As I sit here with my coffee at 7 AM on a Monday, after a long intense weekend, I really don’t know where to begin with any of it. It was like a vivid dream, and I’m kind of unsure of whether or not any of it really happened…
I’ve been somewhat “stranded” in South Carolina for the last few months, since the Folk U bus decided to poop its pants and pout, refusing to take us any further until German rebuilds the engine. And I say “stranded” only because, born and raised in the mid-west, being marooned in the sunny warm south for the winter isn’t exactly torture. We’ve been in situations like this before, where we’ve had to come up with a big chunk of money before we can continue whatever journey we’re on. Our solution for this particular challenge: German has been working with a day labor place (work that day, get paid that day), and I’ve been slingin’ tunes around the music scene.
I had discovered Awendaw Green while doing the usual research of the area, and was able to score a spot playing in the Barn Jams. Awendaw Green is a beautiful and artistic community settled near the edge of Francis Marion National Forest – their “resident musician” is the incredible Danielle Howle. When I confirmed the Barn Jams gig, Danielle had invited me to an “originals only” open mic she runs in Charleston on Tuesday nights called “Holy City Confessionals“.
The moment I met this woman I fell in Love. Her warm welcome, the sheer energy of her, the way she seemed to have down-to-earth no-bullshit approach Love and kindness, her open-hearted invitation to share my songs, the feisty fierce creature she was, and the high level of awesome in her music…it’s easy to love that kind of an Individual. As I learned a bit more about her music and history, I felt as though we must have similar Muses speaking to us – our musics have a common odor, a common stink of self-awareness, we both sing stories of the Journey, of self-evolution and finding that inner contentment.
I watched her on stage, noticing a similar fierceness in the delivery as my own, and felt as though I was looking at myself, 15 years from now.
It was Danielle who had invited me to the Swamp Sessions. It’s a 3-day songwriting retreat, at a solar-powered swamp house, who-the-hell-knows-where, deep in the Francis Marion National Forest. Essentially the idea is to retreat to a natural setting and spend some time working on music, along with other songwriters and creative people. After some contemplation on logistics and whether or not I should go, I decided to take advantage.
I hitched a ride there on Friday morning with a laid-back dude named Fleming Moore. I met Fleming at the open mic, he had been hooking me up with some gig opportunities through his own awesome “Bummerville” musical endeavor. A super-chill, Awakened individual in his mid-late 50s, Fleming’s music makes you feel like you’re chillin’ on a back porch, sippin’ tea and sharing stories, jamming out on old guitars with dirty strings.
We listened to good music and swapped life stories as we drove along in a caravan of creatives, Danielle leading the way deep into the forest. The moment we were off the main roads I lost reception on my phone, a thing I had a feeling would happen. After a few long and bumpy dirt roads, we came upon the solar-powered swamp house that was to be our home for the next 3 days. I was told we were alone for at least a hundred acres in any direction.
I was in a foreign place in the middle of nowhere with people I barely knew. Thankfully the people around were good, kind people, whose welcome felt like a warm invitation for me to let go and let life happen. I won’t lie though: it took me damn-near 24 hours to adjust to not having phone service.
Friday was about getting settled into the new environment. The house was beautifully eclectic, filled with instruments and trinkets and so many remnants of those who had come and gone over the years. I was given a bed in a cozy wooden room, and there was a homemade meal being prepared as people arrived and settled in. Before dinner, we gathered as a group for a short welcome and introductions, along with discussion about how the weekend would go.
Danielle had lovingly set up a nature walk for us to go on, in our own time. It was around a half mile long, and had 8 stations – each of which had spot to sit and reflect and do a bit of writing. After the gathering and while the meal was being cooked, I decided the nature trail would be a good way to start. The love and care she brought to setting up the walk for us was done with great Intention, and it was breath-making to see the swamp through her eyes. We had been given a small packet of guidance to inspire us along the way:
Excerpt from station 3, “The Realm of Trees”
“Enter the circle of trees and have a seat. You are now going into the forest without a road, but a path. You may still hear people in the distance playing music, laughing, and being happy. You are not alone, and yet you are!! Let the circle of trees become your home for the next 5-10 minutes. Write now what trees and this forest mean to you. Do not edit yourself or try to form rhymes or anything like that! Let it flow kinda how trees do in the wind, with no self-judgement. Just enjoy the moment and fact that you are a viable, creative force and that there is no right or wrong way to go about the writing process. It’s all about your willingness to be present in the moment and enjoy your surroundings. If there is anything you would like to say regarding trees or forests, now is the time to write that down.”
Danielle had a small crew with her, to assist in the workshops and in overall hospitality and comfort of the Artists: a few folks to assist with recording, someone to stay on top of meals and home up-keep, someone to guide us in yoga, a kayaking/land guide…I felt well taken care of. After a kick-ass spaghetti dinner and a few lengthy jams around the fire, I poured myself into bed and drifted off to the sounds of people laughing and making music.
As with much in the Universe, I too go through forms of evolution. I use my songwriting as tool for that self-evolutionary process. The thing is though: as I evolve, so does my songwriting. As it turns out, I happen to be at one of those evolutionary points in my life, and I can feel that shift in my songwriting happening – I no longer have the previous outlook, yet I’m unsure of what the new outlook is.
The retreat provides the freedom to focus on what you feel you want to focus on; whether you’ve got something you’ve been working on and want some input, or a song you’ve finished and just want to polish up, or perhaps write something from scratch, or maybe even just be around creative people in a creative environment for the weekend.
