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By Kathleen Alcalá

Kathleen Alcalá

In 1989, I was asked to interview Nancy Skinner Nordhoff about her new endeavor, a writing retreat for women. We spent part of a day talking. I think we drove from Seattle to Whidbey together, so she could show me what form her ideas were beginning to take, how her dreams were turning into something real. I had a lot of dreams too, so I was anxious to see what this looked like, given the resources.

Nancy described how her marriage had fallen apart, leaving her to reinvent herself from the good wife and good mother, roles she had filled to the best of her ability to – whatever she wanted or needed to be. She took a good hard look at what she saw for the future, and how to turn her considerable skills and assets into something practical and useful to those without such resources.

Nancy described a cross-country car trip and how she was drawn to rural spaces, found herself wanting to press her nose to the windows of farmhouses, yearning to join the circle of family she imagined inside. Her friend, a midwife, helped Nancy focus her yearning into a specific goal, a creative space where women could feel safe, didn’t need to do domestic work, and could support and encourage each other. It was a space in which their creative work could take precedence, and be their major focus, if only for a few short weeks. I could not help but wonder what was in this for Nancy. I have worked for non-profits most of my life, but understanding the motivations of people who, to me, seem to have so much more agency than the rest of us remains mysterious.

I remember feeling intense waves coming off Nancy. How I suddenly became a sounding board, and felt the need to be very careful not to say anything that would limit her exploration. I am generally tone deaf when it comes to other’s emotions. In addition, I was a bit overwhelmed with my own emotions that day. I admitted my recent failure at retaining a leadership position at a difficult organization. It had happened so recently, that I was still in shock at how badly things had gone.

Nancy suggested that I spend some time myself at the residency, a chance at some stolen time in paradise.

So I had to share another secret with Nancy. There was a limited amount of time I could spend, even at a dream residency. What had started out as a general interview for publication was turning into a series of big reveals. Nancy offered me a residency at Hedgebrook for two weeks in the fall, when the first four cottages would be ready, and I agreed. This was probably late spring or early summer at the time.

In late September, my belly swelled out to there, I moved into one of the cottages. I know other Hedgebrook residents form deep attachments to their particular cottage. I have since stayed for short visits in two or three of them, and always loved all of them the way one loves her aunties. They have collectively nurtured me with their benign, nonjudgmental spaces. The murmuring trees, the talkative owls, the path through the cedar deep, all have combined to supply that “Yes, and…” that allows a writer to fill that blank space with her own words.

What I do remember are the other three women who stayed at the same time. Dana Stabenow, upon meeting me, promptly offered to deliver my baby if I went into labor early. She had EMT training! I demurred, politely I think, holding out for full term. Amy Pence was a poet, and the fourth, Susan Brown, was working on children’s books. All have produced several or many books since then, raised families of either books or children, and effected positive change in the world not only as writers, but as teachers, parents, philanthropists, and general wise women.

I had already written my first collection of stories by the time I got to Hedgebrook, but managed to produce the first forty pages of what would become Spirits of the Ordinary, my first novel, in the two weeks I spent on that magic isle. Oh yes: On October 19 of that year, my son Benjamin was born, the first “Hedgebrook baby,” and certainly the first male to spend the night in a Hedgebrook cottage. I had an easy pregnancy and birth, and I attribute much of it to the affirmation I received at Hedgebrook. Looking back, I see how much more of the world Nancy understood than I did at that time, that giving women time and creative space might be one of the greatest ways to heal the earth, and oneself. I have tried to give back in my own way, mostly through teaching, but also by trying to be present when someone needs an ear, and answer the inevitable questions about the writing and publishing process. I will never forget what Nancy taught me, and what she offered me during my time of greatest joy out of her great need to heal.

 

 

By Suzanne Ushie

Suzanne Ushie

After I applied for a Hedgebrook residency, I dreamed of walking on a beach with a small group of strangers. Acres of water on the left, sleek boats bobbing on the blue; a place without a name. But I could tell, in that unshowy way dreams have of making things known, that I was somewhere in the United States. I am prone to the most bizarre dreams, so I put this tame one down to submission fatigue, then dismissed it as fluff.

And yet I walked on that beach with my fellow residents a day after I arrived in Hedgebrook. I walked barefoot on ivory sand covered with thick logs and purple seashells. I laughed at the name—Double Bluff Beach?—and the curved shoreline—Useless Bay?—as the heat strained into my feet. Here, on this lush island blooming with heart, I would do little more than write for a month. To be given such a gift.

