaron’s parents and Jason’s family were already there, asleep.

No one’s luggage had made it to Bangor yet.

* * *

Aaron and I had stayed at an exquisite B&B in Bar Harbor called The Chiltern Inn for our honeymoon. I had never been to a B&B before that, and I fell in love with it. So even though Kim and Jason were more interested in staying at the oceanfront Holiday Inn (boasting air conditioning and a swimming pool), I persuaded everyone that the charming Windhaven Inn, another B&B I had discovered in my tourism research, would be a lot of fun. It sounded wonderful: “a museum-quality Edwardian inn on the ocean owned and operated by the Spice Lady of Maine, a gourmet chef.” The travel guide promised the place was “famous for its antiques, fireplaces, and big rooms with spruce ceilings.” A gourmet breakfast every morning, afternoon tea in the British tradition on the patio, and the inn’s custom of a glass of port in the evening sounded delightful, and so I gleefully made our reservations.

When we arrived, we discovered the guest rooms were tiny. Each had a full-size bed, two miniature nightstands, and a single straight-backed chair that appeared to have been salvaged from a long-discarded dinette set. Beyond that, there was barely room to walk, especially if you put your suitcases along the wall – which was a necessity, considering the lack of closets. The low ceilings were in fact made of spruce, but the “paddle fans” which worked “in conjunction with the ocean breezes” to keep the rooms “at a pleasant 68 degrees” were really just run-of-the-mill ceiling fans you could find at a Home Depot. They did not cool the rooms at all, perhaps because said ocean breezes were two miles away. Far from being a waterfront inn, the house was located in the middle of three concentric blocks of homes populated apparently by frat boys who liked to host raucous parties day and night.

Cynthia, the owner of the inn and resident “gourmet chef,” informed us when we arrived that breakfast was “at 8:00 a.m. sharp, in your street clothes.” Since we were all sharing one tiny bathroom, we had to start taking our showers at 6:30 in the morning in order to be dressed. If any of us was even a few minutes late, Cynthia would scold us into our chairs around the large circular table in the dining room. While we ate, we were subjected to her emphatic lectures, replete with maps and handouts and props and utterly devoid of any logic or historical accuracy whatsoever, about the history of Mount Desert Island. In between serving our three courses, she perched herself upon a stool on one side of the breakfast table and yammered on and on, preventing us from holding any conversations of our own.

But what she lacked in good sense and fact, Cynthia made up for in the staunch conviction that the idiotic nonsense she was making up as she went along was God’s own truth. For example, she told us that a Celtic coin from 400 B.C. (“the time of the Vikings”) had been found in Blue Hill on the mainland. (She was about 1,400 years too early for that detail to be even remotely plausible.) She also asserted that Maine had been discovered not by Champlain but by Ponce de Leon – which she pronounced as if it were a French name. She also told us her cat, a Maine coon (not actually), had belonged to Ernest Hemingway, and that her own daughter had earned two Master’s degrees, in business administration and in Cantonese, in two years from Yale. The daughter was reported to speak about ten languages fluently. Yale had apparently also sent this prodigy to Beijing to learn Mandarin.

The food was even better than the entertainment. And when I say “better,” I mean it was extraordinary. The Spice Lady’s culinary bravery knew no bounds. Our first morning, she served us a small dense loaf she called pioneer bread, which came with a lecture on its origins that included anecdotes about the Hebrews traveling through the Egyptian desert. The bread was followed by a plate of fruit covered with sticky triple sec and then a blueberry-filled crepe made of barley and covered with powdered sugar.

That evening, Kim and Jason and Aaron and I stood on the narrow landing outside our bedrooms for our glasses of port. There wasn’t enough room for any chairs, and six-foot-two Jason had to lean against the door jamb of the bathroom so as not to step on anyone’s feet. Cynthia brought a crystal decanter half-filled with the garnet-colored liquid on a tray with four crystal cordial glasses and deposited it on the short bookshelf between the two bedroom doors, then went mumbling back downstairs.

I was looking forward to the nightcap. We each took a glass, toasted each other, and then sipped. Jason was the first to speak, after his lips had stopped puckering. He smacked his tongue against his teeth a few times and grimaced.

“Tasty,” he said, putting his port back on the little tray.

I was disappointed by the rancid syrup, too. I like port. None of us liked this stuff.

The next morning, breakfast began again with spongy pioneer bread and moved onto a strawberry shortcake made of a pasty muffin which tasted like a dry scone that had been left in the oven for too long. The entrée was a soupy chive omelet with venison balls on the side. The meatball-like mounds were cooked in meringue and then dusted with powdered sugar. When Cynthia brought it out, she introduced it proudly as “the reason you all came to Maine.” My two-year-old niece, Samantha, who was given the exact same food we were but on smaller plates, looked down at her runny omelet and venison balls and said, “Yuck.”

That morning Cynthia informed us of the two leading theories on how Mount Desert Island had gotten its name. The first was that “a fat-cat, cigar-smoking rich guy” named Desert used to vacation there, but the explanation she preferred was that when Ponce de Leon was looking up at Cadillac Mountain at dawn, as the sun rose behind the mountain, it heated the ocean waters in front of the island, and the subsequent steam rose up and obscured the top of the mountain so that it seemed to de Leon that the mountain was deserting him. (We knew better, though, that the name came from the French word désert, meaning in some connotations “barren” and aptly describing rocky Cadillac Mountain and the surrounding terrain.)

That day, my sister-in-law Kim and I discussed our options during afternoon tea – two sweating glasses of Lipton on a rickety bistro table, on a small wooden deck off the breakfast room. We were shielded from the sun by overgrown morning glories and an anemic wisteria vine. Samantha was with us, leaning against Kim, who was gently sproinging the child’s ringlets to soothe her while we talked.

“Don’t feel bad,” Kim said to me. “There’s no way you could have known this place was run by a lunatic. The description in the brochure sounded good to us, too.”

“I guess,” I said, feeling pretty terrible that I’d persuaded them all to stay here. I looked past Kim through the sliding glass door to make sure Cynthia wasn’t eavesdropping. “But we can’t spend the whole week like this. Not with this awful food.”

“The Spice Lady is scary,” Samantha said carefully. Kim hugged her. “I know, honey. Don’t worry.” Samantha climbed onto her mother’s lap, and their folding chair creaked under the shift in weight.

After our watery tea had lost so much flavor that we couldn’t drink it anymore, we went inside to find Cynthia. We asked her if, since we were the only guests at the inn that week, we might postpone breakfast until 9:00, which wounded her to the core almost as deeply as our conciliatory requests for more simple fare. Not just for Samantha, who wanted Froot Loops, but also for us. I explained, “We aren’t used to such elaborate breakfasts,” and chuckled a little sheepishly that they were “wreaking havoc upon our metabolisms.” Cynthia agreed without even an attempt at graciousness.

The next morning we cheerfully came into the dining room just before 9:00. “Good morning!” we said.

Cynthia snapped, “Well good grief, it’s practically the afternoon!” and grumbled about her entire day’s schedule being thrown off. She informed us we could eat cereal if the Belgian waffles weren’t “simple enough” for us. The cereal was on the table, the bowls were stacked on the sideboard, and neither spoons nor milk was anywhere in sight.

Later that day, Cynthia ostentatiously put the inn up for sale. We even had to vacate our rooms while she marched a real estate agent through. We left for a couple of hours and when we came back, Aaron and I walked into our room to find Cynthia leaning over our bed, the comforter folded back to the foot of the mattress, ironing the sheets.

* * *

So what is your weirdest travel episode? Please comment and share your story.