Train Wreck: When Your Writing Retreat on the Train Goes WAY Off the Rails – Part Three (The Execution)

Photo by Javon Swaby from Pexels

In my last post, I wrote about my considerations while planning my Rhythm on the Rails Writing retreat to Vancouver, BC. I take pride in my ability to help people feel safe and nurtured, and that was my goal  on this retreat – in addition to creating an opportunity for plenty of luscious writing time.

Before I delve into the story about how my writing retreat on the train went way off the rails, it’s important, I think, to know the cast of characters for context, and because, as I always say… to have a story, to have the conflict that makes a story, you need the people. And conflict we had! (In the interest of everyone’s privacy and because the purpose of these posts is to illuminate how things can go wrong despite our best (so we think) planning, I’ve changed the names of the participants.)

Daniella – a client at the time of the retreat, early- to mid-40s. We had been working together for several months before Vancouver, and she had made impressive progress on her book. She had been driven, focused, and committed to getting the book finished. A dream client and a pleasure to work with.

Coral – a past train participant, mid- to late-60s. Coral came to Seattle with me for the maiden voyage of ROTR last fall. She’s also very self-directed, and while she isn’t a 1:1 client, we had done a couple of Discovery Calls in the past, so I was aware of her project focus/genre and her strong writing skills.

Tracy – a networking colleague, late 30s. I hadn’t worked directly with Tracy aside from a Discovery Call in the past about her book idea, during which I shared my thoughts about how she could organize it and move forward when she was ready. She had been a big supporter of mine, sending me referrals and telling people how much she had gotten from our call.

Ophelia – a newer client, referred to me by Tracy (they are close friends), late 30s. Ophelia had hired me as her coach two months prior to the retreat. We met for a couple of VIP days, created a framework and plan of action for her project, and we were primed to start moving her book project forward. She felt she was off to a slow start, not having produced any pages by the time the retreat came around, but I was positive about working with her, as her topic was compelling and I knew she could write.

A week before the retreat, I offered everyone a 90-minute virtual class on the Heart Chakra and Antagonists/Supporting Characters – content from my Writing Through the Body™ method. My intention was to offer a context for the trip for those who wanted or needed it while working on their books.

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

The day of our departure from Union Station in Portland, we all met at Zeus Café in downtown Portland for a pre-retreat lunch. This wasn’t a “typical” retreat that would allow for a lot of group conversing and bonding because we’d be engrossed in our writing on the train writing. I wanted to create space for an entry point for camaraderie between them all. I also wanted to be sure everyone had a focused plan for our eight-hour train ride so they could make the most of their time while in motion, which is the central point of the ROTR retreats.

I walked into the familiar McMenamins atmosphere at Zeus Cafe to find everyone there, and I was happy to see them all, excited and ready for our productive weekend of immersive writing. After distributing their swag bags, we settled in, and placed our orders.

Coral and Daniella each had a clear focus – their books. Ophelia had plans to start work on her book, and Tracy wasn’t sure which of her two book ideas she would focus on… she wanted to use the trip to gain some clarity. And for me… my goal was to continue work on the first draft of my Writing Through the Body™ manuscript, which was due to my editor in a little over two weeks.

I went over some of the requests I had made at the beginning of our virtual call, one of which was to respect each other’s privacy and solitude because Ophelia had mentioned to me her concern about the latter due to the close relationship she shared with Tracy – they had both told me how much they enjoyed their long conversations about their work and the podcast they were creating.

After lunch, we headed for Union Station in our Lyft rides, and because all the tickets were reserved at the same time, Amtrak seated us together, assuming we were travel companions and would want to be near each other. Little did they know, that was the last thing we wanted. Or… most of us, anyway.

The four participants were in a quad of seats, two facing two, and I snagged the extra single seat by the window across the aisle. While I had created the retreat for my participants, was there to make sure they got what they came for, and let them all know that if they needed anything, I was always available, I was looking forward to some solitary alone time on the train to work on my draft.

Ophelia and Tracy asked to be seated in the two seats facing the front of the train due to the affect riding “backwards” for eight hours would have on them (vertigo, maybe?). Daniella and Coral gladly accommodated them, switched seats, and settled in to write.

