What Does a Writer’s Retreat Teach? Or, Hobnobbing with Madeleine and Eugene

We were sitting around a table overlooking the Frio River, listening to Jeffrey Overstreet talk about how artful story invites the reader inside—invites the reader to discover what the story has to say to them—when he paused and had us go around the table and introduce ourselves.

My friend Marcus was seated to my right, Claire to my left, but the others were new faces. There was a retired photographer, two persons of the cloth, a young college student, an elderly woman, and Jeannie.

When it was Jeannie’s turn, she spoke about the nonfiction books she had written over the years, about coming to Laity Lodge to write, and about her dear, dear friend Madeline L’Engle. Immediately, my shoes felt too big.

We all tried to pretend like it was nothing but all the while, I’m thinking…Madeleine L’Engle! When I was a girl, this dear woman’s books opened up a whole new world to me. A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet … Jeannie’s casual namedropping sent me into a reverie of wistfulness, remembering the joy of discovering a series of books that aroused a deep awakening in my young self. How I loved Charles Wallace and Meg. They taught me through their story that anything is possible. And who wrapped science around fantasy in such a way? I’d never read science fiction before. I didn’t know people wrote like that.

We took a break and I went to the restroom and was startled to find Lauren Winner washing her hands and Ashley Cleveland exiting the stall. What’s more, they greeted me casually, engaged in a bit of small talk before going on their way. Back at our open-air table, I tell Marcus.

“I can’t believe she referred to Madeleine L’Engle as her dear, dear friend!”

He shrugs his shoulders.

“And Eugene Peterson writes here all the time.”

“Eugene Peterson? Really?” I am a bit star-struck. “But that makes me feel so … small.”

Marcus laughs.

Why? I don’t understand that. That should make you feel special not small. You’re here too. Laity Lodge is for everyone.”

I tell him about running into Ashley and Lauren in the restroom.

Right,” he says. “Because they use the bathroom too.”

We laugh but I am quieted a bit inside. Later, I walk down the road with my friends Verbieann and Ann (who has since become a New York Times bestselling author) and tell them the story. I turn Marcus’ words around in my mind.

Am I special? I mean, just because I haven’t held court with writers like Madeleine L’Engle or Eugene Peterson…does that mean there is no value in the words I share? My friend Elaine was recently at a conference in which the speaker posed the question, How do your words help solve the problem of pain? I’ve been thinking about that. Wondering. And I remember the young girl I was—wrapped in the pain of a broken family, uncertainty of self—and I know the question goes deeper than it appears at first glance.

Though Madeleine L’Engle’s story about a young misfit girl and her brilliant little brother and how they rescue their father using a tesseract and all the amazing things they encounter in the process…though these words may not appear to address the problem of pain directly, they surely helped to save a young girl who was drowning in it when she first encountered them.

I think about these things all these months after my conversation with my wise friend Marcus. I am learning to embrace myself as word-giver. It still feels fragile—I’m still self-conscious and clumsy. But when I look back, I see that time at Laity Lodge as a pivotal step in this acquiescence. Because Laity Lodge is for everyone. My time there was like a warm embrace; I was cradled in that canyon. Everyone there was someone special. This is because that riverbed and those canyon walls are saturated with the presence of God. Dan Roloff told us that the place was built to provide a place where people can encounter God. While there, I felt the breath of my Creator, I felt loved as a favorite child.

The truth is, we should feel this way no matter where we are, no matter what we do. But sometimes, gravity gets in the way and our earthbound nature blinds us to who we truly are. Laity Lodge is a place of transcendence for me.

We are gearing up for the retreat again this year. I’ll be there. Won’t you consider it too? There is a chance you could go for free. I’d love to meet you there. Would even share that table overlooking the Frio with you.