In the Spotlight: An Interview with Isabel Abbott of BEYOND

This post is the second in a series of interviews with entrepreneurs and artists following their passion and offering up their gifts to the world. If you’ve made the transition from dreaming to doing, and would like to be featured here, please drop me a line at withwoman@gmail.com. I’m excited to hear about it! Let’s inspire the world together.

Beyond is a collaborative effort with fellow writer and sojourner, Marybeth Bonfiglio. How did the two of you dream up this adventure? How did Beyond come to fruition?

It began during a late night conversation we were having. We were both at a place in life where we were ready to walk away from many of the words and creations, the things and themes that had already come to be and now were complete, and to keep recycling it all, would be to stifle the exploration that was calling to us. And one of us said, “Let’s just go to New Orleans and write our hearts out and drink absinthe and fall in love with place and space and experience things.” And then we laughed. Because, who does that? Except, within seconds, we realized that we do that. It’s who we are. And we were going to do it, for real. Very quickly, it became clear to us that it was beyond us, and that this was something we wanted to truly create, and make possible for others as well. There are these doors in life, and sometimes, we need to walk outside, cross thresholds, go into uncharted places, and see what is there, waiting for us. And how fantastic would it be, really, to do so together with others.

From that place, it really was about just making the decision. To not just dream or talk or think about it, but to do it. We decided we were going to do this. And then learned what we would need to see it to form (We also each, individually, as well as together collectively, brought a body of work in writing, event planning and teaching, as well as a shared history of being travelers and seekers and a leaning towards walking on the wild side) It has been immense work, truly rewarding work, as we build this brick by brick. We learn as we go, choosing to hold our vision with conviction, while also opening and allowing things to be in a state of becoming. The foundation is about exploration and experiential learning, and this applies to the process of creating as well travel adventures themselves.

What would you say some of the biggest hurdles have been in pulling this project together? How did you overcome those challenges?

Many of the challenges have been of the expected sort. We both have children, and other jobs, and life is full. We also live states apart, which means we are collaborating on something over distance. So there is the push and pull of that, of choosing to give ourselves to bringing this project into reality, while also living our lives, in all their wonderful madness.

In addition, there were true life surprises and challenges that entered the picture, the kinds of events that no wants to have happen and yet still, they come. So we were having meetings and designing websites, and choosing hotels, while also nursing broken hearts and bodies which decided to become ill, and cars breaking down and getting stolen. And there were many moments, where we would just start wildly laughing at it all. And yet, we never considered not doing this. Once we made the decision, BEYOND became a living, breathing thing for us, and we are in love and committed. And so we show up for it, and for each other.

In practical terms, this has meant abandoning conventional ideas as to the how/what/when. So there have been Skype sessions while one of us is in the bathtub. Writing notes on napkins, and waiting till later to transcribe them. Having “business meetings” while my son sits next to me and is waving at Marybeth. Truthfully, it is also what has made it wonderful. We are choosing to do this, to create this and to make something of service to others, and we are choosing to do it our own way, and that is the best thing I could ask for when it comes to creative projects of any kind.

Of all the questions I receive, the most frequent have to do with creative blocks and finding time for creative business endeavors while juggling other work and life responsibilities. How do you manage those issues?

It seems that people are quite different when it comes to navigating these questions and tensions. For me, I have chosen to have some aspects of life far more routine and structured. I have work that I love which pays my bills. Personally, I find this to be liberating. If I am stressed out, feeling tense and desperate in some way, then it cramps my creativity. I do my best work, write with the greatest freedom, when there is ease around all of it. So I have set up my life to foster this kind of relaxed fulfillment. When my bills are paid, there is greater ease and pleasure in creative projects. When I’m immersed in writing and creative projects, there is this life force happening in me that I bring to other work and relationships, and it feeds the whole of life, deeply. And I thrive on this diversity. My work informs my writing and my writing is made alive by what I see and experience in the world. So, while having more than one thing might be difficult for some, it works for me, and keeps me grounded in different realms of life.

