Unpacking With Care

Writing retreat in the woods of Wade's cabin estate. Photo courtesy of Gary Edwards.

Writing retreat in the woods of Wade's cabin estate. Photo courtesy of Gary Edwards.

We just arrived home after a seven-day driving trip around the upper Midwest that was filled with so many meaningful moments it is going to require some very careful unpacking.

This type of unpacking has nothing to do with the clothes in my suitcase.  I have developed a habit in the past decade of completing that chore the minute I arrive home. Suitcase emptied and returned to the closet, laundry begun, toiletries back where they belong before I finally sit down to check the pile of accumulated mail.

I’ve learned that if I don’t power through the unpacking it can languish for days as an unfinished annoyance at the back of my mind. At this stage of life, I don’t have enough room in my mind for unfinished annoyances any more.

This other type of non-suitcase unpacking is something I started doing after I turned fifty more than just a few years ago. It was at that point in my one-way journey through life that I realized I was so breathlessly jumping from trips to events to dinner parties and on to the next that I was missing the richness of the details of it all.

Jacques would say, “Do you remember that wonderful evening in New York when we….?”

And I’d have to pause and sort through overstuffed mental file cabinets while seeking additional clues.

“Was it the trip in July or the trip in October?”

“Did we have dinner with Julie or were we alone?”

“Was it cold or rainy that night?”

And responses to each of those prompts would help me narrow down the memory to the one he wanted to share until finally, I could say, “Yes! I actually do remember that evening.”

Then and only then could we talk about the shared memory of a long walk with surprise discoveries that were topped off by an outstanding and unplanned meal.

The whole exercise of sorting through the clutter of full rich memories shoved with little thought into the virtual storage cabinet of life experience needed an overhaul. I needed some sort of feng shui, zen practice to create order out of my lovely mass of experiential recollections. I realized there was little I could do about the mess of the deep past, but I could begin a new practice moving forward to help with the recall tasks of the future.

And that’s how it began – the mental unpacking practice I now find so wonderful. It is somewhat like organizing a scrapbook of photos and knickknacks to physically document highlights of the passage of time. Only this organizing, or careful unpacking, all takes place in my mind.

I’ll show you what I mean.

On this past trip, I attended my second annual writer’s retreat at the cabin estate of author Wade Rouse. I unpack the experience by remembering how wet it was when Jacques dropped me at the door, the dampness of the woods dripping from the trees and lush flowers. But oh, the smell of warm welcome that was on the inside. Gary Edwards, Wade’s domestically talented partner had anticipated our every desire for nurture. Coffee and tea were ready, along with labeled containers for various forms of cream.

The smells from the kitchen came from gorgeous egg bakes and beautiful coffee cakes. Although we were a challenging bunch this year requiring dairy and gluten-free options, Gary’s response showed his creativity and flare. And – oh my – the nurturing details of the cabin estate in the woods – scented candles punctuating the smell of fresh flowers in vases on all surfaces, napkins wherever food was present, and tissues waiting for a tear.  

I remember searching the faces for the dear familiar smiles and take time to think about the sparkle of eyes, the curve of cheeks, and the words spoken in greeting. And I think through first impressions of those I met for the first time. There were only eleven of us, so it doesn’t take long to work through the newly dear faces and to add them to the now familiar family of the Society of Wade’s Writers.

There is the look of contained fear in the eyes of the new attendees as they realize they actually will be expected to read their own work out loud in front of us at some point over the weekend. Horrors! And that is matched by the look of eager anticipation of those who have experienced the sacred safety of this group who want the gentle helpful feedback from fellow writers.

The writing itself is the power memory. Stories that tell of failed parenting mix with those of beloved, almost supernatural animal partners. Chevys at levees with good old boys drinking whiskey and rye are blended with the shock and horror of lower Manhattan on September 12, 2001. Fiction that draws on life experiences with love and rejection, remarkable dialogue that sparkles with authenticity, and the heart filled description of the power of a first kiss. And the raw voices of relationship pain punctuated with well-placed “fucks” demonstrate the power of that noun/verb/adjective/exclamation.

Memory secure, I can move to unpacking the last 48 hours of driving that included a quick visit to the old hometown. The magnetic draw was one of the most perfect babies ever – my great nephew Nash Alleshouse – with his shock of black spikey hair and cherubic cheeks. His parents are appropriately in love with their firstborn and there are doting grandparents and relatives surrounding them to provide the all-important support during that first year without an instruction manual.

After an all-too-quick visit with dear lifelong friends – and a great Reuben sandwich – we were back on the road through rainstorms that…

Well, never mind. That is the beauty of the unpacking exercise.  I don’t have to unpack memories I don’t need to remember. Why clutter the future with any recollection of barely visible highways behind huge trucks spewing spray?