I need some space. Being responsible for everything while John was in the hospital for three weeks has drained me. But how to get away? I call a pastoral counselor at the local hospital who might know about these things. He suggests two nearby retreat centers. Wisdom House has space next weekend, and Mercy Center has an opening in late August. I reserve both. And for the next 10 days I anticipate the weekend at Wisdom House. Rainer (5 years) and Cameron Jack (3 years) listen as I tell them I’m going away for three days, and John assures me that he’s recovered enough to care for the boys.
July 2000: Wisdom House
Appointments in Hartford consume the Friday hours, until around 4pm when I head west on Route 44 towards Litchfield. The beautiful afternoon sun with scattered clouds is still high enough that it’s not directly in my eyes, and the cloud shadows play across the trees. As I pull into the gravel parking lot, I am amazed at the size of the 3 story building. It’s an old convent. I find the door and make my way to the office, up the metal stairs from the basement to the main floor. I’ve been assigned a room on the 2nd floor and Sister Rosemarie guides me there, up the elevator and down to the end of the hall. The bathroom and showers are down the hall, and I set my bag down on one of the twin beds.
I quickly take clothes and toiletries from my bag, and arrange them in and on the dresser. I put the crayons, drawing pad and my journal on the desk, and realize that I have no pen. My immediate reaction is to get the pen from the car, but then I decide to flow with what happens, and to accept that I won’t be writing. Anyhow, it’s time for dinner.
I join a group finishing up a week’s silent retreat, and we share a silent buffet-style meal of chicken, rice and vegetables. After dinner I find the door to the chapel and go into the balcony. I sit quietly for a half hour, letting the silence wash over me.
It’s still early, so I head out for a walk, looking for Topsmead State Forest a mile away. The walk to the forest goes along back roads, past huge homes that might once have been farms but clearly are no longer. At Topsmead I walk along the paths, and sit on the patio of the beautiful old home on the top of the hill that is the center of this donated land. It’s a joy to be alive.
Saturday is more of the same – breakfast, sitting on the sun deck meditating, feeling the sunshine fill me with light, sitting on the balcony in the chapel, and walking at Topsmead. Saturday afternoon while walking, words come – “We are being called to rediscover what it means to tremble with the Spirit.” I hold the sentence, and wonder if I will be moved to speak at New England Yearly Meeting in two weeks. As Quakers we sit together in silent worship, waiting for the Spirit. Sometimes the Spirit speaks through messages that individuals share.
Back at Wisdom House the oil pastels pull me, and I draw a multi-colored egg, sort of like the huge sculpture in the garden at Wisdom House. White in the center, then violet, blue, green, yellow, orange, red and black. The rainbow, the chakras, these colors fill me up. The drawing gets posted on the wall over my desk at home.
Then I leave on Sunday morning I drive to see Opus 40, a stone quarry turned into a sculpture, and on my way I stop at Falconridge, a huge folk festival. What fun to be able to just do what I want. To let go of being a mom, a wife, a homeowner, a professional, all the different roles.
August 2000: Yearly Meeting
Two weeks after going to Wisdom House we go to New England Yearly Meeting, the annual gathering of Quakers in New England. While there I realize that I need a year of personal retreats. I need to learn to listen to the Spirit. To listen, I need time alone. Time and space where I’m not responsible for anyone or anything, I can just listen. I commit to myself and the Spirit that I’ll do monthly retreats for a year.
August 2000: Mercy Center
When I called in July to schedule a retreat in the solitude space, the Sister said there was only one night before October. But upon looking she found 2 nights, and half of another day. So I get parts of three days. Mercy Center is a large, spreading connection of buildings. Arriving in the late afternoon there was a note at the main door, directing me to the solitude space, and I made my way through the corridors and up the stairs to the tower. A couch, single bed, table, half bath, and windows on all four sides. One side overlooks Long Island Sound.
[Journal entry] Grey clouds make the decision to go without a clock today disorienting. Sun in early afternoon gave me warmth to go swimming. But now I sit, still drowsy from a nap, wondering what I should do now. Draw? Quilt? Walk? Or just sit. And if I were to sit, do I choose a bench by the Sound, a chair on the balcony, or an inside chair?
I struggle. All alone there’s no one else to impose structure on my time. And since I chose to fast, and not bring books, there’s no meal times to orient me or books to lose myself in. I’m anxious about what I should be doing, and how to best use my time. There aren’t any convenient long walks, so I sit and watch the tide hide some rocks in the bay, and then reveal them once again.