Every morning, I awoke to the shrieking of owls and sat at my desk. I bent to the page and struggled with my sentences. When my writing took its time, often the case, I stared out the window and into the woods, hoping to spot a deer. I had since made peace with being a slow writer. Without the usual distractions though, my process soon became suspect.

I mourned in the library, slouched in my favourite couch, a book on my lap. Surrounded by silence and stone, I read women who were in Hedgebrook before me, and rapture came over me. I again believed that I would write as well as I could whenever I could. Above all else, the incredible women in residence with me made me feel once more like myself.

We often lingered at the table after dinner, sated by the spectacular meal, bonding over everything from writing to midnight baths. They taught me to trust my process, to make room for magic. They teased me, too, about my refusal to discuss my ongoing project. Someone called me “No-nonsense,” which filled me with wicked glee.

One night we sat around a bonfire, wrote down our fears, and flung them into the flames. High on warm company, an improbable plan emerged: we’d hide in the garlic storeroom so we’d never have to leave. Weeks into our stay, we fed apples to the two llamas and agreed on names: Thelma for the brown, Louise for the white. I remember wishing it were that easy to come up with a book title.

Mornings turned into a truce of sorts. Sometimes my writing went well. Other times, not so much. On “good writing days,” as I began to call them, I would work far into afternoon, neglecting tea and food, until I looked up to see the sun lowering behind the trees. On less productive days, I curled up on the window seat and read. Or wandered through the woods. Once, I walked to a nearby lavender farm, struck by the stillness of the sprawling homes—a rarity in Lagos where I live.

In the hallowed tradition of residences, writers come and go. On the eve of the first departure, I gathered with the others in a cottage, where we read our work and got a mostly accurate Tarot reading. While we mused over the journal entries, I recalled women whose conversations swung between men and marriage alone, women who I’d cut out of my life for my well-being. And then this unexpected sisterhood. This glorious tribe.

On my last day in Hedgebrook, only two of us from the original cohort remained. I got through the breathless goodbyes and settled in for the drive to the port, trying not to sulk. As I boarded the ferry, I thought of a longing I’d shared in my Artist Statement: Hedgebrook as my very own backbone, guiding me across the murky waters of writing safely. And it did.

 

By Abigail Carter

New Girl’s Network, One Story at a Time.

Our mission, as we sat in the rustic long house at Hedgebrook, was to determine our organization’s BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal). A BHAG is one of those statements you hear from those non-profit organizations during NPR broadcasts, statements like “Eradicating Childhood Disease” or “Equal Education for All.” BHAGs are almost impossible to achieve, but the thinking goes that if you don’t set such goals, you have no hope of ever achieving one. Since Hedgebrook is a writing retreat specifically for women, our main goal is to support women writers. But really, Hedgebrook is bigger than that.

As it turns out, Gloria Steinem is one of Hedgebrook’s biggest supporters and cheerleaders. And on this day, excitement was in the air because Gloria was joining us in our discussion. Years earlier, Gloria had mentioned to our executive director the need for a “New Girl’s Network,” an idea borrowed from the 80s corporate world. A network of women that could compete with the mostly exclusionary “Old Boy’s Network.” Where an Old Boy’s Network might be seen by men as a necessary means of furthering their own careers, The New Girl’s Network is seen as furthering the cause of all women, albeit, one woman at a time.   Read more

By Abigail Carter

VORTEXT: A Meandering Magical Garden of Writing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whidbey Island seems rife with secret gardens whose long winding driveways meander into thickets of wooded groves. That day, a woman directed me to a parking lot – a gravel shoulder bordered by nothing but trees. I got out of the car, bewildered, not sure where to go to reach VORTEXT, the weekend-long writing conference hosted by Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island writer’s retreat for women, whose board I recently joined.

Another woman parked as I was returning to the car, certain I had messed up. She got out and seemed to know where to go. We walked together, learning that we were both from Seattle, here to write, excited. I was already disappointed that I would only be attending for the morning, teenaged birthdays and events filling this particular weekend, preventing a longer stay.

We arrived at what I can only describe as a lodge-like building – a great room with soaring ceilings, a hallway lined with Hedgebrook’s resident gourmand, Denise’s delicious homemade organic food, an intimate windowed dining area filled with groups of women chatting. I ate breakfast enjoying the meadow and garden view, made enchanting by the misty rain. I recognized Elizabeth George, the Whidbey Island celebrity crime writer, but was less familiar with the other five writers who would be our workshop leaders.   Read more

By Christine O'Connor

Watching Gloria Steinem: A small and powerful gathering

On the evening of August 15, two women who had served on the board of Hedgebrook some years ago joined me to watch the HBO documentary “Gloria: In Her Own Words.” Amy’s wife Kate Buzard had invented a cocktail for the occasion, the “Bra Burner.” As I prepared some appetizers for the cocktail party, I told my teen daughters about Gloria and the cocktail, getting blank looks both times.

