UNTIL that moment, no one could have convinced me that a cow's moo was anything but commonplace. Yet here, the cows were clearly enchanted, their lowing like exotic whale songs echoing through the gully. When suddenly one of the herd kicked up its heels in a lively bovine dance, I felt as if I'd been given a box seat at a royal command performance. My companion and I fell silent. I had just the day before experienced my first dinner at an artists' colony - the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, in Sweet Briar, Virginia - where I would live and work for the next five weeks. Everything was wrapped in newness.
My partner was a relative stranger, another poet who I'd met over a surprisingly scrumptious meal of Boeuf Bourgignon in the fellows' dining room. Soon to leave Virginia for her home in Boston, she had completed her project of translating a group of poems from Norwegian. I was at the outset of my stay, freshly arrived from New Hope, Pennsylvania, and hoping to finish a book of poems.
We lingered awhile on the ridge, then quietly took the mile-long hike back to our private rooms at the modern fellows' residence, lost in our private thoughts. I'd arrived! In the form of a fellowship, I'd been granted the gift of time away in which to do nothing but write. ``Even night is not night enough,'' mused Franz Kafka, on the writer's constant quest for solitude, a search I have always understood.
Kafka fantasized a cellar room furnished only with his writing things and a lamp. Food would be left for him outside the cellar's outermost door. ``And how I would write! From what depths I would drag it up!''
I was not so sure. The yearning is one thing; to be given time away from daily distractions, a studio of one's own with lunch truly brought to the door - the actual solitude - is quite another. How would I manage such a span of time away from my husband and family? Already, I missed them. What would life be like in a community of 22 writers, visual artists, and composers? Most important, would I be equal to the task?
I found I required less sleep than usual, rising at 4 a.m., brewing a pot of coffee in my room, and setting off at 5 for my studio in the sprawling converted dairy barn about a quarter-mile away. I'd often stumble on a root or a pothole along the pitch-dark terrain of the lawn, awakening me to the mysteries of the unknown.
From a distance, there shone the welcoming lights of the long barn halls. Then the enticing odor of artists' paint and paint remover, tiny splashes of the artists' ``I-am'' speckling the complex's concrete floors. My key fitted the lock to the ``Nida Tomlin Watts Studio,'' my studio - sounding so high minded, I thought, for a dairy barn. How fortunate to have been assigned the room with a gold rug and bright green match-stick blinds - and a good, red desk lamp!
The community that gathered for breakfast and dinner - and often for evening readings, exhibits, and concerts - was constantly in flux, like the nearby Blue Ridge Mountain vista, which never looked the same two days running. Fellowships at the Virginia Center - much like other artists' colonies - range from one week to several months. Fast friendships were formed, in the intense manner of life aboard a sailboat. We freely shared our books, poems, musical scores, paintings, and opinions - giving and getting an endless flow of ideas - sometimes, I found, almost too much.
But the dining room anecdotes were priceless. New York novelist Patty Dann was in correspondence with her new London publisher, John Murray, the firm that had published Lord Byron's works. They were encouraging her to visit Britain. The publisher informed her of the unique display case in their London lobby in the very same building where Byron had delivered his poems - a case containing the great poet's ``blouse and shoes.'' ``I do hope you won't require my blouse and shoes,'' Dann replied back to them.
After breaking for breakfast and conversation, I would return to my studio for the meatiest work of the day - where often the chopping and singing or humming saw of a nearby sculptor would form a musical backdrop to my day's work. I wrote steadily and well at first, gaining momentum, and at midmonth reached a peak of artistic heat such as I've rarely known.
Then began a gradual decline, which ended during my last week as I readied myself to leave. Within this pattern were endless variations. A poem would come unbidden one day. On another, I would struggle, summoning long-forgotten memories while mining the treasures of my past, as Rilke called it.
One night toward the end of my stay, Israeli composer Tzvi Avni sat at the grand piano in the high-ceilinged living room where we gathered after dinner. He played a few wistful bars of Bach - and suddenly, he stopped.
I catapulted across the room and asked him please to continue. He gladly complied. His music made me long for home, and I realized how I'd come to count on my husband's daily concerts on our old Steinway in the dining room. I tried to convert my pining for home into good work.
I realized, too, how writing is a form of prayer and consolation, when one is able to practice it fully. During those five weeks, the magic of the rolling Blue Ridge dairylands never waned. And looking back, I know I have made friends who are sure to influence my life and work. I left Virginia a little reluctantly, because even a fellowship is not night enough. My completed manuscript under my arm, I waved goodbye to the otherworldly Angus dotting the brown grazed rises.