I reflect on Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve–Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, which I’ve been reading. He talks about three principles of leadership: (1) self-differentiation or becoming who you are meant to be; (2) maintaining a non-anxious presence or not letting yourself be forced to respond by the anxiety of others; and (3) remaining connected to others.
[Journal Entry] What Friedman doesn’t discuss is that the leader’s vision has to be self-less. The vision has to be greater than the leader presenting the vision. In addition, self-differentiation is about the ability to be clear and to separate yourself from the fruits of your actions. You are not a success or failure because of how something you started turns out. Your personal sense of who you are is more secure and deeper. Now you will always ask – did I do what I could, and what could be done differently next time. But success or failure right now cannot be judged. How are we to know that something or someone was a failure? We can’t see all of the ramifications of any action.
I drive home feeling like not much happened. But I’m rested and present. I had my time apart.
Mercy Center was the last three days in August, and I’m going to Block Island in mid-October, so I choose not to go away in September. Towards the end of the month I feel like I have no patience with the boys, and realize how much I need the time away. Time away gives me perspective on the trivial nature of many of the things that irritate and rub in daily life.
October 2000: Block Island Stillness Retreat
I love the ferry ride, sitting on top feeling the sun and the wind. Although it is October, and we were warned to expect rough seas, we have a beautiful Indian summer weekend and the crossing is smooth. Our group gathers at the ferry dock, and piles into cars for the ride to the Sprague home site.
We settle into silence after dinner. I work on the quilt for John and I, and then fall asleep. Early Saturday I get up, and walk toward the highest point on Block Island. No trespassing signs stop me on one side, but there’s a driveway off the road on the other side also. I walk past the house, and seeing no vehicles, decide to cross the yard to the point behind the house. There’s a knoll, with a bench, and I sit there, watching the sun come and letting it fill me.
Back at the house I browse through materials on the coffee table after breakfast. I pick up Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart from the selections on the table, pack water and a map, and head for pathways labeled green ways on the map. For the next two hours I walk, read a bit, walk some more, read a bit more. Beautiful green trails, threading across the southern part of the island. It’s the fall warbler migration and I see several brilliantly colored small birds flying through the low shrubby trees and brush that edge the trail. As I near the end of my walk I ration the book so that I finish when I am back at the stile crossing the stone wall where I started. The themes of silence, solitude and prayer, speak to me. I’m uncomfortable with prayer, because I can’t forget the formulas I grew up with. However, reading Nouwen, I have the epiphany that for me, singing is prayer. Sunday morning when I go to the same knoll to wait for the sun, I sing.
Sunday afternoon at home I am irritable with the kids. I continue to be so the rest of the week. After reflection I realize that the down side for me of retreats with groups is that a community is created, that I then leave behind. I draw a picture, with the words and music to Singing Time (by Rose Fyleman) and This Pretty Planet (by Tom Chapin) at the top and bottom, a stone wall with a book resting on the wooden stile, and a figure kneeling at a bench on a knoll looking over the bay with the sun appearing at the horizon. I stick the picture on the wall above my desk at home.
Vietnam/China, November 11-26, 2000
Two weeks in China and Vietnam, to do some follow up from my thesis research in Vietnam and to work with a colleague in China.
[Journal Entries] This will be my time away for November. I’m grateful for the travel time alone. As I sit on the plane I’m really grateful for not having to attend to anyone else’s needs. As a friend said last summer, I was rebelling at being needed. The travel time will be my monthly retreat time. Time to sit back and imagine that I’m the Sun, and then to visualize the different planets. Time to look at the full moon and to imagine mentally the trip I’m taking around the globe, literally running away from the sun. We’re just over an hour out of Hong Kong now, and I got on the plane in Hartford 23 hours ago. When I got on in Hartford the sun was setting, and then we flew west. So as the earth has turned eastward, we have flown at 500 mph westward. When I see the sun rise in Hong Kong it will have been a 24 hour night.
I brought Rainer’s quilt with me to work on, and I think there are elements of showing off to working on a quilt in public. And yet I was interested in having something to do other than reading. I haven’t read much at all on this flight. I’ve worked on Rainer’s quilt, slept, ate, meditated, sang to myself, and worked on a story.
I’m singing two songs – “Give us, o Lord the strength to build, the city that has stood too long a dream where laws are love and ways are servant hood. And where the sun doth brightly shine God’s grace on human good.” And “Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ‘tis truth alone be strong. Though her portion be a scaffold and upon the throne be wrong. Yet that scaffold, sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadows keeping watch over her own.”
