Last month I attended my first in-person writing residency in Knoxville, Tennessee. On my way out the door, I told my spouse that I wasn’t interested in updates while I was away. During the few trips I took pre-pandemic, I would begrudgingly spend an hour on the phone listening to him detail the minutiae of what chores were completed, which kids had a tantrum, and other everyday mundanities. Now it was my first time out of the house in over a year and the thought of these calls strummed the thick bands of tension around me. I didn’t care what happened while I was away, short of death or explosion. I didn’t want anything to detract from the little sliver of freedom I was claiming for myself.
I arrived at the Knoxville airport in the dead of night, and after an hour waiting in line for my rental car, I drove through the thick dark toward my destination. I don’t like driving in a new place at night, especially after I’ve spent a full eight hours traveling. I don’t know where I’m going in the first place and the possibility of getting lost seems only greater when it’s nighttime. But I had no choice. I braced myself, the air conditioner blasting in my face, as I sped down the poorly lit highway, toggling my high beams on and off the whole way.
The last leg of the journey was the most painful. Arriving to a series of narrow, winding backroads, I crawled along them through a dark that had somehow gotten blacker, thicker, and more ominous. I was practically hugging the steering wheel by the time I pulled into a space next to the farmhouse where I’d be staying for the week.
There’s one sound that I love just as much as the rain hitting a rooftop, and that’s quiet. Not just quiet without sound, but one that’s filled with the natural noise of insects and creeping things, if that makes sense. A quiet that’s devoid of traffic noises and construction. A quiet that’s empty enough so that I can spill my pent up thoughts into it.
Stepping out of my rental into a quiet humming with crickets and the whispered sound of a breeze, I heard myself exhale, then felt all of my tension unravel at my feet. I left it there in the gravel. It would be impossible to pick it up again.
For seven days I spent an hour in the morning playing farmer. I fed, watered, and loved on a small herd of sheep and two kind dogs. I then trudged uphill to feed, water, and dodge a number of rambunctious chickens and ducks before collecting their eggs. That was the extent of my responsibility during the residency. It was a writing residency, but I didn’t have to write. In the absence of my usual responsibilities, I went hiking. I picked blackberries when I wanted a snack. I walked up and down the road and took photos. I sat on the front porch in a rocking chair and waved to people speeding by. I talked to the skink that slid out from its hiding place on the porch to sunbathe every day at noon. At night, I marveled at the fireflies filling the air.
Of course, I wrote too. Complete essays and stories, the drafts of others, and an outline for a novel. I journaled more in one week than I had in the months leading to the residency.
I was amazed at how much I was able to write. More than that, I was amazed at how much doing nothing, just sitting, rejuvenated me. I had time for everything and myself. I also had time to laugh and mhmm over the parenting foibles my spouse experienced while I was gone. I was eager to hear my children tell me every little detail about the day when I called.
A lightness had entered me and filled up the spaces now emptied of tension. It wasn’t just tension from traveling to the farmhouse, but tensions from being cooped up in the house for too long. Tensions from trying to safely raise healthy kids in a pandemic. Tensions from feeling the distance between myself and the world that I was trying to connect to through digital scapes.
Down in a holler in Tennessee, where the sun stayed in the sky late into the evening, tension didn’t exist. There was room for everything good and wonderful.
June and July TBR:
Sonic Memories and Other Essays (essays) by Cija Jefferson
homegirls & handgrenades (poetry & essays) by Sonia Sanchez
House of Delusion (graphic novel) by Goo Hyunseong
The Underground Railroad (novel) by Colson Whitehead
My Begging Chart (autobio comics / graphic memoir) by Keiler Roberts
Somebody’s Daughter (memoir) by Ashley C. Ford
The Bug Club (graphic novel) by Elise Gravel