I’ve already written about Collegeville twice. I always tell my writing students to avoid being repetitive, and yet I feel like a year’s worth of learning was packed into this one trip. I read this week that the fall is for soaking in the lessons and experiences that we had this summer. Collegeville is still settling into my bones, and the writing of Robert Lax (an author I read at the institute) keeps circling my head.
It was 10 days–the longest I’d been away since before having kids. Collegeville is an ecumenical (representing a number of different Christian churches) Institute that supports research, writing, publication, and education at the crossroads of faith and culture. It is located in a beautiful section of Minnesota near two colleges that are encircled by lakes and hiking trails, and near a monastery filled with monks. I’ve worked and had meals and conversations with eleven other writers from all over our country: New York, Texas, California, the Twin Cities and more.
In addition to the people, one of the most transformative parts of Collegeville was working with a writing coach. At my job I often sit in writing conferences with student writers, so I was reminded how it feels to have my writing on the table. It can be scary.
Other times, writing community can be just plain fun. At one point during the week, I was writing on the porch outside my little apartment when two other participants came walking up the brick sidewalks from either direction.
“Are you coming?” they said.
The group social time we had each day at 5 p.m. was starting. It was 5:05.
“I’m just about done,” I said, typing furiously.
And then the two of them did something that will forever be a snapshot in my memory. “Go Evi!” they cheered doing impromptu cheerleading moves and smiling in solidarity.
What a joy to have cheerleaders. Writing does enliven me, but it also requires courage, as it can be easy to over-think it all. During the week at Collegeville, I would swim at the pool on campus for exercise. In Nebraska, I swim laps at the YMCA in a pool depth of 4.5 feet. The pool at Collegeville is a NCAA competition pool with high edges, starting blocks, and a 16-foot well on one end for platform diving. As I swam in this bigger pool, I found my breath catching and my heart racing, not because of the swim but because of fear in a pool that seems way outta my league.
And yet the lane, the edges to push off, that top 4.5 foot of water–in so many ways–it’s just the same. . . if I focus on my breath, count the laps, and simply move my arms, kick my legs.
I can swim in that hard-core, deep-welled NCAA pool. Another part of me just likes the YMCA. I think this week has been me being my own cheerleader, me daring to say that yes, I am a writer (as I learned at Nebraska Writing Project), and yes I’m gonna swim in this deeper end of the pool too.
As I packed for this trip, my ten-year-old daughter, Charli said, “Here, you gotta take this with you,” as she handed me a drawing she did of a woman facing right with a pony tail. The woman’s blue hair fills the top left corner of the page, all swirls.
“It’s a picture I made,” she said. “I started off just making squiggles and it became a picture!”
Smiling at the simplicity and depth of her words, I asked brother Ollie (age 8) if there was anything he wanted me to take. “No,” he said, “You’ve got all you need.” My husband joked at how many things I packed for this trip, and yet for 10 days away, it’s been enough and just right. What if we’ve always got all we need somehow, if we can only learn to see it?
During my time at Collegeville, I read the biography that my writing coach wrote, Pure Act, the Uncommon Life of Robert Lax. In it, I learned of a man who lived his life and his art as a prayer. I was struck by both Lax’s life and by Michael, the book’s author, learning alongside Lax. Both of them were searching, following that tug that says, “Hey, try this crazy thing and see what happens.”
I want to end this post again with a poem I love from Robert Lax. I just keep thinking about it. He wrote vertical poems, breaking up words, the style daring us all to take everything slower, with more intention–and attention, no matter the pool, no matter the depth.