Summer Resident Gwen Van Velsor: Shells for a Hermit
Gwen Van Velsor was our fourth and final writer of the summer 2018 cohort to participate in our local residency program at Northern Virginia's Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House and Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Our summer writers-in-residence focus their weeks on-site exploring ways to rediscover and repurpose place and place histories, and use writing as a means to build community, to bring awareness to critical social and environmental issues, and as a creative force of empowerment.
In the essay below, Gwen dips into the realities of shifting time and place, physically and mentally. She explores what it means to get from here to there, and offers this specific place, Woodlawn, a request to enter in the form of prayer. You can read more about Gwen and her fellow residents here.
Shells for a Hermit
by Gwen Van Velsor
As I pull into the gated driveway leading to Woodlawn, I laugh. A solid two hour drive from home in Baltimore, it turns out I’ve been here before.
Two years earlier we’d made the drive to Ft. Belvoir several times in preparation for my husband’s deployment overseas. We were able to stay on base while he worked during the day. My daughter was only a few months old at the time and we strolled the shady lanes leading to armed exits and through empty soldier housing units.
On our final visit before he left for the Middle East, I’d already stopped three times to soothe a baby who strongly disliked the car seat. She was finally, finally asleep as we drove the last few miles and I badly needed to use the restroom. If I pulled into a fast food place, she would wake while trying to take her from the car seat, and I didn’t know if I could hold it long enough to get on base. I spotted a narrow road behind a church that led to some bushes in a grassy area near a whitewashed house. Pulling over, I took advantage of this area of privacy off the highway. Now I realize, this is the entrance to Woodlawn.
Those old feelings of desperation rush back. Of needing just a few more moments of silence, of being willing to do anything not to wake her up. As the months ticked by after my husband left, this only multiplied. The responsibility weighed me down like clouds full of ice. Every diaper change, every feeding, every long teething-disturbed night, was all on me. I was turned inside out, a fragile shell of my former self.
Looking back at this season, now from inside the Woodlawn mansion, I reflect on getting here from there. During my residency week, I busily work on a book of nonfiction vignettes called Freedom Warrior. At its core, it is a collection of stories and snapshots on finding freedom in situations when I felt trapped. The work was inspired by the deployment year, when the experience of motherhood drew me further into isolation, sent me into a state of despair and a longing for freedom, searching for inspiration and a way to escape. Freedom Warrior describes how I found it.
Writing here at Woodlawn is the perfect setting not only because it takes me back mentally to that time, but because this old mansion was once a shell just like me, waiting for someone or something to move in to bring it back to life. Today, Woodlawn, Pope-Leighey and the Arcadia Farm bring freshness to this old estate. Art fills the rooms, visitors bring wonder, and trees and plants bloom and grow.
Maybe it’s because I’m from the city, where my life is full of marble stoops and angular skylines, that the natural world at Woodlawn seems more vibrant than your average historic home in a bucolic setting. The drizzling August rain keeps me inside some days, writing by the window light upstairs, or imagining having tea with Nelly in the sitting room. One afternoon I hustle down to the Pope-Leighey house between downpours and sit under the carport scribbling. This surely fits in with Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision when he created this space to be seamless with the natural world.
Several non-human beings visit me throughout the week starting with a jumping spider who made his way to my keyboard. Urged by this little fella, I made many trips outside daily to clear my head and stretch my fingers. Out there, a hawk soars high above the trees cascading down the original front entryway. A plump turkey, followed by two doe, dash into the woods. On a sunny morning, the biggest butterfly I’ve ever seen nurses from the purple flowers outside the Pope-Leighey house, opening his orange and blue wings wide for my examination. A hummingbird flits along the outside strings of lights while a walking stick finds a seat on a bench. While I snap photos of the main entrance, a bald eagle swoops low, and then high, over the house. A clumsy groundhog scurries in through the fairy door of a great white oak, most perplexed by my presence.
This now inhabited and vibrant shell inspire me to create a create a selection of prayers influenced by various aspects of the property from quilts on the beds, to people who lived here long ago.
When approaching a place not their own, inhabited by either humans or Gods, ancient Hawaiians would sing a chant created for that place in order to ask permission to enter. I offer this prayer on behalf of myself and those who come to Woodlawn before and after. May your time here be filled with love and light.
Request to Enter
I do not know this place
It does not know me
Cover this place in millions of marks, each with its own name
May the power above, who gives life and takes it
Welcome us to enter this place, to take up space here, to leave our mark
May we accept knowledge as it is offered
May all those who have come before
All those here now,
And all those who will come after
Accept this place as it is
And may they be accepted as they are
I request to step forward with an open heart
opening my eyes to the unseen
my ears to the the unheard
My soul to the unknown
Gwen Van Velsor writes creative nonfiction and pseudo-inspirational prose. She founded Yellow Arrow Publishing, a project that publishes and supports writers who identify as women. Her major accomplishments include walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain, raising a toddler, and being ok with life exactly as it is. Gwen wrote food and travel columns for The Big Island Chronicle and The Summit Daily. Her adventure travel memoir, Follow That Arrow, was published in 2016.