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Here I am, on retreat again.

One year has elapsed since the Muse woke me up on retreat in San Diego, delivering For the Sake of One We Love and Are Losing. At the time, I felt cocooned. The coronavirus seemed faraway, and though I was tracking the outbreak, I didn’t anticipate a full-blown pandemic. Nor did I appreciate how seriously the social ills in my country would complicate its response to the virus, if it ever spread here.

How sorry I am to have been so wrong.

Over the past year, I’ve inscribed countless messages of care and encouragement on books for dispirited readers. I’ve answered a river of emails. I’ve sent Staying Power every Sunday. I’ve written poems. In troubled times like these, words can feel like chaff in the wind. Yet words are what I most have to offer. I must have faith in them.

Coming on this retreat, just 45 minutes away from home  in Sioux Falls, was itself an act of faith. I rise each morning, anxious to work. No email, no social media, just me and this patchwork quilt of a manuscript. I’m pleased with my progress, piecing it together. Yet, if I’m honest, after eleven months of pandemic isolation, this ten-day dive into solitude and silence feels rather like a bellyflop.

I’m emotionally spent. Since my father’s death in January from COVID-19, Mom has been hospitalized twice with pain in her chest and shortness of breath. The pandemic has put her, like so many elders, through the proverbial wringer. Resilient as she is, she sometimes can’t talk on the phone without breaking into tears.

“Go ahead and cry,” I tell her. “If I were there with you, we wouldn’t have to talk. We’d just—”

“Hold each other,” she says, finishing my sentence.

But I’m not there. And I can’t hold her. Not in the way we both want. Not in the way we need.

Since coming on retreat, I’ve been dreaming of the dead—Dad and old teachers, mostly, alive and well. I’m thrilled to see them, to be with them, and (more rarely) to touch or be touched by them. Yet I can’t quite make sense of them. They show up in places they don’t belong. They speak words I can’t understand. They look at me as if I’m not who I was.

They’re right, of course. I’m not who I was. None of us are. This pandemic is reshaping us. We won’t be able to gauge just how we’ve changed, or how much, until we gain the perspective of time. But I’ve caught a couple glimpses in the mirror as my midwinter retreat draws toward a close. It stands in stark contrast with previous retreats, especially last year’s. Those ten days remain luminous in memory, coming as they did, just before the world utterly changed. In juxtaposition, how could this retreat in Sioux Falls not seem dim?

I feel a bit lost. I know exactly where I am in this manuscript. I know exactly where I am in this town. Yet I’m less at ease here than I ever was in San Diego, where I had no blueprint for the novel I was drafting, and I had to ask directions to the nearest grocery store.

I experience my sense of displacement in my body as a hollowness in my chest, a fuzziness behind my eyes. But when I trace the sensation further in, I pass into a soft, dense fog of melancholy, formed in the chill of isolation. I hadn’t known it was there.

Typically I luxuriate in “alone time,” but I’m no hermit. In San Diego, when weary of my own company, I’d slip on a jacket and head to the beach to people-watch. I’d indulge in meandering strolls, exchanging pleasantries with residents hanging out in their yards. Here in Sioux Falls, I have no beaches and, in this arctic cold, no walks. But even if the weather did let me venture out, if I met with anyone on the sidewalk, I’d jaywalk across the street to avoid them.

Maybe this is one change the pandemic has wrought in me: I need to be around people more than I used to, and I can’t.

If human presence is a key ingredient missing from this retreat, another is the stimulation of new surroundings. Travel is an encounter with novelty. It always shakes me up like a happy can of soda. When the Muse pops me open, creativity explodes, and the fizz outlasts the foam.

Take me far enough away, then plonk me down among the locals. Let me bask in their music. Let me savor their food. Let me soak up how they talk and dress and dance. Let me lose myself in their wild places. Let me laze in their cafés. Let me see how they toss their children into the air, and how they tell stories, and how they wipe away each other’s tears. Let me hear how they sigh when the sun goes down. Let me fall in love with them and, through them, with the world again. Falling in love, I can’t help but write.

Diversity catalyzes my spirit. Monotony puts me to sleep. If I were to stay much longer within these bland gray walls in Sioux Falls, in the coldest season of the year, in the middle of a pandemic, I’d enter hibernation.

So long as I’m awake, though, I’ll be watching for the Muse. Even as I write these words, I can feel her hanging around, just out of sight. Can’t you?

Don’t worry that she hasn’t made a dramatic appearance, like last year. How the Muse comes depends on what she’s bringing. She doesn’t carry stardust the way she carries fire.

Patience, my friend. It’s time to exercise our staying power. The Muse is a lot like life. She doesn’t like to be rushed.

Or could it be that, by sleight of hand, the Muse has already brought her gift, and she’s just waiting for us to find it?

Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai has authored or edited eleven books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. She lives in Brookings, South Dakota, USA.