“A mother must put on her oxygen mask first, in order to be able to help her children” – I see this instruction on airplanes as an appropriate metaphor for feminist mothering. Mothers, empowered, are able to better care for and protect their children. – Andrea O'Reilly
Two weeks ago I left Peanut in the care of his dad and nonna and attended a six-day writing retreat in the mountains of Casentino, Tuscany. It was glorious.
Australian writer Lisa Clifford runs her Art of Writing retreats twice a year, in June and September, out of the Residence e B&B Il Borgo in Caiano, about 15 minutes from Consuma. Full disclosure: I occasionally work for Lisa, mainly updating her website.
The B&B is a restored farmhouse with about 10 apartments, so the group was wonderfully intimate - 13 in total, including the teachers. And we all connected right away. There was a really great vibe with no negative nancys to disturb the equilibrium. We may have even been too kind to each other. No one ever criticized anyone else's work. Yet so many of us hesitated to even call ourselves writers - I think one wrong comment could have sent us running for the hills. Everyone also got plenty of useful suggestions for improvement during their one-on-one sessions with the author-teachers.
One of the best parts was learning about other people's stories. There was the serene woman from California who talks to dead people and looks incredible for her 70 years, with pink streaks in her hair. There was the firecracker Australian woman who grew up in the bush, with incredible spark and determination despite a life marked by tragedy. And there was the British woman with the poise of a fifties-era film star writing an account of having raised kids in Baghdad.
Although I didn't submit any work ahead of time like the others, I did end up starting a piece I wasn't expecting to write, and learned so much from the daily workshops and classes led by Lisa and prolific novelist Jane Corry.
Each afternoon we had private time, and I got into the habit of taking a walk through the woods and the lovely grounds of the B&B before sitting down to write.
Lisa had to join us a day and a half into the program due to a death in her family, and although the group had already bonded there was a tangible shift after she arrived, like the key piece of the puzzle was now in place. Not only is she passionate about shepherding other writers but she is profoundly attached to Casentino - her husband's birthplace and the setting for her third book. We could not have asked for a better, more informed and enthusiastic guide to our temporary home.
Ombretta and Roberto - the owners of Il Borgo - became like our parents, fussing over us and making sure we stayed well fuelled and comfortable. Ombretta is an amazing cook who adds exotic ingredients like curry and ginger to traditional Italian standards. She was often asked to share her recipes, and I see an Art of Writing cookbook in her future.
We disconnected for one afternoon and ventured through the surrounding area, with Lisa as our guide. Out first stop was Martha Specht Corsi's Porciano Castle, which I have visited before - 19 years ago! Martha taught cooking classes at SACI in Florence when I studied there and she'd invite students to visit her castle. It was pretty wild to return after all this time.
Then we visited Lorenzo Cipriani on his farm to watch him make pecorino cheese, which we proceeded to consume along with fat, juicy tomatoes right from his garden and gorgeous prosciutto from his pigs.
Casentino itself is a really special place, unlike anywhere else in Tuscany. At an elevation of 3400 feet, you rarely see cypress trees, olive groves or vineyards - it's mainly evergreen-filled mountains, which I hear get pretty spectacular when the leaves change. As the site where St. Francis of Assisi received his stigmata and Dante wrote part of his Divine Comedy, it has long been known as a meditative place. I especially loved how truly closed off from the world we were inside our little patch of forest, miles from the closest town. Hauling up in the middle of the mountains like that did wonders for my creative soul.
What do you use as your oxygen mask?