just a week ago, i left beautiful squam lake after making it my home for five days. i think this might be the first time i’m even mentioning here that i finally attended SAW, known in craft parlance simply as “squam,” after years of dreaming and scheming. i learned of squam early in my knitting career, likely rooting around on other knitting blogs, and in the midst of that insanity (two infants, working 3-11p four nights a week and david in residency in our tiny apartment on the 15th floor in downtown chicago) it instantly became my quiet, happy place. there were times i was so wholly overwhelmed and overstimulated, i locked myself in the bathroom with my knitting and pretended i was there for a few minutes while my two babies screamed and cried and reached their pudgy hands under the door, grasping (i think) at my soul.
we’ve (thankfully) come a long way from that place in time, but i have continued to think of squam as my reverie, my launching pad and my incubator ever since. a year and a half ago, i took one of the online workshops offered, which led to an incredible, valuable friendship with elizabeth, the maestro herself. what can i say about this magical woman but that she has a unique ability to peer into the souls of others and see who they are in ways they cannot see themselves? she is full of light and love, and that is so evident in everything about squam.
and so, you can imagine my excitement to finally dip my toes in squam lake and lay eyes on this friend who has helped me navigate some of the deeper crevasses of my adulthood. of course, california is not chicago, and the journey both to and from squam lake was no small undertaking. but 14 hours of planes, layovers, a botched car rental and very expensive cab ride later, i could hear squam lake lapping against the boulders outside my window at 2am, 12 hours before the official start.
i purposely arrived early, because i did not want to miss a single moment, and because i asked elizabeth if i could help set up, because i wanted to meet her before the rush, because i’m a doer and wanted to be hands on, and because large groups of people make me melt into the floor, so anchoring myself among a few familiar faces i knew would go a long way in helping me feel comfortable the rest of the weekend.
after an hour of meeting and greeting at check in, which i really enjoyed, i made my way over to my cabin to unwind a bit. squam is all about unwinding. i was thoroughly charmed by everything around me–the huge, screened in porches, the ample inviting spaces to read, write, and make, the innumerable old rocking chairs, the private docks at each cabin, the cozy beds with down comforters and wool blankets, old books and hand drawn pictures left by previous guests, everything calling out to you, come, sit, rest. you are home.
i finished the only book i had brought within an hour or so, steven king’s on writing (excellent) to prep for the writing workshop i would take (turns out, reading fiction would have been wiser). at the first dinner, we sat with our class for the next day to get to know each other and break the ice a bit. i dined with the fabulous amy herzog, her sweet assistant jackie, and my 15 classmates, after which elizabeth gave a welcome speech and we retired to our cabins to knit by the fire until we fell asleep.
the next day, chilly and overcast, was a full day of class. amy’s workshop on fitting sweaters to your body shape was both enlightening and entertaining. she’s not only a masterful knitwear designer, but also a fantastic teacher. funny and witty with a hint of nerd (but a really cool, really relatable nerd), she took us through six hours of design elements, identifying body types, and how to marry the two for flattering garments. we tried on 50 sweaters, took photographs, made a croquis, identified our own body types, and in the latter part, discussed fabric, drape, color, balance, fibers, etc. as a knitter and as a seamstress, the whole class was incredibly interesting and informative.
that evening, we tapped a keg (squam also has a fair amount of drinking in moderation) and had a fascinating talk by jared flood about his path to where he stands now (knitwear designer and owner of brooklyn tweed). it was interesting to hear about his almost accidental road to brooklyn tweed, and inspiring to see such an accomplished young person who completely carved out his own career path that totally compliments his skills and passions. it was a poignant reminder that if you remain true to yourself, good things tend to follow.
the next two days were a nice balance of courses and free time. participants attend largely for the world class teachers, but the beautiful surroundings shouldn’t be overlooked, and squam is also all about rest. we had the morning off to hike, swim, kayak, or wile away in a lovely rocking chair, mesmerized by the lake. the sun came out, too. there were also optional lectures to attend, one of which was a compelling talk by barbara parry about her working fiber farm (i’m reading her book now and loving it).
that afternoon, i made my way to the opposite end of camp for a creative writing workshop with david anthony durham, acclaimed novelist, husband of gudrun johnston, and super cool guy. i had wanted to take all knitting classes at squam, but of course was late to turn in my requests, and wound up in writing instead. i shared this with gudrun in the lunch line to make conversation (because really, how does one strike up a casual conversation with gudrun johnston without sounding goofy? i opened with “i love your shirt.”), and when david began class by busting my balls with, “oh, you’re the one who wanted to take a class with my wife,” i knew we’d get along fine.
with all the writing i do, fiction is something i haven’t visited since elementary school. like many other art forms we enjoy unabashedly as children, fiction fell by the wayside (along with drawing and painting) as i gained mastery of other skills and interests. i find that when we do revisit these things we once enjoyed as children, we feel stiff and awkward and incapable, with an invisible jury present only in our minds judging us and reminding us of how foolish and untalented we are. we don’t have the same blissful ignorance we did as children, and we don’t want to try and risk ridiculousness. like many adults and scientists, both my age and my education have robbed me of any magical thinking, and as much as i love to write nonfiction, and to read fiction, writing fiction is a wholly uncomfortable, unnatural experience for me. i figured squam was as good a place as any to step outside my comfort zone.