All that being said, the most significant life change I made, when I comes to this question of juggling work and life responsibilities, is that I just decided that I would no longer do things I didn’t want to do. Yes, there are some responsibilities that are not fun, but I choose them, fully, from love. But I refuse resentment. This changed my life.

Creative blocks have most often taken place for me when I have outgrown something, and I’m ready to expand, to shape shift, to shatter the categories I’ve been using, and see things new. Travel, whether across the country or simply down the street, helps with this. Suddenly, my assumptions are revealed, and my beliefs are questioned, and I’m walking around with opened eyes. Even little things, like sleeping on the other side of the bed, or banning certain words from my vocabulary (so I’m challenged to consider what it is I truly want to say, and how I might want to say it), can be all I need to shake things up and set things loose. And then the block is gone. Or more truthfully, I have forgotten there even was a block, because I’m too busy asking questions and wandering around and being amazed.

What type of person will benefit the most from one of your travel writing retreats?

We say that BEYOND is for those who long to write from a different perspective and travel the world from a different orientation. A place for those hungry to not only be seen, but to see.
We are here to redefine “travel” writing, support people in their internal navigation by external exploration, guide people who are naturally seekers, wanders, pilgrims, and lovers of experiential exploration, into ever new spaces and places.  We believe that traveling from this place will inform our writing and art and lives in ways that will ignite fires, awaken our souls and perhaps even start the best kind of creative revolution ever.

Also, this is just from the website, but it’s a pretty clear description:

YOU ARE A SEEKER: VENTURER. VOYAGER. PIONEER. PILGRIM. MAVERICK. REVELER. WRITER.

You have a desire and a question and a tugging call that never quite leaves you alone. So you listen and you leave and you come.

You choose the uncharted, in both the internal landscape of psyche and soul, and the external terrain of a world wanting to be written through you.  And you seek communion with the places and spaces where these two meet and merge. Beyond the known, into the center of the unknown. Because this is where the sweetness and the fire reside. This is where you get lost so you can travel your way back home.

BEYOND is for the doers, the poets, the exhibitionists, the travelers, the wonderers, the wanderers, the storytellers, the misfits, the radicals, the empaths. It’s for the seers.

It’s for those who long to write from a different perspective and travel the world from a different orientation. Words and experiences coming together with intention. It’s a gathering made of wild ones, for those hungry to not only be seen, but to see. To See.

Come travel and explore with us as we scratch and swim the surface of the moon by nightfall and scour the colorful cultural tapestry of locations around the world by day.

WHAT WILL WE PRACTICE?

* INHALING WHAT’S IN PLAIN SIGHT AND SEEKING WHAT IS HIDDEN. 

* EXHALING THE STORIES THAT COME FROM GEOGRAPHY OF SELF AND THE STREETS.

* SATISFYING OUR HUNGER TO TAKE OUR WRITING TO THE NEXT LEVEL.

* BEING IGNITED AND INFORMED NOT BY ONLY BY OUR OWN PROCESS, BUT HOW WE SEE AND EXPERIENCE: THE PEOPLE AND PLACES, THE COLOR AND SMELL, THE SOUND AND TASTE, THE HISTORY AND HEARTBEAT AND DESTRUCTION.

I know that your first travel retreat is being held in New Orleans beginning May 30th, but I’m not really sure about what the experience will entail. For those curious about signing up, what should they expect once they get there?

This gathering will be experiential and experimental. It will be a mix of off-the-path and on-the-path as far as where we will explore.  We’ll visit the historical landmarks{with questions in our hearts} as well as taking part in less conventional and unseen places of NOLA {with a burning heart}.  There will be group workshopping time, time for solo writing and exploring, and also group experiences including live music, culinary adventures, cemetery walks, and experiencing the heart of the city from those who call it Home.  There are also plans in the making to Invoke with traditional spirituality of New Orleans:  Voodoo + Absinthe.

All of this will be held subtly to help guide writing the internal and external landscapes, answering questions around what doors we are willing to open and which ones we choose to walk through.

What would you say to someone who told you that they’ve always dreamed of writing, but they’re not a writer? Have no talent? Have no time?