I had a mellow finger-picky song that was at “almost done” status. It’s a song meant to help me stop and be still, and to wish for an overall peaceful Journey – the goal being to keep it mellow and let the vocals and guitar flow gently, like the voice of a meditation guide. I had been having trouble fleshing out a structure for it though, didn’t know if maybe another verse was needed, wondering if I’m overthinking it. Aside from that song, I have this other song that I feel has the potential to be quite powerful. In my own personal life Story at the moment, an absurd fear of my own power and beauty seems to be plaguing me; this song marvels at that absurdity, and questions why. I happened to have these “works in progress”, and thought that perhaps my presence at the retreat during a time of change in my songwriting was meant to be.
Because I’ve been struggling with this weird scared-of-my-own-prowess thing, I felt like I really needed that second song to come out pronto. Early on Saturday, after a lengthy cup of coffee and morning ritual with a very cool dude called Z, I grabbed my guitar and sat by the water with the intention of working on it and getting most of it done, so it would just need some polishing on Sunday and could potentially get recorded. I jammed on it a bit, I did get a few more lines down, but stopped when it started to feel forced. I tinkered on other things for a while, then stepped away from it.
There wasn’t exactly what you would call a “schedule” for this retreat, or any meticulously structured “workshops”. It was more like stations and resources were set up to be ready and available to us, and we were free to utilize them throughout the weekend as we saw fit. At any given time, I could choose between:
- songwriting nature walk workshop
- jamming around the fire
- assisting other songwriters with their tunes
- helping out with food or clean-up
- or simply being alone with my thoughts and my music
Amidst the shuffling about of all the stuff and things, Danielle made it a point to make herself available to anyone who desired her assistance or input throughout the weekend. She took great care in making herself available to each of the dozen-or-so songwriters as individuals, giving one-on-one time, sometimes even at the expense of her own sleep and self-care.
After that short songwriting session with myself, I spent the rest of Saturday immersing myself in all the goodies the retreat had to offer. Throughout each endeavor – whether I was jamming with someone by the fire, hanging out in the kitchen, recording some guitar on someone’s song, helping someone out with song structure, or teaming up with Danielle to help a friend find the music for her words – I came to know some truly wonderful individuals, and by the end of the night I was a part of this small little family community in the middle of the woods.
Saturday night I was plagued with nightmares, which made for a restless sleep. I awoke at sunrise and felt like I needed to have my coffee alone that morning. I took my notebook, coffee, and other morning essentials to a spot over by the edge of the creek to be Alone. It was the spot where we had done yoga the day before, and it also served as “station 1” on Danielle’s nature walk. An old wooden chair was settled under a berry tree that she called “the year-round Christmas tree”, and I sat there and gradually shook off the nightmare’s effects on me.
About halfway through my coffee, I went and grabbed my guitar, deciding to try and work on that song. This was it, it was Sunday, and I’d be going home before the day’s end. Now was the time to finish that song.
I jammed on it a little bit, but not much. As I listened to the early morning songs of dozens of invisible birds, I took my time communing with the trees and the swampy waters. Something told me that song wasn’t right for the moment, and I began tinkering on the finger-picky one. The one that requires open stillness, and a meditative voice.
As I sat with no expectations, crying every so often over the struggle to accept that which is already perfect, I listened to the bird songs. I listened to the whispy whispers of the trees in the breeze. I listened to the humming of the Earth, felt Her endless movement beneath my toes. The word “Universe” literally means “one song” – and I Listened, to the sound of the One Song. My song revealed itself within, as a part of the One Song, as with all songs. All of a sudden I no longer struggled with the structure, because it had revealed itself to me in full. A 3rd verse even revealed itself to me, and the song as whole came together beautifully. As I finished the song, the swamp told me “Yes! That’s it! Well done!” and I cried tears of joy and gratitude.
There I was, thinking I’d be working on a certain song that’s gonna teach me it’s ok to be beautiful…and it turns out the swamp wanted me to be still, to finish another song about being Here and Now in stillness. It was in that Here-and-Now, listening to my *new song within the One Song, that I felt safe to be beautiful. The swamp told me “The other song will come in its own time, but for this moment Now…be Here, and Now, and let yourself be a beautiful part of the One Song.
Although I don’t typically record songs without fully nurturing them first, I went ahead and had it recorded. It was a little rough – shaky fingertips, somewhat hesitant vocals that sound as though they may cry at any moment – but I got it down and I’m glad. I moved on from there to continue with the usual goings on of swamp sessions; playing around on songs of others, picking things up or putting them away, laying in the hammock and daydreaming.
I had found a guest book on the kitchen table, containing entries from those who have come and gone since around 2011. It was easily the most beautiful tome I had ever held in my hands, containing such beautiful stories of those who have been effected by the magic of the place. Of course, I left my ink of Love and gratitude as well.
As I readied myself for departure, I passed the hugs around to my new friends. I got to spend a few moments with Danielle to thank her, and told her how incredibly full my heart was. We chatted for a little while, swapped a few stories, made a little video testimonial of my time at the swamp, then hugged each other and cried over the magnificent beauty of things…and of ourselves.
Fleming and I drove the journey back to Summerville. As we pulled into the driveway and I saw the Folk U bus, I couldn’t help but feel like it was all a dream somehow.
It seems that’s part of the power of the retreat, and the magic of the swamp house. It’s there to be what you need it to be. No more, no less. It’s a hotbed of energetic activity, there’s something real there, something measureable in the ground, embedded in the trees, transmitting through the waters like sonar. It’s a sanctuary for reflection, for nourishment of the soul and senses, a place to disconnect in order to promote Connection. The sheer gratitude I have in my heart is uncomfortable, there is simply no room in my chest cavity to manage it. I’m grateful to Danielle, and to all of my new friends who were there on their own Journeys alongside my own. And I am grateful to the swamp ❤
*Click here for a free download of the song I finished writing in the swamp, and click here to watch the video I made.