unlike my knitting class, which was larger and lecture based, the writing class was quite intimate. i think there were only six of us, and it was made clear immediately that it was not a place for critiquing or criticizing, just a place to be playful and encouraging. we spent the first afternoon doing writing prompts, experimenting with characters and settings, and mostly letting go of inhibitions. it was not entirely pleasant for me, but the company was great. the next morning, we would return to write a story in two and a half hours. seriously.
i thought all night about my characters and my story. i kept thinking i had something good, but then i couldn’t figure out how to bring the pieces together, not in 2.5 hours. all of my situations were too complex. i was trying to stick to the maxim, “write what you know,” to make my job easier and my writing authentic. then, on my way to class the next day, within sight of the cabin where class was held, i thought of an ending, completely different from the other stories i had been exploring until then, and completely outside of anything i know or understand. without time to change my mind again, i worked backwards for the next few hours to get to that end (though when he called time, i was still a critical paragraph away from the ending!). it’s definitely a unique approach to a story, but a story it was, and i managed to do it on my terms. i had only one character, without a name or defined gender or age. i completely disregarded all the exercises we did the day before and basically broke all the rules of story writing. and it was dark, so dark that i won’t post it here, so dark that i had to preface reading it with an explanation to these near strangers that i’m actually a happy person, but i will say i was very moved by the response it received from my classmates, first silence, then approval, somebody even wept (yikes!). it was amazing listening to the unique stories everyone wrote, totally different ideas and genres from one another, not a single similarity between them, all produced from nothing in just 2.5 hours.
we had the afternoon off, which i spent unsuccessfully attempting to summit one of the nearby peaks for an ariel view of squam. i did a fair amount of trail running there, and i kept hearing people talk about these beautiful vistas i couldn’t reach for some reason, picking up the wrong trails, i guess. this particular route led me so high my ears were popping, and then inexplicably down into a swamp where i was swarmed by mosquitos and picked up a deer tick for good measure. defeated, covered in welts (including one that swelled my right eye shut), and possibly with Lyme diseases, i headed home to prep for the big art fair.
i got progressively worse about taking photos as the week went on, all the unpacking and repacking of my bag and keeping my shared living space free of my clutter was exhausting and i got tired of lugging around my giant camera. so, i have basically no photos of the art fair, but it was lovely…twinkly lights, beer, cake, ice lanterns and beautiful crafts and fibers. i don’t often buy things at art fairs because i can make much of it myself, but the caliber here was obviously pretty outstanding, and i was happy to support so many vendors who had over the course of the previous few days also become friends. as a result, i headed west not only with a dead tick (preserved cautiously in three sealed layers by my roommates for safe keeping, aren’t they wonderful), a live spider (that was a surprise), but also beautiful books with lovely messages written by their authors, skeins of yarn from sheep i feel i know personally, business cards of new friends and so many warm embraces.
the final morning was full of goodbyes, promises to keep in touch, exchanges of information. between my roommates, the people i met in class, my teachers, and trying to sit with new people at every meal, there were so many sincere farewells. fortuitously, our cabin all hailed from the bay area, and we all left together later in the afternoon, spending the morning making use of our personal dock and completing our assimilation with squam lake. and of course, i was not about to contract Lyme disease without getting to the top of a peak (it’s the pasture trail you want, fyi).
there was a lot of emphasis when we arrived about erasing expectations and coming in with a clean slate. with all the hype about lives being changed there, i can see why elizabeth stresses lowering expectations (it’s the key to happiness, right?). as somebody who makes that their life motto (and as a result, is generally quite content), it was easy for me to take several steps back and enjoy the journey. it’s the classes, yes, the incredible teachers, the talented, bright participants. but so much of the magic happens in between scheduled events. a sea of faces slowly becoming more familiar, the lake as a landmark and a lullaby, the clouds parting, the warmth of the sun spilling through, hundreds of hands busily stitching at every gathering, every meal, an icebox stocked each morning with chunks harvested from squam winter, fireplaces glowing, rocking chairs beckoning, screen doors slamming, loons calling, trees and boulders and dirt paths once indistinguishable, now street signs pointing you home, that new normal, that quiet, that solitude, that is what gets under your skin.
i dreamed of going for so long, and in my mind it would be many things throughout the years, an escape, a confidence booster, a question mark. as elizabeth said that first evening, every gathering is different. that group had never been together before and never would be again. the best approach is to lean back, perhaps in a large rocking chair, and see what takes shape before you. the treasures you carry home with you cannot possibly be predicted when you arrive, and perhaps might even be missed if you search too hard for them. i am still unearthing what the experience altogether meant to me, but i can say i succeeded in enjoying, relishing every moment of it.
to be surrounded not only by beautiful, quiet nature, but also by likeminded people without pretense, to speak fluently in terms of fiber content and gauge, to have a fresh, new, warm meal provided three times daily and a magical window where your dishes disappear without a trace, to vanish into the woods with the odd comfort that nobody knows where you are or when you might return, to lie, eyes closed on a dock without fear of a child drowning, to knit openly, publicly without ridicule, to be quiet, uninterrupted, rested and nourished, well, that was really grand.