Balboa Park December NightsSometimes a retreat can happen in three hours time. Okay, six hours with traffic if you’re in Southern California.

Last Saturday night, I had such a retreat. It was fairly spur of the moment. The only planning involved was listening to the small voice within that said “Go” and ten bucks in the gas tank.

I was supposed to go to December Nights at Balboa Park, a wintertime extravaganza now in its 38th year, with my family. But something unexpected came up that day and by the time we were suppose to go, everyone was pooped and there I was in the driveway, alone with access to the car keys.

I decided to go anyways, and make it an Artist Date.

The Artist Date was first coined by creative diva Julia Cameron in her famous book, The Artist’s Way (required reading for anyone who wants to get back into the groove of their creativity). Besides Morning Pages, it is the most important activity she recommends for kick-starting one’s creative connection to all life.

An Artists Date is described as “assigned play” and is always done alone. Basically, you just go out and (here’s the hard part) you do something FUN with your bad self. Spur of the moment is preferred. Three hours minimum. And you don’t necesarily need to spend that much money (although a hella fun thing to do is let yourself loose with 10 bucks cash at a dollar store).

You could just as easily take a walk on a beach, though. Look at art in a gallery. Window shop. Hike in nature. Coo at puppies at the pet store. Smell flowers. Paint a mug or eat a cupcake. Treat yourself to lunch and then a cupcake. Whatever. As long as you do it alone and for at least three hours. And you MUST have unbridled, lollygagging, unstructured fun while doing whatever you are doing.

Is an Artist Date a retreat?  You bet! Cameron suggests you make it a habit to connect with the world and with art in Old Globe December Nightssome way every week. This is tough to do for most folks. I got in the habit at one time in my life of giving myself an Artist Date every other week. I did this for about six months. The result? I was a heck of a lot more pleasant to be around and I let loose enough to start the novel I am working on now.

So last Saturday I decided to make an Artist Date out of  December Nights. I went alone, as per Cameron’s instructions. And an interesting thing happened. My “date” seemed to start the minute I got in the car and turned on the Pandora station to “Michael Buble’ Christmas” to get in the mood.

Traffic? Yeah, I got some, but it wasn’t any big deal since I wasn’t in a hurry. Having to take the shuttle bus into Balboa Park from three miles away? What fun! I got to ride in a double-decker with a sun roof that let the city skyline in.

And then there was the event itself. Shimmery lights and carolers and the smell of food and that same old nativity scene I remembered from ten years ago.

I meandered. I wandered. I stopped just to stare. I ooed and ahhhed at the Grinch-style Christmas tree in front of the Old Globe. And the customary display featuring Santa with his flying reindeer. I heard a little kid behind me say to his mom, “How did they get up so high?”

To an adult, Santa’s reindeer are cracked and splintered old things from like 1965, and not merely as interesting as the beer garden that the nice December Nights folks set up directly across from it. Those reindeer barely reach a story high and are clearly fastened together with bailing wire and a couple of steel rods stuck in the lawn.

decnights_santaparkingoverlay_0To a kid, however, the scene is pure magic. And it is also proof that Santa is the real deal and that Rudolf, with his red nose leading the pack, is an idol. After all, if Rudolf can beat the odds and be the cool kid that leads Santa around the world to children everywhere, then there is hope for the rest of us big-nosed nerds!

I realized, in the middle of it all, that on some level, being a kid is a matter of perspective. In the now, without judgment, everything is embuded with wonder. Everything becomes magic.

Of course, being an adult means you have experiences to draw from, some good and some not-so-good. As my feet wandered around the park lit up in all its Christmassy wander, my mind wandered to the past.

Balboa Park itself had for me been the epicenter of some pretty big events in my life.

It was the place where I got engaged for the first time. It was the place where I ran to after we broke it off. It was the place where I first partook in, let’s just say, a not-as-yet completely legal substance and discovered how amazingly beautiful manzanita trees can be after dark. It was the place of countless summer days with feet in the fountain, watching nieces and nephews frolic, touring the space center, watching the IMAX and , on many, many December Nights of old, holding hands with someone special while we listened to corny caroling at the organ pavilion and eating gobs of kettle corn.Grinch Tree Old Globe December Nights

This time was bit different. This time, I held my own hand as I watched the San Diego Women’s Choir of the Sweet Adelines (who were absolutely wonderful by the way) croon out holiday favorites. I have become a sucker for show tunes and sappy a Capella ballads as late. I was in heaven.

This time I was on my own schedule as I sauntered, drank my tea, ate my cookie,  looked at Jesus in the Manger and watched the Christmas tree light up with just my own self to share the experience with. Was I lonely? Yeah, at times. But amazingly, in those moments when I was not stuck in the soupy nostalgia of the past, I felt like a kid again!

Those are the moments that remain on fire in my mind. They give off the lovely scent of Christmas over and over again.

They say that this time of year is supposed to be about giving good cheer. I say: Why can’t we give good cheer to ourselves and to others all year long?


Do you practice the art of the Artist Date a la Cameron or in your own way? If so, or if you have your own festive holiday experience to share, please do so in the Comments section below!