Personal Writing,  Writing Retreat Reflections

Phyllis sits at the head of the table

I’m on day eight, the beginning of the second week of this two-week writer’s retreat. When I think about where I was just one short week ago, time, as it so often does, melts and wobbles and ceases to have any real meaning—was it one week, one year, one lifetime ago? How has it already and only been one week?

One week ago, I was literally in my car, driving to my residency filled with expectation and nerves and promise. I had no idea what to expect—of the residency, of the time or even of myself. I was driving into a great unknown with few certainties beyond my expressed anxieties and the generous boosts up by so many.

I’m an early riser. I always have been. I’m much more about getting the vegetarian “worm” than I am basking in the nightlife. I want to greet the sunrise because I am refreshed from a good night’s sleep, not because I am dragging myself home from an all-nighter.

By now, you know I have a curiously active imagination that tends toward the dark, violent and even deadly. I don’t know where that comes from, but as with all things during this retreat, I am not judging it. I’m simply here to observe, stand witness and play my part in this experiment.

Every morning of this residency, I have opened my eyes to the faintest hint of pale light coming over the treetops, barely illuminating the farm yard and the outlines of the furniture in my bedroom. Nowhere near enough light to see anything of consequence but enough to let me know I haven’t woken up in the middle of the night and have to simply turn over and go back to sleep.

My bedroom is at the end of a hallway that runs the long length of house. Every morning, making my way down that hallway, I have fallen into the same detailed narrative: There’s a man, quiet and so still he almost seems asleep, sitting at the head of the table where my creative work things are splayed out: my grandparents’ courtship letters, my books, last night’s lecture notes from the course I am teaching, rocks, leaves, sticks and other bits and bobs picked up from my daily country road walks.

I almost smell his presence before I see him: earthy with the scent of harvested grain and dry leaves. As I get to the landing in the middle of the stairs, I pause and take a deep breath, knowing the only thing to do is confront this man, determine if he means me good or ill. The cutouts in the staircase wall give me four glimpses of him as I make my way down towards him. He is there, faint but unmistakable. I keep walking.

By the time I get to the bottom of the stairs, having screwed my courage up, he is gone. Even his scent is gone in those few seconds between the landings. I never hear him leave; he never acknowledges me.

Who is this man in the murky dawn of morning and what is his purpose for me? Because, believe me, this isn’t my imagination. This is much bigger than that.

I’m rereading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic for what seems like the 400th time. This is my go to book when I sense that I am on the cusp of change. I have written in it each time I have started it. So interesting to see, to remember and realize in hindsight how things have gone, to see the “almosts,” the “failures,” the “hold on, it’s comings!”

Extraordinary was not my “thing” yet, but it was clearly already incubating. Spoiler Alert: most people have no idea I nearly left Fargo for another arts job in another community. That was a long time ago now.
What bigger magic could I have asked for than for Mazz to begin getting sober a mere 32 days after this top post? For the record, the Board no longer grossly underpays me. That was a good cry session, actually, because it led to real change. I still often wonder that about the Bush Foundation. I’m determined to not use gross or grossly anymore–unpleasant words!

So, what to do about this man who attends my nights but not my days? This presence who makes himself seen but not known? This morning, I had a thought about him while walking down the hallway. I wondered what would happen if I said no to his presence? What if I, instead, invited a different essence to sit at the head of my creative table? One who is not looming and silent and scary but one whom I knew to be light and pure talent and radiant in the very best sense of the word? What if I invited my friend Phyllis, the most talented person I have ever shared a stage with and one who has traversed from this realm to the next, to be the gracious hostess of my creativity?

The brilliant Phyllis Morgan (with Jason Thomas Spencer, equally brilliant but still with us, so I am not channeling his unused talents!) from MSUM’s production of All in the Timing.

So I did. In that hallway, I thanked the moody man and excused him from the table to go and find another place to lurk, and I asked Phyllis to please take that seat of honor.

And she did.

She was there when I got to the landing. I could smell her first—all hairspray and powder with the faintest scent of sweat from the intense lights of the makeup room and the energy of standing in the wings, waiting to make her first entrance.

And I kept walking, down the stairs, peeking through the four cutouts. I saw her massive nest of curls, as wild as when she played “Lion” in our production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I saw her smile—those big teeth—and the intense sparkle in her eyes as she turned her face towards me.

And then I reached the bottom of the stairs, and she was gone. I didn’t hear her leave, but she acknowledged me.

And I know she’ll be back tomorrow as surely as I knew Surly Sam was going to be all the other mornings. But where I couldn’t determine his purpose, I know what Phyllis and I will do. We will create. Because that’s what we were each born to do, only Phyllis’ time was cut too short. So I will be an honored proxy of sorts for all the creativity that was yet in Phyllis’ well the night she “shuffled off this mortal coil.” What that will be, I don’t have any idea, and that’s the glorious and enormous magic of it all.

PSD: Personal Systems Disruptor | (WR): Writing Retreat

In memory of the physical presence of Phyllis Morgan and in honor of her spirit, which continues to give such creative inspiration.

Have to add this addendum that I found in my reading of Big Magic this afternoon (9/9/2020). Look whose name is along the side (along with three other luminaries in my life) from 2016, when my personal life felt like complete and utter turmoil. She’s been with me all this time:

Read Day IX: The day before my world turned upside down

Dayna Del Val is on a mission to help others (re)discover the spark they were born with through her blog and newsletter, her professional talks and the (re)Discover Your Spark retreats she leads. Dayna works with people to help them not just identify and articulate their dreams but to develop a framework to get going on the pursuit of those dreams—today, in the next few months and for the years ahead. She's at the intersection of remarkable and so, so ordinary, but she knows that pretty much everyone else is, too. She's excited to be sharing this extraordinary journey with you.


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