Thimbleberries were not on my mind when I applied for a writing workshop at the Collegeville Institute. I wanted time set apart from the busyness and business of everyday life. I wanted a view of a lake, fenced-in by maple trees. I wanted to be in a community where I felt the ease of saying, Yes, I am a writer.
The world does not need another writer, and yet many of us who come to Collegeville for rest, renewal, and yes, writing, seek to push against the glacier of self-doubt about our own ability to write. We want our writing to matter and we want to be relevant. We place one word after another, hoping the result buzzes between the ears, sets off sirens of delight, and maybe even gives new insight into our lived reality.
Writing, though often a solitary pursuit, also involves community. I needed the community at Collegeville. This past summer I lived and wrote in western North Dakota, the area currently impacted by the Bakken oil boom. In my work, I interviewed dozens of residents, oil field works, and newcomers; drove thousands of miles, and sought refuge in the southern Badlands, soaking in the strawberry colored scoria, grey-yellow bentonite clay, and smelling sweet sage. This, though, was a solitary pursuit in a land on fire.
In July I arrived at Collegeville, a place where I stopped on my travels to and from North Dakota during undergraduate in southeastern Minnesota, stretching my legs and sauntering around Lake Sagatagan. I stayed at the Abbey guesthouse during graduate school, seeking silence and time spent in prayer. In some circuitous way, I came back to Collegeville as part of a writing workshop—I prefer to call it serendipity.
July proved to be the ideal time for writing in Minnesota—light poured into my apartment on Stumpf Lake, evening meals were filled with the din of meaningful conversation, and sessions on publishing, the writing life, and improvisational comedy were both helpful and hilarious. (Imagine a room full of introverts being told that, in acting out a scene, they would always have to respond, “Yes, and…” The only problem is many writers are revisionists, wanting to imagine our own scenes and, by default, often reply with “but,” “no,” and “that’s not right!”)
My morning routine at Collegeville commenced with coffee to jolt my brain and a daily poem to fire my imagination. Early in the week I read Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “God’s Grandeur,” which is dappled with natural imagery. During one of our group walks to evening meal, my friend Lisa noticed me stop to pick a thimbleberry.
“What are those?” she asked.
I told her that they were thimbleberries, similar to raspberries only smaller and sometimes had little taste. I told her that in July they shift from bright cranberry red to a deep plum color and, if you are lucky, you can get some before the birds feast upon the juice-filled orbs.
Lisa asked me how often I had been eating thimbleberries at Collegeville. “Every time I pass this bush,” I told her.
“Hmmm. That reminds me of marking myself with holy water before entering church.”
Perhaps this is why I came to Collegeville: Living in a land filled with flares, rocking pump jacks, and large semis, I needed to be reminded of the sacredness of the small wonders of the world, what Hopkins calls “the dearest freshness deep down things.” The thimbleberries certainly went down into me, but perhaps best of all they now stand as an image of my time spent in community, spent in prayer, spent writing—which is to say, discovering the type of person I want to become.