While in China I look for a gift for John. I finally settle on a beautiful scroll painting of bamboo, remembering a story I read once about bamboo, giving herself to carry water to the garden.
December 2000: Abbey of Regina Laudis
We stopped by the Abbey in August, when I saw the road sign pointing toward it. The porteress told me to write the Guest Mistress, and I scheduled a stay in December. There was an ice storm the night before, and when I wake up and see the ice-covered trees, I worry about the roads. But by 10am, when I had planned to leave the house, the roads look okay. So I head to Bethlehem. It’s only a 20 minute drive in good weather, but I drive slowly. The ice coated trees are still, and the overcast sky lends a hushed feeling to the air as I pull into the Abbey drive.
[Journal Entry] I’m somewhat intimidated by the unfamiliarity – fears of doing the wrong thing, disturbing something, breaking the written or unwritten rules. I started by going to the wrong door, not knowing where the guest house was. I parked the car near the Abbey and carried my bag, water bottle and quilt-stuffed pillowcase to the main entrance, where two women, one in habit, one not, were caring for the plants in the foyer. I said that I was coming to stay, and they told me to go inside and ring the bell and wait for someone to come. I did, and after a bit an older woman came and brusquely directed me back to my car, back to the main road, and up to the next driveway, where St. Gregory’s, the guesthouse is. She also told me they would expect me at noon in the refectory.
Cloistered Benedictine nuns, in full habit, chanting Latin prayers six times a day. I go to most of the prayers, and struggle with how to spend my time. After noon prayers and lunch, I speak with the porteress who offers to have the guest mistress call me. Later that afternoon Mother Placid calls me.
I go up to the refectory to meet with her, and we speak for almost an hour. The conversation is interrupted periodically by telephone calls, since Mother Placid is on telephone duty. She tells stories, and we talk about accepting the Spirit. I am reminded of a phrase from Henri Nouwen’s A Sabbatical Journey, that “the flier must not ever catch the catcher.” We are like the fliers on a trapeze, trying to grab the person who will catch us. But instead we must let go, and let the Spirit catch us. It’s not extended hours praying or meditating that help us reach out to the Divine. I walk, listen to the Latin prayers, help clean, and visit with a couple of people. I love the sense of joy.
January 2001: Young Friends Midwinter
A youth hostel with 70 teenagers – can I make this a retreat? Each morning I get up around 6am, and walk for a half hour or so. Up the road and onto the trails behind the Friendly Crossways Youth Hostel site. Saturday morning the sunrise is divine. Purples, reds and orange fill the horizon as I sit on a snow covered log on the hillside. The rest of Saturday is filled with activities, cooperative games, and conversations with youth and other adults.
Sunday morning I wake up before dawn with my heart pounding and tears in my eyes, wondering if I will be moved to speak in meeting. I go for a walk and pray – let what needs to be said come forth, and if I need to be the one to speak, let me be ready. I go farther on my walk than on Saturday, and end up getting a bit lost. But the trail comes back eventually to the main road, and I realize that I’ve circled the youth hostel.
Sunday we play freeze tag in the snow, and fill the time with laughter and joy, in addition to a challenging business session. Monday morning I walk again, and big snowflakes start to come down just as I return to the youth hostel. We pack and clean up quickly, and then head home.
February 2001: Woolman Hill
While it’s hard to have a retreat when you’re in charge, leading the weekend program on “Feeding our Bodies and Souls” was definitely a rest. Driving up to Woolman Hill I saw an exhilarating 18 red-tailed hawks, perched at different places along the freeway. Heading up the steep drive to Woolman Hill the rest of the world fell away, and I was present. We cooked simple foods and shared food stories. Saturday morning we tried to list all the foods included in our breakfast and where they had come from. A meal of muffins, fruit, oatmeal and coffee had come from all over the world.
Thoughts of eating, and the power of mindfulness in eating. We considered the invisibility of the hands that have touched our food on the way to us, and wondered about those people. Are they fed? Do they hold our food angrily, roughly, tenderly, sadly, with love? How do those hands, and the hands of those that prepare our food, affect us? Does food that is lovingly grown and prepared contain some invisible energy that makes it more nourishing? A present, un-self-conscious time of responding and being. A chance to renew friendships and make new ones.