The two women who joined me were professional women in the workforce during the height of Gloria’s career, while I was still in college; they whooped in recognition of the news footage in the documentary and recounted their own stories of unequal pay, exclusion and other encounters with ‘60’s-era misogyny.   Read more

By Christine O'Connor

Radical Hospitality: The Leap of Faith

“When you are served with so much love and nurturing, from the garden to the table to the cottages—someone believes that what we have to say is important.”

– Suheir Hammad, poet

At the core of our writers in residence program here at Hedgebrook is the ethos we refer to as “radical hospitality”: each writer who comes to the retreat is offered her own comfortable cottage, delicious food and complete control over how she spends her time, with the only requirement being that she gather for dinner in the evening with the other women in residence. Women are selected for our residency program from all over the world and from all over the career spectrum: published authors and beginners alike. All who have competed for and won a residency are offered the chance to explore their own creativity at their own pace.

Gloria Steinem serves on our Creative Advisory Council, lucky for us! She describes Hedgebrook this way: “It’s as if women have taken their 5,000 years of nurturing experience and turned it on each other.”

Women are often in roles in which they are expected to offer hospitality, where the gifts of nurturing and support have in a way been robbed from them, demanded rather than honored as gifts. Whether it be the woman who works in the “hospitality industry” cleaning motel rooms at one end of the economic spectrum or the trophy wife who must open her home to guests who will criticize her taste behind her back on the other: both are robbed of what should be theirs to give.

At Hedgebrook, we reclaim this work as gift and offer it to women. We are confident that this honoring inspires the amazing experiences that our alumnae often share with us.   Read more

By Austin Walters

A Valuable Lesson

I’ve always loved to read. Cracking open a book is one of the greatest joys in my life, and talking to others about books comes in a very close second. But somewhere around the time when I started taking literature classes in college, I became a snob about books. I didn’t  really realize it was happening, and I wasn’t extremely open about it. I didn’t scoff or chide people about their choices or recommendations, I just developed a strong opposition to the most talked about bestsellers, popular book club picks, and any book printed with a movie poster cover. I thought that these books were a waste of my precious reading time.

Then a small, misfit British boy came along and changed everything.   Read more

By Christine O'Connor

The Power of Women Telling their Stories

I serve on the Hedgebrook board. And it all started with a book.

The book, in this case, was a slim volume of essays called “After Patriarchy.” The editors, one woman and two men, organized a volume of eight essays written by women from different religious backgrounds. Each writer made the case for the idea that their tradition was robbed of its full potential by how it treated women. Misogyny was equated with self-sabotage: if humanity’s spiritual traditions could overcome their own misogyny, their expression would be true to their own teachings.

If books are the ignition, stories are the fuel. The headliner of the New York Times online edition on Saturday, March 26, was an example of what Hedgebrook means to me: a place that makes sure that women get to tell their stories.

The photograph was stunning: a woman, disheveled and clearly upset, had broken into a hotel meeting room where Libyan government officials were debriefing a group of international journalists. She refused to leave: she had a story to tell.   Read more

By Elana Lim

Women Authoring Change

After attending Hedgebrook’s inaugural Master Class, I was inspired to contribute to the Board of Directors, joining others in furthering Hedgebrook’s mission.

“Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come.”

This mission has personal meaning for me. Just two generations before, 人人 (Ngin Ngin, meaning paternal grandmother) in our Toisanese dialect of Chinese, came to America as Tow Yee Moo (wife of Tow Yee). She started her American life in Seattle’s Chinatown in 1921, where she died in 1981. During her life, she never felt safe to tell her story to any of her family. However, because of her trek during uncertain times, she changed the direction of future generations, and I was now benefitting, having been granted an opportunity to sit at the Hedgebrook table and write stories of growing up in Chinatown.

During my Master Class experience, I was touched by the fairies in the circle of their mushroom rings. I was astounded by the depths of the women I met. My sanctuary became the worn wooden bench, set inside a fairy ring, where the sun rose beyond the cattails. A dancing fire snapped its fingers in the wood burning stove and kept my toes warm and my body fed. The pressure of a midnight silence was so deep and still that my head felt as if it might explode.   Read more

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Kathleen Alcalá
Suzanne Ushie