Yesterday it was Friday and sunshine on palm trees. Today it’s Saturday and fat plops of snow on dog poop in the backyard.
Away for five days on a writer’s retreat in Palm Springs hosted by author Christie Tate, I’ve returned to domestic mundanity in South Central Kansas.
It’s late January, and today’s typical Kansas weather is an interesting punctuation on the out-of-the ordinary week I’ve had.
Monday: I hate flying but the reward outweighs the risk and I jet from ICT to PSP. I bring my emotional support dog Scraps, the little salt and pepper, curly-haired terrier I adopted from the animal shelter shortly after choosing sobriety a year and a half ago. A dear friend paid his way on this trip. He’s nine pounds. He whimpers in his soft-sided carrier until we’re airborne. The motion lulls him to sleep. Internally, I’m panicking.
We land in Palm Springs, my heart rate decreasing a little once wheels touch the ground. I walk through the concourse and drink it all in. It’s mostly open air, with large tent-like ceilings and a bucket of umbrellas to borrow if it’s raining. It’s beautiful. Palm trees stand like friendly greeters and the San Jacinto Mountains loom over the city–a surreal backdrop to this desert oasis. I grab a taxi. The driver is annoyed that my destination isn’t further. I am grateful that it isn’t.
I check into the Avalon Hotel, fighting feelings of “I’m not fancy enough” for this chic retreat. I settle into my room, noting how the decor and lighting would make a great boudoir backdrop. It’s romantic. I meet up with the other writers for appetizers at the restaurant off the hotel’s lobby. I remember the advice of my friend, author Irene O’Garden. “The first night you will feel like you don’t belong, that you’re not good enough. But you are. You belong.” She’s right.
Tuesday: I wake up at 6:45 and start my electric kettle. I make coffee, oatmeal and pre-cooked bacon in my room. Avocado toast at the hotel restaurant is $24–too much for this Kansas girl. I drink my coffee on the patio in my red bathrobe, a hedge blocking my view of the pool but not the lemon tree. I remember to inhale. To exhale. It’s stunning.
I leash up Scraps and we walk. We turn south from the hotel and head down Belardo toward Ramon. It’s chilly, in the lower 50s. We’re both eager to explore. We both delight in the sights and smells. I stop and photograph the interesting flora. He stops and poops in the grass and I carry it in a bag. We run into a workshop mate and stand talking to him for 20 minutes about recovery, life, and writing. I make it to the North Lykken Trailhead, grateful for a trashcan. “No dogs on trail, $100 fine.” Nevermind, then. We turn back.
At 9:30 we gather as a group in the Presidio, the hotel’s meeting room. From the Latin word for “protection,” it’s aptly named. Christie’s warm presence helps us feel safe. Intimidation melts into gratitude. 14 of us sit around a large square table. We talk. We write. We think. We share. We eat. We laugh. Scraps explores other laps. I’m feeling brave enough to invite myself to dinner with three others. We dine outdoors next to propane heaters at Sammy G’s Tuscan Grill, serenaded by a live musician.
Wednesday: Scraps and I head north for our walk. Left on Baristo, past the Palm Springs Tennis Club. A flock of hummingbirds buzz around three feeders on a balcony. I’m awestruck. I stop and stare. We keep walking. We meander up to the Palm Springs Art Museum. I don’t like modern art. I do like the upright car. I offer to take a picture of two tourists in front of a 26-foot statue of Marilyn Monroe. I take a picture of myself.
We meet up for our morning workshop, and when we break for lunch, I head for solitude. I walk to Ingleside Inn, Avalon’s sister property just down the road. I’m looking for the hammocks I saw on the website. I find them. I sit and swing with Scraps, the scenery too beautiful to be real. His belly rests on mine. I let it all imprint on my soul. I’m determined to never forget this moment.
