next you're dazzled by the beauty of it all

At the conclusion of a little writing circle on Saturday morning, I told everyone to go outside and flop onto the sand, or run into the ocean, or do anything they wouldn't usually do to shock their physical state.

My third year at the Serendipity Retreat was a daily beachside explosion of grits and girls and pages and cameras and it was bawdy and loud and earnest and full of monstery truths. It always is, the perfect shock.

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Between workshops (I was teaching while eyeing all the others) and private shows and unending feasts I would steal away to the beach or down the road a ways, because within a house or two away from one of ours, I was a stranger in North Carolina. I needed the space to feel lucky, to look for coyotes, to get my energy back up after long days of experience-making. Funny, how it drains you and feeds you at the same time. Sometimes you escape from solitude. Sometimes you escape to it.

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I can be withdrawn and overly thinky, but not with these women. Not anymore. God, we laugh. In the first two years they made me laugh when laughing felt impossible. They are growly and expansive, embracing and dismissive of all the right things. They waved illusions away with one hand while making get over here gestures with the other.

I wanted to be there this year in a way that might return that favour to someone who needed it. I think I might have, and it was something, you know, to see from this side how little we know of how lovely we are when afraid, doubtful, conflicted, up to our necks in regret and hesitation. Everyone was so beautiful.

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I didn't know I could hula-hoop. I can. Both ways.

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This place makes me long for more beloved people to be here because I know they'd jump in too, but at the same time, everyone who was supposed to be there was there. I wished, but nothing was missing.

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Teaching teaches me, though to call it 'teaching' isn't quite right. But maybe it is. I always start off heavy, with a cast-iron pot of the required stuff of aperture and directional light and focusing modes. I begin as a school marm, a hardass, because I still believe inspiration is rootless without the language to self-diagnose. Then we play, and I sprint from one shoot to another and it's exclamation marks all over the place, and that's when they teach me.

Jen and Michelle made this happen. I would see them drifting through, embracing people, quietly following along, ushering, and we would catch eyes and smile. Those two.

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Arabella and I ride together whenever we can, as we did the first moment I landed in Norfolk three years ago. We knew each other instantly. We always go for a walk when it's all done, watching fishermen and surfers, bundling our shirts full of shells. We spent the whole way back to the airport eating enchiladas and weeping. The good kind of both. We talked about our kids, loves, losses. She lay it on me that she sings opera. I told her about how I can eat a box of crackers all by myself. She gave me rose balm. Her nails were so perfectly red.

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I saw Hannah and Maddie, my partners in teaching and in our cottage along with Jen, on the beach before we drove away. I knew I wouldn't see them again until next year—not properly, like that. Everyone was splintering then, racing for flights. Again, the three of us knew each other instantly. I can't wait for more sage smoke and green tea and clothes-swapping, for everything that's both more girly and more profound than I ever expected. It always turns out that way on this beach.

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