On my 50th birthday, in keeping with tradition, I sent my mom flowers, and she sent me a birthday card with a lucky penny. I had been diagnosed at 32 with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and told I could realistically hope for five years, so turning 40 was a relief. Turning 50 was Everest. My unrealistic hopes for publishing worked out as well. My first novel was published during chemo. At 50, I was ghostwriting my 10th NYT bestseller and working on an essay collection called 50 is the New F#ck You that would pick up where my memoir Bald in the Land of Big Hair left off. My mom, a retired newspaper editor, was working on her second book, but she never finished it. 50 was my last lucky penny birthday. My brilliant mom—savant musician, deft poet, assiduous researcher—was sinking into the abyss of Alzheimer’s. For the next two years, I shuttled between my home in Houston and my parents’ home in Montana, helping Dad care for her the way she had shuttled back and forth to help my husband Gary care for me during chemo.
Mom and I shared a deep love of words. I called her house the Dakota Ramblers Writers Retreat because of the soul-feeding scenery and top drawer editorial support. Whenever I was there, we built the day around our writing hours, and if we weren’t talking about my kids, we were engaged in animated conversation about the art, craft, and business of books. Alzheimer’s forced us to transcend language, let go of expectation, and allow ourselves to simply love and be loved. One of the many books I read to her during her decline was Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. One passage, in particular, left me weeping: “It was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge.”
In the midst of all this, a development company started methodically buying up houses in my neighborhood. Gary and I accepted a generous offer, but we had to agree to move out in two weeks. The day after we signed the papers, my sister called to tell me Mom was dying. I rushed back to Montana, and my sisters and I closed ranks around Mom, filling her last few days with poetry, peace, and four-part harmony. It was one of the most precious experiences of my life, but when I flew back to Houston, Gary and I had 72 hours to find a dog-friendly apartment and move out of the four-bedroom house where we’d raised our kids. Our high-speed pack and purge made Marie Kondo look like rococo hoarding. Everything suddenly felt like a burden, so I just gave it all away. A few weeks later, my dog died. And then I broke up with my literary agent, who had declined to rep my essay collection. My left eyelid twitched for six months. As thrilled as I had been to turn 50, my Power Decade was off to a completely crap start. But in the stillness that followed all this loss, I thought of the Zen koan: “Barn’s burnt down. Now I can see the moon.”
. . .
I can work anywhere there’s internet and strong coffee. Gary, ten years older than me, was preparing to retire from his career as an aircraft mechanic, refocusing on multi-media art. Our kids were launched. We’d done the downsize from Hell. We were two creative spirits, finally free to do our own thing, but we were so used to doing what other people wanted or needed us to do, we’d never thought about what we wanted and needed for ourselves. It took us a while to clarify a list of basic parameters: small town, big water, not too hot, not too cold, lots of nature, no yard work—all within a budget that would allow us to prioritize the making of art over the making of money.
Rumi was right: “What you seek is seeking you.” As soon as we put this list to paper, we found our path. When a writer friend in Seattle casually mentioned day-tripping to a tiny fishing village on the coast, I Googled “Westport WA” and saw a picture of a lighthouse. If you’re trying to find your way through the fog, it doesn’t get any more kick-in-the-head than that. in To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf asks:
What is the meaning of life? The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”
Less than two weeks later, I hiked up the Lighthouse Trail through the fragrant dunes, and I knew I was home. Our friends and family were baffled. How could we leave a metroplex of six million people for a one-stoplight town of 2,100, hours away from our granddaughter, not to mention the nearest Starbucks? Wouldn’t it be horribly inconvenient to fly to New York for work? “All valid points,” I told my editor, “but there’s something about this place. It’s like the ultimate writer’s retreat.” Cue the Aha! angel chorus.
Westport is a bustling beach town in the summer, but in winter, it’s a peaceful sanctuary forgotten by time and Twitter. Only a few people live here year-round; most of the condos in the Rodgers neighborhood are luxury vacation rentals where our visiting writers enjoy stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and Westport Light State Park. We build the day around writing hours and walk on the beach, engaged in animated conversation about the art, craft, and business. A visiting writer can amble down for coffee in my kitchen if she needs a morning pep talk or text me to bring her a sandwich when she’s too in the zone to leave her desk for lunch. Our small groups gather in the clubhouse for workshops with stellar guest faculty and reconvene for wine on the rooftop at sunset.
Westport Lighthouse is a high-end experience, but inclusivity is a priority, so there’s a scholarship fund set aside for every group event. We welcome writers of all genres and all stages of the publishing journey, from NYT bestsellers to experimental word seekers, actively working to include historically marginalized voices. I do what I can to support our alumni, and it’s inspiring to see how they support each other. In 2018, we awarded our first $1000 Virginia Woolf Scholarship to Woolfer Rachel Cline, who recently celebrated the release of her terrific novel The Question Authority.
“The cure for anything is salt water,” said Isak Dinesen, “sweat, tears, or the sea.” I have found that to be profoundly true. Since we moved to Westport, I’ve enjoyed the two most healing and productive years of my life. Something about this place. I love to see visiting writers get swept up in that creative energy, those matches struck unexpectedly in the dark. We greet every author with a swag bag of surprises and locally sourced treats, always including a “gift from the sea” and a lucky penny.
We would love to see you here at the beach! To learn more about upcoming events and apply for our annual Virginia Woolf Scholarship, visit our website.
About the scholarship:
Joni Rodgers is the author of five critically acclaimed novels and a bestselling memoir. As a ghostwriter, developmental editor, and manuscript surgeon, she’s collaborated with celebrities and other extraordinary people on a wide range of high profile projects, including a string of bestselling books and an Oscar-nominated screenplay. Joni has been published by all six of the Big 5 plus a slew of national magazines and is known for top-drawer craft skills, dedication to deadline, and nurturing collaborative style.