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The Week In Retreat

Thanks to my book, the Academy of American Poets gifted me a solid week writing retreat at the historic and gorgeous Betsy Hotel on Miami Beach, Florida.

I haven’t had any kind of vacation or relief from my weekly patterns since the pandemic and more than anything looked forward to getting out of my life and my head for a while, just to think and write. An overwhelmingly encouraging gift considering where I came from as a poet, the path taken to get here. To think of the bars– both good and gnat infested, the cafes and clubs and theaters, the showcase performances, and the empty venues… to here: a writer/artist friendly hotel across the street from the beach that keep as room just for writers and a fully stocked library for all guests.

Truth told, my first couple of days I slept. The combination of jet lag and the comforting silence of being somewhere else– a beautiful somewhere.

Each morning, I rose an hour before sunrise and walked to the beach. Of the varieties of people in the world, there are those who line up at ocean’s edge for the sunrise or the sunset. Over the past year or so, I’ve enjoyed writing mornings in an office conference room while the sun mounted the sky outside. So in Miami, I became a regular worshipper with the guests of the ocean at daybreak. At the shoreline there were regulars I always saw: the man with the chihuahua who slept overnights in the warm sand; men collecting trash in huge clear sacks, beach combing trucks sifting the sandy topsoil, unrelated men wiuth matching metal detectors, then chains of birds– plovers, pelicans, then gulls–all seeming to appear at the same time each morning as if a class just let out. We were the only consistent thing. Poet Richard Blanco pointed out the ocean is different everyday. So first day the wind throttled up and rattled the palm trees. The next the ocean appeared flat as if ironed and looked walkable without need for holiness. The next it rained and the wind was furious combing the beach before the shift of trucks arrived and throwing waves like sheets for a huge bed. At the horizon line, different routes of cargo ships and varied recipes of fog. I walked for exercise infrequently since it was so humid and the first morning walk I took I looked at if I’d been swimming. Not that anyone noticed or cared. Wishing I had the knees to run but felt content that I didn’t. Afterwards, I’d return to the hotel for breakfast then finally settle in the library or lobby and write for as long as I wanted, for as long as the words compelled me. Then I’d curl up in bed with wifi reception that made me blush with envy, angry over the service I paid for at home– service they dared charge extra for if I was ever paid late, whether I felt bitter over outages or not.

Near the end of my week, I was invited to read for a bunch of students at Barry University. The day after the Easter holiday and campus Holy Week. The 11am call time left me suspicious the event would have any audience at all, but the room eventually filled with incredibly beautiful students, a mix of cultures and races, and ever face seemed open and receptive. I read alongside two Miami based poets: First, Geoffrey Philip an incredible and prolific Jamaican born writer, then Rebecca “Butterfly” Vaughns, a truly dedicated spoken word artist who fascinated me due to her technique of working spontaneous as a jazz musician, never repeating a poem twice yet being a couple decades deep in the game. As soon as we shook hands, she mentioned something about Overtown, of which I had to pause her and admit to having no clue as to what that was.

How long are you here for?

I leave in the morning.

Then, here’s what I’m thinking, she said. I’ll take you through there this afternoon then drop you off at your hotel after.

…Which is exactly what she did. But first, the reading: (here’s hoping embedding my recording of it works)

Though I did read last and for apparently 15 minutes, it felt truncated and I kept numbly announcing to people, ‘I expected to work harder.’ I got through the poems and the room seemed to absorb them instantly. The faces of the black and brown and white students and faculty were so loving and beautiful, I wanted to empty myself for them. But the host reminded me the students needed to push on to their afternoon classes, so I performed poems with some edge then finishing my set with ‘pretty language’. I watched the events’ host standing all the way in back and performed for her– sending my voice to her clearly as I could, and felt encouraged by her listening face, so stunned and accepting.

I felt stunned to when the hour was just over and we were done and the room rose and vacated, leaving the poets, the pair of musicians working the reception, and what few faculty and teachers attended in person. I was told the event was live streamed which made me feel a little better– a wider audience than expected (having never been to Miami much less read for any of its residents). So the bulk of my time was spent chatting and sipping wine (ok, water) and nibbling cheese and fancy cold cuts (which I packed and saved for my afternoon snack back at the hotel). It was deeply coincidental me participating in a conversation that veered into family then grief and loss of parents. To think: of course this conversation would sprout around me. For better or worse we do manifest events in our own lives, don’t we? We do attract what we spend time thinking about whether we want to or not. Yet I appreciated chit-chatting at a cocktail party and have tears brought to surface and have them be accepted if not welcomed.

As promised, once the teachers and staff returned to work, Butterfly as promised led me out to her car then drove us to Overtown, the part of Downtown Miami she said she grew up in and the part of town that influenced much of her poetic work. Just at the edge of Downtown, Overtown was the African American part of town, infused with deep history like the Fillmore in San Francisco. She parked and grabbed her umbrella and led me on a private walking tour of the area’s historically preserved buildings, technicolor murals, theaters and clubs. She gave a fully knowledgeable tour, her history impeccable, unimpeachable. My heart blossomed over her kindness and she treated me as if we’d known one another for decades, then indeed, drove me back to the hotel, past a series of docked cruise ships and the Kaseya Center. I gave her copy of my book then ran through thick sheets of rain to the hotel lobby, staff wrapping me up mummy-style in towels. The rain was torrential and I loved it. I felt a great charge of love between the reading, her generosity, the week in Florida. I got out of the shower feeling genuinely renewed and tried to not think too much about returning home the next day. Home. Whatever that meant.

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