Fish Out of Water by Pamela Bennett

A hush falls over the back bayou as the sun slides low over green mangroves. A white egret wades slowly in the shallows, long neck curved as it stares downward, then strikes, catching a small, struggling fish, which it swallows in one gulp.

Nearby, an anhinga dives with barely a splash, then swims with only its sleek blue-black head and neck above the surface.

The birds ignore me as I sit with my quiet laptop on the deck above the old dock. This is their world and they follow the tides, wading and fishing at low tide or sitting on a dock post at high tide, preening and drying feathers in the sun.

I am the fish out of water here.

I hold my breath as a roseate spoonbill lands in a flash of pink and white feathers on a sandbar covered with clamshells. Dipping a long paddle-like bill into the water, it easily scoops up small fish and then spreads colorful wings to try another spot.

The sight brings a smile, because the cottage behind me is called “Spoonbill Hideaway” and it lives up to its name today, as one, then another roseate spoonbill lands to search for fish, shrimp, mollusks and snails.

My sister and I are finishing our second month-long writing retreat, this time at Cedar Key, a small island off the northwest coast of Florida, sitting three miles out into the Gulf of Mexico. The island is lush with palm trees, live oaks draped with Spanish moss, Eastern cedar trees, blooming hibiscus, azaleas and bougainvillea, plus sand, clamshells and birds—so many birds. We’ve seen white and brown pelicans, great blue and little blue herons, ibis, egrets, anhinga, and cormorants—all the Florida water birds we love.

Cedar Key has one main road to reach it from the mainland, and not even one stoplight. It’s the most walkable place I’ve ever visited—the car stays in the driveway. You can walk everywhere, to dinner, to the market, to the library, to shops, art galleries, the beach and to nature trails.

I’ve stayed on the island for shorter times in the past; the first time nearly 18 years ago, and it is almost as small now as it was back then. The historic downtown is just a few blocks long, with quaint art galleries and small shops, a library, restaurants and historic inns, such as the Island Hotel and Cedar Inn. A great addition downtown is a small coffee shop, called “The Daily Grind.”

We’ve spent our days walking or biking on quiet roads and on sandy trails, taking photos of birds and lizards and enjoying 60 and 70 -degree days—while chilly Ohio struggled with its usual volatile, roller-coaster spring weather.

Late afternoons and evenings have included wonderful long stretches of hours to research, read and write, so we’ve been making good progress on our book Twinless.

Were we working day and night, keeping our noses above our laptops, hoping to finish the book in a month? No way.

Some of Janet’s hours were spent on her web graphics job, since she is still gainfully employed, unlike me, since I recently stepped away—permanently—from newspaper journalism.

We also got plenty of sleep, enjoyed the accommodations of the comfortable, well-appointed “Spoonbill Hideaway” and basked in tropical sunshine—something sadly lacking in March in Ohio.

Hours of writing did happen every day, however, and we came up with key plot elements, wrote new scenes for chapters and figured out the scenes we need to write to get to the end of the book.

Melanie Bishop, a writer and editor who hosts a writing retreat called “Write & Play in Carmel-by-the-Sea,” said there should be equal emphasis on “play” at a writer’s retreat.

“Playing in this new place enlivens the senses and gives us new sensory triggers and contexts,” Bishop said. “Without even thinking about it, these new sensory experiences are applied to our writing selves and woven into our stories.”

Just as Janet and I spent the month of March last year on Hilton Head and this March on Cedar Key, Bishop said she tries to schedule some kind of writer’s retreat every year, whether it is a formal residency offered by application, or at the empty homes of friends or by renting low cost studios.

Doing so, she said, “honors an annual appointment with writer self-care.”

We put nurturing on the calendar or it may not happen,” Bishop said. “Other stuff always gets in the way.”

She said it is the “single focus” afforded by retreats that helps us become more productive.

“It’s the ‘room of one’s own’ Virginia Woolf espoused; the time to rest, think, walk, ponder and just be; and the faith that, as writers, we deserve this,” Bishop said.

Maybe we need to jump out of the fish bowl once in awhile to find a larger body of water to explore.

Tomorrow is our last full day on this island.

Our return to the “real world” is inevitable, and a little sad, because we will miss this beautiful island, but we are also longing to see the loved ones we left behind.

I’m hoping we can bring some of that “writer self-care” and “single focus” home with us. That entire days could still feel like a writer’s retreat if we resolve to reserve a large part of some days for writing, and also for walking, rest, relaxation and play, especially with our families.

Finding time to do things that make our hearts soar may be the most important thing we do each day.

Mae Jemison, a retired astronaut, physician, engineer and college professor, said:

“It’s your place in the world; it’s your life. Go on and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live.”


  1. Anita Richter says:


Leave a Reply