I return for the afternoon session, slightly nervous. It’s my turn. Everyone will give their take on my manuscript, the 10 pages I submitted before the retreat. Praise is doled out first, then opportunities for improvement. Everyone is so kind. And smart. I feel held. I’m determined to finish my memoir this year. We’re done for the day. Four of us walk to The Best Bookstore in Palm Springs. I buy Dr. Zhivago. Three of us have dinner at Sushi Lovers.
Thursday: I sleep in. No walk today. I’m sad it’s almost over. I think about my three kids and husband at home. Do they miss me? Do they need me? So much of my identity is consumed back in Kansas. I am a mother, wife, coworker, employee, church member, GSA advisor, sister, daughter, friend. Here, I am just a writer. Here, I am allowed to focus only on my needs. And my dog, but he doesn’t require much.
Again, we’re all back at the Presidio. I finally know everyone’s names. I’ve grown so fond of Sarah with the curly hair, Jenny with crystal eyes, Kristin with the effortless style, Colleen with the pretty smile, Nina with the sexy voice, Heather with the great ideas, Tanya and her warm presence, Meg and her cool tattoos, Ashley and her big energy, Tim and his sensitive soul, Stacey and her interesting insights, Crysta and her heartfelt feedback. And Christie. Our not-completely-fearless-and-that’s-what-makes-her-awesome leader.
In the evening we dine at Eight4Nine. We have a private room, and a custom menu. I order the salad, the salmon, the key lime pie and a peach ginger mocktail from the “Stay Cool, Stay Sober” drink list. Frank Sinatra and Cher stare down at us from large pop art paintings on the wall. Our laughter echoes in the room. My new friends tell me I’m funny. There’s no greater compliment. Am I really here? Is this all really happening? Do I really have to go home?
Friday: Begrudgingly I pack my bags. I’m not ready to go home. But I do miss my family. We have a buffet of “California dried fruit” in the Presidio. One more writing exercise. We share what we love. Apparently it’s sunshine and sweatpants. I sift through my bowl of fruit and nuts and delight at the fresh crunch of the almonds. They didn’t have far to travel here. I think about how far I have to travel home.
One by one, we take turns manifesting our “goals,” though we don’t call them that. We speak as though it’s already happened, and share the good news with the group. I struggle. Acting has always been scary. “I finished my memoir and am starting the querying process.” Everyone claps. I hold up my dog. “But Scraps got an agent first.” Everyone laughs. I crack a joke when I’m uncomfortable.
We hug goodbye. I feel tears start to well, but my anxiety meds make it hard to cry. Sometimes I hate that. Three of us share an Uber. We part ways at the airport. I board the plane outdoors which feels strange, but it’s one last moment to soak up the Palm Springs sunshine. We arrive late in Denver, meaning I have to walk-sprint-barely-catch-the-train and collapse huffing at gate B22. I made it. The plane rolls and lurches left during takeoff, a warm panic surges through my body and I reach down to surreptitiously feel my crotch to make sure I haven’t peed. My brother-in-law meets me in Wichita, and I’m happy to see a familiar face.
I’m glad to be home.
About Christie Tate: Christie is my friend from back in my “mommy blogging” days 10 years ago. We’ve stayed connected online but hadn’t met in person until this trip. When she told me about her writer’s retreat in Palm Springs, I jumped. I want to reinvest in my craft and finish my memoir. Christie knows a thing or two about writing.
“Christie O. Tate is a Chicago-based writer and essayist. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Pithead Chapel, McSweeney’s, Motherwell, Entropy Magazine, A Perfect Wedding, Together.com, Brain, Child and others. Her debut memoir, Group, published in October 2020 was a Reese’s Book Club Pick and New York Times bestseller.”
Her new book, BFF, will publish soon and is now available for pre-order. I already have a signed copy, natch.
She’s planning on hosting more writing retreats in the future, and I plan to return. Her approach is informative and inspirational, and no matter how insecure or vulnerable you feel in your writing, you will leave feeling prepared and cherished. 5/5 stars, highly recommend.