I would say that I do not believe in obligation. I do not think, however talented or brilliant one is, that they are required to do anything in particular with it. So I have never bought into notions of destiny or that I am compelled to write or I will wither or have failed myself.

But I would also say, that if you are asking me this question, then the answer is already here. That this is not about obligation but about desire. If you have dreamed of writing, you know, in some part of you, that this really is what you want to do. And the wanting is reason enough. So then, I would say, perhaps you can simply do it, begin writing. Write lots of things. Write freely. Write for timed periods. Forty five minutes, or one hour. Set the timer, and write, however many pages that fill that time. And then do it again. And again and again and again. Over time, you will understand what it is you are trying to say, and then, you will be at a new starting place, and the writing will begin all over again.

Most people cannot write hours a day or quit their day job to type out the next great American novel. This is not a problem to be solved. It’s just life. So write anyways, in the time given. Choose it. Choose it not because you must, but because you want it. This is different than how we are taught to live. But I keep imagining how much more beautiful and startlingly real it would all be, if we owned up to those words, “Because I want to.” Do you want to? I would say, let’s begin here.

Out of all of the traveling you’ve done in your life, which trip has been the most life changing and why?

It would be the time I got in the car, and didn’t know where I was going. I just was driving and driving, into the night. I didn’t know why, even, only that I had felt it, the way I needed to go because I was seeking something. I think now, that something was seeking me and I was just answering back.

It was not a long trip. Just the two days. But after driving for hours and hours, I ended up in a diner, drinking weak coffee, and in a way I can’t fully explain, I met my younger self there that night, and we had a conversation that changed my life. It was that night that I knew she had always been saving me, and so all I needed to do was say thank you, and go live my life.

Or, was it the time I went to France, for pilgrimage, and was plunged into the cold baths, kissing the statue of Mary, chanting with masses of people, clutching my candle while I lit it and placed it alongside the others, weeping openly and not caring. How I am not even religious, and still, pilgrimage calls me, so I went. I answered the call of my hunting heart, and it landed me there, in devotion.

Or, was it when I was eight, the first time I saw the ocean. Or when I was fifteen, traveling alone, drinking in a hidden pub in Berlin. Or when I traveled away from him, towards her, into a new life.

I want to have an answer to this question, except I don’t. Because there have been a good many lifetimes in my own life, and they each have their own stories and travels, those planned and those I stumbled into unaware and things I thought I knew no longer made sense, and everything changed and I had never been so grateful.

I’m a firm believer that writers need to read a lot. If you’re not a reader, good luck writing anything worth reading. Who are your favorite authors? Which books do you return to again and again?

My favorite author depends on the day or year and what is happening in my life. Currently, Rebecca Solnit is my favorite author. I will read every word she writes, and then read it again, and again. I’ve also been reading a good deal of Stephen King, late at night, in the bath while drinking tequila. It’s good, and suits me these days.

I return to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, again and again. And Salinger and E.M. Forester and Kurt Vonnegut and Julia Kristeva and mythology, always mythologies. Amy Hempel’s short stories will forever have my attention, and I find I often need to go look one of them up, and sit inside one of the paragraphs, just as I do the poetry of Marie Howe.

Care to throw out a writing prompt for our readers?

What did you see today?

When you opened your eyes, first thing in the morning?
When you stepped out your front door?
When you walked to work? When you left your job? When you lifted up your eyes and realized you had been checked out for god knows how long and now you were returning?
When you did everything different? When it all was exactly the same?
When you were in an explorer, inside and outside, in your very own life?
What did you see?

IsabelIsabel Abbott: CO-creator and Co-Navigator at BEYOND.
I am a writer and map maker and myth translator. An activist, an explorer, a living room dancer, and a builder of messy and real and beautiful things. My happiness is reading bones and baking pie. My love is for coffee, and the late night sounds of my alley cat, and the call of wild devotion, and heat. I live in a small apartment in the city. I am always on my way back to Mexico. Road tripping is how I know freedom, and I spend my time taking flying lessons. Because traveling is where I so often choose to take up residence, and is the way I feel at home in this world.

My writing comes from my living, and my love for the world. And my living and legion heart is understood and made new by my writing. This is the story I have to tell.

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