Soon thereafter, Ophelia and Tracy moved to the dining car to work, and in passing them a couple of times on my way to the food car for the not-so-bad decaf coffee, I found them sitting side-by-side at a dining car table, laptops open, conversing.

Columbia River Gorge Oregon

Meanwhile, back I my seat, I scribbled away on the printed sections of my book I had completed, leafed through my sources, and filled out sections that needed it. I was on a roll. I occasionally glanced out the window to take in the beautiful scenery of the Columbia Gorge while the rhythm of the rails beneath us provided the meditative environment I had reveled in from past trips and led me to create the ROTR writing retreats in the first place.

We arrived in Vancouver, later than our 11:30pm scheduled arrival time due to a suspension bridge being stuck in the “up” position and the operators not being able to get the computer programming to cooperate. Needless to say, we were all tired.

Daniella and Coral were up ahead and quickly passed through customs. Not far behind them, Ophelia, Tracy, and I approached the chipper customs agent at his desk, and he quizzed us about why we were coming to Canada. He also asked us where we were staying. When I told him the name of the hotel, he paused and asked if we had read the reviews.

What? Oh fuck. WHAT?! Had I? Of course, I had. Hadn’t I? In all my researching online, making phone calls, reading and reading and reading during those weeks while planning, surely, I had. I scanned my brain, trying to quickly remember what I had read. A vague memory of a comment that the hotel “[wasn’t] in the best part of Vancouver but was only one block from Chinatown and Gastown” came to me. What did that mean?

 “Is it unsafe?” I asked him.

“No, not unsafe,” he said. “Just complaints about loitering.”

Okay, I think… I live in a city. I see loitering every day right outside some of the city’s best hotels. We’re traveling to a city. That’s to be expected.

“You can always stay tonight, then find something else tomorrow.”

Great. Not what I had in mind…

We walked through the gate to find Daniella and Coral waiting for us, and I broke the news to them. Daniella was set. She had contacted me weeks before the retreat to ask if she could find a hotel on her own, as she would be visiting family while there. Coral said she had read the reviews and saw that someone had reported bed bugs in the past.

Lovely… noooo!

I had called a Lyft for those of us who were going on to the hotel, and while we were waiting, Ophelia said she was “freaking out.” All the emotions – worry that I had missed something and made a bad call in choosing that hotel, shame for missing something and making the bad call, fear of what was to come – were all blooming exponentially inside me.

via GIPHY

We made the trip to the hotel in silence, and when we arrived, one man stood outside. A potential loiterer? And when the door opened, he jetted inside in front of us.

Startling, for sure. (Maybe he was staying at the hotel…?)

When we walked in, my heart hit the floor and my gut shot to my throat. Total shock. Discombobulation. Disbelief.

This “heritage-style” hotel, as advertised online, wasn’t as quaint as the photos suggested. Stale, smoke-scented air make me queasy and a broken-down player piano sat on one side of the spacious lobby filled with awkward groupings of worn furniture. The building itself was rundown and lacked any immediate signs of comfort.

Yes, I had described the hotel as “no frills” on the retreat’s webpage, and yes, I had stayed in far worse accommodations in my life, but this was not what I wanted for my guests. Not by any stretch. The shame bloomed even more while I made my way to the reception counter with Coral by my side while Ophelia and Tracy moved toward the front windows.

I went to talk with them, apologized for the condition of the hotel, and explained that this is not what I had in mind. I went back to the reservation counter to talk with the clerk and to see what other options we had, but Ophelia and Tracy immediately waved down a taxi and bolted.

Coral was gracious… said she had also stayed in far worse placed and planned to stay there for at least the first night. We got our keys, made our way to the second floor via the rickety elevator, and I opened the door to my room on the second floor.

The room itself wasn’t bad. The bedding was clean and bright white. Tacky art hung above the bed, and there was a chunky old-but-not-yet-antique dresser in the corner, which served as a stand for the flat screen TV. The bathroom offered a claw foot tub and makeshift shower (hand-held), small sink, toilet, and an awkward closet that did its job.

Certainly, not upscale or glamorous, but that wasn’t what I was after. That wasn’t what I had offered. Still… the situation had left me with a shaky sick feeling in my gut. I put my luggage in the bathtub and scouted for bed bugs. None, as far as I could tell.

