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Guest Post: Southern Inklings and a Texas Oasis (by R. M. Sanders)

[Editor’s note: On March 26-29 Laity Lodge welcomed us back to the Texas Hill Country for the 2nd annual Rabbit Room Retreat. The weekend was an enormous delight and today’s guest writer, Randi Sanders, recounts the experience.]

“Friendship arises out of mere companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves)

Our company of four – whom I shall refer to as Merry, Pippin, Bilbo and Frodo – consisted of two musicians, an aspiring writer, and an all-encompassing creative. For months we collaborated in anticipation of a retreat at Laity Lodge that, we hoped, would prove to be a unique and inspiring adventure. Having been at least ten years or more since I last attended a “retreat,” when Frodo mentioned this opportunity I agreed to go in blind enthusiasm. Graciously, all of our spouses indulged our whims – and off we went.

The journey started with a trunk full of luggage, guitars, and journals. Our cup holders were filled with caffeine and our hearts were full of joyful expectancy. Upon naively choosing the “scenic route,” we set out on a six hour drive down to what I would soon believe to be the most beautiful place in my entire home state. We made a few pit stops along the way, including an encounter with a kindly state trooper, the indulgence of a giant chicken-fried steak and equally giant chocolate meringue pie, and a plethora of bathroom breaks. Frodo, our elected chauffeur, suffers from two ailments: a right foot made of lead and a sugar intolerance, both of which caused many laughs.

Once we got out into the rolling green landscape of the Hill Country, where cell phone service is spotty at best, we were forced to rely on our rusty directional instincts. We drove down a winding dirt road, through a river, and as good adventurers eventually do, we discovered our oasis, a hidden gem of rustic luxury. Soon we would learn the truth of what J.R.R. Tolkien noted in his book The Hobbit when he said, “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.” 

The Lodestar House was reserved for our small group’s private use, a secluded structure at the top of the hill with ample bedrooms and a perfectly situated patio. When we first pulled up, I knew it the was an indicator of what the next few days had in store. After a little exploring, we made our way a quarter of a mile down to the main camp for dinner, which marked the official beginning of the weekend.

The retreat was hosted by The Rabbit Room, but beyond the names of the speakers and musicians, none of our company was entirely sure what to expect. I confess that I hoped to meet an eclectic assortment of people, partake in many delicious meals, absorb a wealth of information, and be inspired. All of my hopes were exceeded.

Our first evening’s lecture opened with Dr. Ralph Wood, the Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University, who is an author and a leading expert on the life and works of J.R.R. Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor. Dr. Wood led captivating discussions on both Tolkien and O’Connor, including at one point an informative piece on peacocks (which Merry and Frodo found extremely enlightening). One evening I had the privilege of sitting beside Dr. Wood at dinner. I was privileged to pick his brain on the Inkling’s debatable use of allegory and inquire about the hobbit to which he most related. Dr. Wood and his wife were a true delight, making for marvelous dinner partners.

In my humble opinion, singer-songwriter and author Andrew Peterson proved as fascinating and down-to-earth as I had imagined he would be. His talent stirred my heart. On the last day of our retreat, he was free long enough for me to ask a few questions I had regarding his books, The Wingfeather Saga. Peterson kindly indulged my curiosity about his characters and the surprising finale, as well as imparted various tips about writing that I will forever treasure. Also worth noting is the kindness and musical talent of his wife and three children, who participated in the weekend’s events and added a special facet to the experience.

Even more than before, I am convinced that nature is an unfailing muse. I could spend all day describing the enchanting Frio River with an abundance of adjectives, but suffice it to say I had no idea that Texas was capable of producing such clear emerald water. Each morning it held me in a trance as I stood on the deck, mesmerized by the sunrise reflecting off the surface. There were also unforgettable moments spent scaling walls of the Threshold, swimming in the frigid river, and climbing trees on mid-afternoon walks. Beyond that, hiking with Merry and Pippin proved to be a jolly event, filled with big belly laughs and exhausted lungs.

For someone who prizes sleep as highly as I do, I found little to no time for it. I was too eager to wake up before dawn and watch the sun illuminate the sky while enjoying a hot cup of coffee on the patio. But I was equally zealous to stay awake past midnight in the company of my friends who blessed me with the sound of their voices and guitars while I sat with my pen jotting away in an overflow of imagination. The moments felt so precious and sacred that I didn’t want to miss even one.

A unique activity at the retreat, led by a local artist, was to write on two wooden blocks. On the one, we were to write a single word that describes what hinders our creativity, and on the other block we were to write a word we wish to be removed from the lexicon. Then he constructed a tower (a “Tower of Babble,” he coined it) out of everyone’s blocks. The last evening, after an intimate concert hosted by Andrew Peterson, Andy Gullahorn, and Jill Phillips, we went outside where we found our Tower of Babble sitting on a spinning pottery wheel. And then the incredible happened – we lit it on fire. Watching our antagonists burn in a vortex of fire was a surprisingly liberating experience.

Afterwards I was able to snag the attention of A. S. “Pete” Peterson, and share with him my love for his character, Fin, in his books The Fiddler’s Gun and The Fiddler’s Green. He, too, graciously entertained all of my questions about his unexpected ending. He shared with me the remarkable conception of his books and ultimately encouraged me to “just write.” Peterson assured me that merely finishing a first draft is worth celebrating (and that they all kind of suck – but that’s normal – and they get better in the second and third refinements). He also urged me to embrace the reality that as my characters develop and take unexpected turns, my plot will too. Storytelling, I am learning, is an unpredictable experience that varies with each author’s journey.

I was also delighted to make the acquaintance of Jonathan Rogers, author of The Wilderking Trilogy. After just recently finishing the trilogy, I found myself curious about the inspiration of the feechiefolk, a tribe of semi-civilized swamp people who fight too much, cry too easily, and laugh at jokes they’ve heard a hundred times. In an entertaining tale I shall not soon forget, Rogers shared with me the exciting source of these feechiefolk.

My time at Laity Lodge was spent either in quiet solitude, allowing my thoughts to entirely engulf me, or within a milieu of interesting and insightful people. I had little to no concept of time; my days were dictated by the ringing of a bell which indicated meal time. Being Bilbo has its certain food-focused advantages – I am pleased to announce my success at eating about six times a day. There was no cell phone service. No television. No one locked their doors and we left our car keys in the floorboards.

So what I took home . . .

First, the understanding that all artists take their art very personally. It is nerve-racking to share that piece of yourself with others, especially for the first time. Vulnerability is scary. And although we ultimately create for the enrichment of others, we hope that others find our creation as precious as we do. Embracing the identity that Tolkien calls us to as “sub-creators” can be an overwhelming ambition. The doctrine of sub-creation was especially significant to Tolkien, both as a Christian and as a fantasy writer, because he viewed sub-creation as a form of worship, a way for creatures to express the divine image in them by becoming creators.

In addition to the challenge of aspiring to be a sub-creator, I learned that I can, and must, rely on my own Inklings for support. My own circle of creative friends provides me with a safe place to share my craziest ideas and the comforting knowledge that they’re just as crazy as I am. Frodo, Merry, and Pippin have become a small circle of brothers and sisters with whom I can be honest and vulnerable. As unlikely a group of friends as the Oxford Inklings were, our band of Southern Inklings are, I imagine, equally diverse.

I shall never forget the many micro moments that created a macro memory in my heart and mind. The experiences we shared at our Texas oasis will forever be memories that ignite laughter, imagination, and dreams.


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