Letter from Shangri-La
Sep 26, 2006
BY SARITA SARVATE
Even though Shangri-La has become an idiom for utopia and an advertising slogan in the Western world, it originated in James Hiltonâ€™s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, in which he describes a valley deep within Himalayan peaks, where, in a monastery set against a shimmering mountain, residents live an idealistic life free from strife, worry, or hunger. In the rarefied atmosphere of Shangri-La, visitors engage in meditation, pursuit of knowledge, and renouncement of worldly passions so that they live for centuries without any signs of aging.
I did not know that anything remotely resembling Shangri-La existed anywhere in the Western world, until I arrived at Hedgebrook Farm on Whidbey Island in Washington state.
Imagine you are sitting in an armchair in a cottage deep inside a pine forest. You have just lit the woodstove, and putting your feet up on the cushioned stool, you turn on the floor lamp, open that book you meant to read all those moons ago, and are soon lost to the world.
Imagine that you have not a thing on your agenda for the whole day. In fact, there is nothing you have to do for an entire month, or two.
You lift your gaze from the book and what do you see but a Pileated woodpecker knocking on the tree right outside your window? Later, as sunshine filters through the branches, you walk along a path flanked by huckleberries and thimbleberries, picking figs along the way. You sit on a bench facing beds of gladioli, hollyhocks, foxglove, roses, lavender, daisies, and dahlias. A bright yellow goldfinch hovers on the trio of red and green apple trees as you pick flowers for your cottage.
After making yourself a cup of tea, you sit at your desk and write. Words pour out of you as if the forest is talking to you.
Precisely at 5:30 you arrive at the farmhouse to find five women sitting at a long log table, engaged in an animated comparison of the writings of Rushdie vis-Ã -vis Arundhati Roy.
As the chef welcomes you, you serve yourself a gourmet meal of enchilada casserole, salad, mango-avocado salsa, and corn on the cob, and sit at the table gazing upon the sea beyond.
After dinner you hand your plate to the Staff and wander out with your binoculars towards Deer Lagoon, picking blackberries along the way. â€œIs the osprey out today?â€ you wonder.
Alas, there arenâ€™t any ospreys, but as usual, dozens of great blue herons are sitting on the sandbank or flying over. The belted kingfisher sings its tra-la-la song, flashing its distinctive black crest and white neck belt as it dives to catch fish. A majestic bald eagle sits in the tree above, staring at its mate awaiting sundown on a sandbar. As an orange-brown predatory bird takes off from its perch and hovers over the water, you consult your bird book but fail to locate any water bird closely resembling this one.
It is the only worry you have had all day.
You walk on the beach as the tide goes out, so you pick seashells. You return by the longer route to snuggle into your loft bed listening to a CD.
At Sunday brunch, you sit by Gloria Steinem, who, like you, is working on a book. You ask her, â€œYou know, Gloria. Youâ€™ve had such wild experiences in your life. Like that time you wrote that article titled, â€˜I was the Playboy Bunny!â€™â€
She replies, â€œOh no, that was a mistake. After that, people did not take me seriously!â€
She asks you about your writing project, and you explain that you are writing about your motherâ€™s nervous breakdown when you were a child; that you are still trying to figure out what exactly happened to her; she was once such an intelligent, educated, working woman for her times.
And Gloria says, â€œOh, it was probably the culture that gave her a nervous breakdown.â€
She adds later, â€œYou and I, we have both been living the unlived lives of our mothers.â€ And you tell her that at times you donâ€™t feel any more successful, any more fulfilled, any stronger than your mother, and she says, â€œBut thatâ€™s the problem, you see. You shouldnâ€™t have to live for your mother. You should be able to live your own life. Perhaps the younger generation will do that now.â€
You confide in her your regrets over certain life decisions, and she advises, â€œWe have to talk you out of your â€˜shoulds.â€™â€
At that nightâ€™s reading, you are nervously exploring the prospect of revealing yourself to Gloria Steinem, finally reading a small excerpt. â€œIt is real. You know it is about real people,â€ she says. You feel as if you have just won the Pulitzer.
The owls hoot as you walk back to your cottage wondering, â€œAnd to think that I almost didnâ€™t come.â€
I had applied to this writersâ€™ residency on a lark, hurriedly filling out forms on the last day. When the offer arrived, I hadnâ€™t even known where Hedgebrook was. Which is just as well because what I discovered was an environment specially designed for women writers who, for once, are nurtured instead of being the nurturers they are forced to be in their day-to-day lives.
That, in a nutshell, sums up the idea of Hedgebrook.
But what a leap it is as far as ideas go!
For me, Hedgebrook is Shangri-La. I have forgotten about â€œlife down the hill.â€ I have meditated, I have written, I have walked, I have laughed, I have birded, I have talked.
At times I have cried.
Do people live forever because of this Shangri-La?
Sort of. The Hedgebrook philosophy is that by being herself and by being nurtured here, a writer will take something lasting to her writing life even if she does no writing while here.
Hedgebrook is supposed to carry her through the rest of her days.
Life doesnâ€™t get any sweeter than this for a woman writer.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found at