Awesome.

In fact, I was happy to see that the mattress and pillows were sealed in silky plastic zipper bags.

It was safe. 

I was concerned about how Ophelia and Tracy were doing, so I texted them to ask if they were okay, if they needed my help. Ophelia responded to say they had found a room at another hotel to share and that they’d be looking for an Airbnb the next day. Knowing that we were all at least safely situated, I got a spotty night’s sleep and honestly, wanted daylight to come so I could resolve the situation.

Photo by Brayden Law from Pexels

I texted Ophelia the next morning and offered to pay the difference between what they would have spent on their room at our hotel and what they ended up spending for their lodging. I also offered to pay for their cab fares to get them to group activities. And I offered to keep their luggage at my room so they wouldn’t have to lug it around with them until they could check in at their Airbnb.

She responded by saying that the payment for the hotel difference and cab fares “made sense” and that they would rather discuss the rest after they had had their coffee.

I connected with Coral, who had already been out for a walk, and we set out to find a place for coffee and breakfast (she and I both decided to stay at our hotel for the duration of the retreat).

The sick shameful feelings inside me blossomed again as we walked. “Not in the best part of Vancouver” was putting it mildly. I live in downtown Portland and walk past homeless camps, troubled souls, and poverty-stricken people with drug problems and mental health issues every day.

In Vancouver, what I saw was far worse. And I learned (a tip from a police officer) that if I went one block either direction from the hotel, I could get where I needed and not walk through the seriously drug-addled, broken souls.

Had I known that the street our hotel was on was the ONE street in Vancouver that separated the charming Chinatown and Gastown areas and served as home for the city’s homeless, I would not have chosen it. They have my deep compassion, and even so… this was not what I wanted for my retreat participants. Not at all.

Coral and I ultimately settled in at a cozy little spot for breakfast, and I texted Ophelia and Tracy a couple of times to check in about the luggage situation. I also sent a group text about our meeting time for the afternoon group activity at Queen Elizabeth Park. Ophelia finally responded to say that they had left their bags at the hotel where they had stayed the night before.

Bloedel Floral Conservatory, Queen Elizabeth Park, Vancouver, BC

By the time Coral and I arrived at the park to meet Daniella, Ophelia texted to say she and Tracy were too tired to join the rest of us. She said they would also be missing dinner that night but looked forward to our dinner on Saturday, our last night in Vancouver. I thanked them for letting us know and wished them a good evening. (Not having everyone there wasn’t what I wanted, and at the same time, I wanted to give them their space if that’s what they needed.)

Coral, Daniella, and I did our first activity: an exercise to practice writing protagonist and antagonist viewpoints. We each chose a pair of people from the many milling around at the top of the park and imagined their relationship. We then wrote for 15-20 minutes about the story we imagined for them, deeming one as the protagonist and one as the antagonist. After reading our work, we then changed their roles and wrote for 15-20 minutes more. The point being to give consideration to each character’s POV and their stake in the scenario and to see how that shifted, not just in the writing but also in our compassion and understanding of each.

Then we moved on to our second activity in the park at the Love in the Rain sculpture by Bruce Voyce, a vamp on the love locks in Paris. While most people who come to the sculpture in Vancouver do so with the intention of attaching a padlock to symbolize their love and commitment for each other, we each attached our tiny heart-shaped padlocks with the intention of committing to ourselves and our writing, all to highlight one of the messages I reiterate to my clients and followers often: writing is an act of self-love.

The love locks activity meant more to me than I anticipated, and after we finished and took a few photos, we headed back down toward town to rest up and get ready for our dinner at Chambar, which was the highlight of my entire weekend.

What was so memorable about that dinner? The casual, upscale atmosphere, the mouthwatering, unforgettable food (I’m STILL thinking about it), and the magical vibe between those of us who were there. It was an all-encompassing sensual experience, and the hedonist in me reveled in it.

