By Jackie McManus
In 2010, I was going through something—a transition, maybe—to see what the next chapter held for me. As I was browsing the internet I came across a site that read, Hike Mt. St. Helen’s on Mother’s Day in honor of your mom and call her from the top. Wear a dress. Because I was struggling through my own personal mountain at the time, I thought: This. Sounds. Perfect.
Along with 199 other people—that’s what the permits would allow on the mountain that day—I hiked with men and women, every one of us in dresses with hiking boots and crampons and pick axes. I made the hike on about two hours of sleep in my tent at the base of the mountain. But I hiked off that mountain seven hours later, better.
When I moved to Wisconsin last year to help my mother, who just turned 86, it was difficult for me to leave my beloved Northwest. Again I researched…and found Cirenaica. Cirenaica means “siren of the sea” so this time it wasn't land, but water. This time it wasn’t hiking boots and a pick axe but pen and paper. And because there was no mention online of bug spray or deerflies, I told myself "I'm in."
In Montana and Washington where I've lived, I couldn’t touch the quality of this type of writing retreat. They were all beyond my teacher’s budget. But because Cirenaica wasn’t, and because I was drawn to the quality of the people facilitating the retreat, I get to carry with me some wonderful moments: of walking in the door early in the morning to nothing but hot coffee, a jar of candy, and people silently writing in their spaces. I once taught Kindergarten so silence is no small thing. There's no feeling like walking in that door because the air in the early morning is nearly tangible, thick but not empty, the feeling something is happening that you want to be a part of, that you are instantly grateful you are.
This July Max Garland took us on a hike to Big Falls on the Eau Claire River, a spot I had never seen. There we found baby caterpillars, one of whom we named Cirne, our retreat mascot. I offered to carry Cirne back to the lodge and I was okay sitting in the back seat of Max’s car until Cirne woke up and began crawling around the edges of her leaf. I thought oh no. What if I lose our mascot or worse, she gets squished and then Max will never speak to me again and he will go home and write a poem of lament and on and on… But then I remembered that I was riding in Max Garland’s car. At a writing retreat. I could do anything. Even safely see Cirne through his transition to a Monarch butterfly.
Back in the Northwest, I’d belonged to two writing groups. Additionally, I’d helped facilitate a community read at an art center and attended open mics. But no matter how we marketed these events, attendance always remained pretty disappointing. I have been nothing but surprised to discover a really large writing community in Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire and not just that, but that there is room for me in it. In the Northwest, it felt like the spaces were all filled, but here, for me, somehow there's room.
Cirenaica has in some way become my Mt. St. Helen's. I came for four days and left, better. I left with better strategies, better poetry, a better spirit.