March 2001: Abbey of Regina Laudis
A joy to be back. A familiar routine. I put my clothes and things away and then off to prayers and lunch. Work on a quilt, read a book about animal tracks, and then more prayers. Each morning before Mass I take a long walk, each evening after the last prayers I do yoga in my room.
As I walk up the hill in the woods to the main church the second day, I recognize wildcat tracks in the new snow. I check them in the animal tracks book later, and they were wildcat tracks. It is perfect snow for tracking, with a hard crust underneath and an inch of new snow on top.
The church is light-filled, with double rows of clear windows lining both sides of the sanctuary. The metal grille between the sisters and the rest of us is a reminder of their choice to separate themselves. Quakers used to wear plain dress to separate themselves, and I remember reading that some Arabic girls find that wearing a chador (headcovering) may free them to be more themselves.
How do we each find ways to separate ourselves from the busyness of the world? We have to make some decisions about habitual activities so that minutiae doesn’t fill all of our time. How do we separate ourselves enough to create space to focus on deeper things?
April 2001: Falmouth, Massachusetts
This month John and I are participating in a couples retreat, and all of us are attending a family weekend at Woolman Hill. So I don’t schedule a separate weekend for myself. However, I do have a committee meeting in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and I drive over the night before with a friend. A friend in our meeting has a family home near the beach, and she offers to let us stay there overnight.
Saturday morning I head into the drizzle and mist around 5:30am. About a block to the beach, and I walk along the sand. I try to slow my walk down so that I am walking with the sand, instead of against it. I finally head off into a nature area just near the shore, wandering in wide pathways with overhanging trees. I sit on a bench beside a pond for awhile, watching two ducks bob gently on the water. As the mist starts to rise, I realize it’s getting late and I’d better get back. I walk until I find a road, and realize I don’t know where I am. I keep walking and soon find a street I recognize.
At the committee meeting there is a selection of books from the Friends General Conference bookstore, and I buy 2 – Prayer without Ceasing, by Candida Palmer, and Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer. It’s time for me to think about what prayer is, and to find a way that I can be comfortable praying.
I’ve been thinking about prayer beads since I made some for a teenager at the Midwinter gathering. But I keep thinking how kitsch and trite they seem. Finally, at the end of April, I make some. Four big glass beads, separated from each other by three small beads. One set of three black beads for John and the boys, three clear beads for committee responsibilities, three blue beads for friends and loved ones, and three green beads for the coming day. For each of the big ones I hold it in my hand, and feel the Presence in all things and the Presence in me. With the beads, I find myself praying for the first time in many years.
Appalachian Trail, May 10-11, 2001
I realized in December that the end of this year of retreats would be a solo backpacking trip, preferably in May. Thursday-Friday worked best, because then the boys could just go to the babysitter.
[Journal Entry] I didn’t eat breakfast before starting on Thursday, and chose to fast until lunch time on Friday. It wasn’t an easy hike, with lots of steep uphill sections, some up rock ledges. When I started getting really stiff I would hold my beads in my shorts pocket and pray – “Guide my feet, lift my feet.” Thursday night when I stopped to camp I was very stiff and sore. I spent a lot of time that evening meditating and doing Reiki – thinking about the Chi and sending it to my shoulders and hips.
I put up the tent, but choose to sleep outside where I can watch the stars and be a part of the semi-wild world around me. I listen to a woodpecker, and finally catch a glimpse of a red-crested bird pecking at trees around my camp. I take out the medicinal plants book and look up some of the wildflowers I’d seen. The most spectacular was a purple trillium. I listen to the sounds change as dusk gives way to night and the birds go to sleep. The insects continue buzzing for quite awhile, but eventually I, too, go to sleep.
Several times during the night I wake up. Each time I feel only joy, and after checking out where the almost full moon is in the sky, and the night sounds of the forest, I lie back down and sleep.
Thoughts on the trail – we underestimate ourselves and what we can do with a higher power. Sometimes we need to push ourselves physically to let the Presence break through. We can’t spend too much time looking way out in front, trying to see the mountain top we work towards. We have to keep our eyes and mind present on the trail where we are.
The year of listening for the Divine Presence has helped me to recognize that it’s always here. And maybe my ears and heart are somewhat better trained to listen. The next walk is to listen to others, and to hear the Divine in others. It’s time for me to learn to listen better, especially to John and the boys. I need to internalize that the process is more important than the outcome, and the end never justifies the means. The end of having a nice garden does not justify excluding Cameron Jack (4 years old) from the planting. And so we painted today, Cameron Jack and I, and I trust that the walls will look okay when we’re finished.