The next day, Saturday, was designated “alone time” for each of us to do as we wished. I spent the morning at a coffee shop in Chinatown writing social media posts, as planned, to send to Amber, my assistant, before moving on to Gastown and then Granville Island to browse shops. I bought snacks at a nearby Whole Foods for the train trip back home and caught a cab to my room to get ready for our last group dinner at Joe Fortes.

via GIPHY

I’d be lying if I said that dinner wasn’t tense. I had planned to do more during our last group meeting before getting on the train, but I had assumed we would have all had shared quality time together before that night. Because we didn’t and because I clearly sensed the disapproval from my disappointed participants, after we had our food, I simply asked that everyone go around the table and talk about what they planned to focus on – in terms of their writing – on the trip back home. 

The meal went by quickly, and to be honest, I was glad. Daniella and Coral sat on either side of me at our round table. Tracy filled Coral about the podcast she and Ophelia had been working on, Daniella and Ophelia exchanged a few words, and I was notably untalkative, for the most part, while I choked down my Cesar Salad laden with way too much extra chicken.

The energy from the disgruntled participants was palpable, and I was doing my best to manage my regret and shame for my own sake and for the sake of all the participants, even the two who were so upset with me.

At one point during the meal, Tracy mentioned that they had been so “nervous” on Friday that they had to get massages and reflexology. I took this as a “hint” and a hope that I would cover that, as well.

This is when I realized they were holding me responsible for their emotions. Recognizing this made it easier for me to unhook emotionally and make the trip back knowing I had done – and was doing – all I could to make up for the bad hotel situation.

And I reminded myself of the content for the weekend: The Heart Chakra, which in large part, is all about compassion and forgiveness – for others and especially for ourselves. I forgave myself for being a fallible human and decided to move forward, still with the intention of doing what I could to make the disappointing experience up to them.

Seattle King Street Station

Our train was to leave King Street Station early the next morning at 6:00am, which meant leaving the hotel at 5:15am. Coral and I met in the lobby, I settled my bill, and we met our Lyft driver outside.

It had been a bittersweet trip for me, filled with regret, shame, confusion, and sadness, as well as happiness, love, fulfillment, and serenity. And once again, I did my best to put my own emotions aside and get us all back on the train for our ride home.

Ophelia and Tracy were at the station when we arrived. The four of us got in line for our boarding passes and when we were at the front of the line, Daniella arrived. After going back and forth with the ticketing agent to explain that we didn’t need (or even want) to sit together because we’d (theoretically) be writing, our wishes were finally met and they gave us five single-seat passes on the window side.

As we waited for Daniella to catch up to us (she was several people back in the line), Tracy put out her hand to take the boarding passes from me, saying she and Ophelia would like to board and get settled, “If you don’t mind.”

I did. So we waited for Daniella.

Once inside the train, we stowed our luggage and clipped our boarding passes overhead, and I passed out snacks for the trip home. Ophelia and Tracy headed for the dining car to sit side-by-side again for the trip back. I was struck by the level of enmeshment between them and wondered if their weekend would have not been so dramatic had they not been there to feed off each other.

Near the end of the trip, I gave Coral and Daniella a slip of paper and took the same back to Tracy and Ophelia, still in the dining car. I asked them all to write, briefly, why they’re not writing (if they’re not) or what stops them from writing.

Ophelia asked, “Do you mean right now?”

I got the implication – she wasn’t writing due to her experience on the retreat. (Interesting side note: As I mentioned before, she hadn’t been writing – not on her book, anyway, before the retreat.)

“No,” I clarified, “in general… what interferes with the writing on a regular basis?” I told them I would collect the pieces of paper at the end of the trip and would let them know what I had planned for them. And I promised not to read them.

When we deboarded in Portland, I collected their pieces of paper and explained the ritual: I take the pieces of paper to a stream in Forest Park not far from where I live in downtown Portland. I burn the paper to transform the block or obstacle into smoke, which drifts toward the sky and dissipates, and ash, which I set afloat down the stream to be transformed further with the idea that the moving water signifies intuition, emotion, and flow.

Photo by Emre Kuzu from Pexels

Even though I knew I still had more to do to set things right with Ophelia and Tracy, I was happy and relieved to be back home, comfortable and in my familiar element.

What transpired in the following weeks was a true test of my professionalism, my emotional resilience, and the concepts we covered for the retreat: compassion and forgiveness for others and for myself.

The situation went downhill even more.

If you’d like to know what transpired next, The Aftermath explains.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Bright blessings and creative courage,

Johnnie
XXXX