A retreat to the Catskills

Cassy James:

The maple trees stirred. A wind from the east. Rain which had collected on the leaves overnight dripped down, catching in my hair, cold against my skin. With numbed fingers, I typed out the first few lines of a poem: Queen Anne’s lace / White stitching atop green stalks / How could I forget you? It was the first time I had written poetry in weeks. In the whirlwind of Princeton life, there is often little room for poetry, for making. But I spent my days at the Edwards Collective Retreat in Butternuts, NY, just walking—walking for hours, for miles, taking photographs and writing poems about the nature all around me. The goldenrod swayed; the sun slipped behind the hills. I didn’t have to be “productive.” I just had to be.

Whether we were making homemade pasta, learning to paint with watercolors, or puzzling out a murder mystery play, I was able to silence the hurricane of practicalities spinning through my mind and simply make. I found a chair in the living room and wrote the next several chapters of my book; I played my guitar; I remembered how much I love cooking; I read and read and read. Over four days, in the company of wonderful artists and art-appreciators, I created.

Sometimes, that is enough.

Benjy Jude:

Reading is such an individual interaction with art. Perhaps in this day and age of streaming services, personal computers, and portable phones, tv shows and movies can be too, in a way they weren’t when every house had one television set with four channels and when movies were only released in brick and mortar cinemas. But, outside of a kindergarten classroom where the teacher reads a magical story to a class full of imaginations running wild, reading in the mainstream is between me and my book.

And so, when I woke up on the Edwards Collective Fall Retreat, I went downstairs to the cushion-filled, what I would call, family room, with my book. No one else was up yet, or at least roaming the house like I was. I sat down in what appeared to be the best seat, opened my book, and enjoyed the deafening silence of the words chanting their song to me on the page. Then, one person came downstairs, with her book. We danced our How did you sleep’s and I’m making some tea, do you want some’s. But we both were there, in that silent room, to read. We did, for the most part.

When other people came, with their books, more pleasantries had to be made, before we could all start reading again. But, each time, the inevitable question would come up: What are you reading? And, once graduated from that, How do you like your book? Every so often, Oh I read that too, what did you think of this part? And with each new combination of people, each new combination of books in that room, these conversations would spring up. Even when the room was silent, when we all just read, sitting on our cushions, hoping the sun wouldn’t set so that we could still make out the words on our pages, the conversations, ideas, shared thoughts, debates, communal love for reading was present.

It became clear that reading is not that different from movies in a theatre or tv with your family. It doesn’t have to be, by any means, individual. My reading on the retreat was enriched by these conversations, by being surrounded by a community of people who wanted to share their reading, their individual interaction with art, just as much as I did.

Eric Periman:

During the Edwards Collective retreat I found myself wonderfully isolated from the daily stresses and intense rigor of life as a Princeton student. Secluded in the beautiful 550 acres of Centennial Farm Manor in upstate New York, I felt wonderful unplugging and relaxing for the first time since the semester started.

I particularly enjoyed the semi-structured nature of the retreat. The structured icebreakers, activities, and meal assignments were complemented by generous amounts of unstructured time spent reading, walking, and reflecting around the house and property. The house itself was a treasure trove of historic paintings, beautiful antique furniture, and quirky knick-knacks hidden throughout every room, waiting to be found. The bedrooms were ornate and lavishly decorated (except those designated for the staff of the house, a stark reminder of the history of the estate). Each master suite bedroom boasted a massive four-poster bed and intricately designed antique rugs adorning the floor.

But of course the best part of the entire house that weekend were the people living in it. The ability to interact with fellow lemons undistracted from daily humdrum of classes and extracurriculars was invigorating. It allowed me to make connections with my fellow hallmates in a way that is impossible to replicate during the semester. Examples being long afternoons spent reading in the sitting room, sunset photoshoots taken with the magnificent rolling countryside behind, satisfying (yet rigorous) evenings rolling out dough in order to make homemade pasta. Each of these moments are treasures that I will take with me from the trip.

The Edwards Collective retreat gave me a beautiful, shining moment of tranquility and peace amid the rough and tumble onslaught of the Princeton semester. Connecting with my fellow lemons felt natural and rewarding and the smoothness with which the trip happened was all thanks to the tireless efforts of the RGSs. It was a wonderful experience and I look forward with excitement for next year’s retreat!

Mel Hornyak:

A crisp, early-morning walk along the fields of a nineteenth century mansion is an excellent way to compose lyrics. During the 2021 Edwards Collective Fall Retreat my biggest concern was a song I was working on for my upcoming musical- it was a big, dramatic number that took place right in the middle of the first act, when the protagonist explains his revenge plot. It had to be witty, and angry, and full of complicated rhythms and rhymes. Hence: the walk. Each step is a beat, and each line is a pause, framed by the beautiful rolling hills of Butternuts, NY on one side and yellow autumn leaves on the other. This song followed me throughout my days at the Fall Retreat, filling the space and down time in between events of friendship and creative camaraderie that I’ve barely ever seen in such a volume at Princeton. A group of us played Dungeons and Dragons and taught each other the optimal way to stack dice towers as our characters killed a plant monster. The 1920’s murder mystery that my boyfriend and I wrote was one evening’s entertainment, including a truly thrilling denouement in which Katie Bushman worked out the case as the night’s reigning Detective. It’s wonderful to watch other people engage with a story you wrote and invent their own parts of it, and the Murder Mystery still sticks in my mind as a high point of the four short days. I also thoroughly enjoyed being able to get out in nature again, both because it made it easier to focus on what I was writing, and because I have rarely gotten to share some of the joys of outdoorsmanship- including foil-wrapped campfire meals and chopping wood- with people at Princeton. Though our campus is beautiful, “wild” is not a word that readily comes to mind when thinking about Princeton, NJ, and the environment around Butternuts was almost as important as the people in creating an atmosphere of comfort and creativity.

My only regret about the fall retreat is only that I wish it was longer. I had a wonderful time cooking, performing, and writing with my fellow Lemons and could have spent several more days as a group of slightly lost college students haunting a house that was both too big and too small for all of us. This sentiment was echoed as a group of us sat around the fireplace on the final night, huddled close to try and capture some warmth, and talked about our projects and music tastes. The Retreat managed to capture a welcoming, exciting, creative atmosphere that is so hard to come by in the competitive world of Princeton, and I look forward to coming together as a Collective more over the coming year to continue this environment of friendship and enthusiasm for the arts.