On Retreat: Heading to the Woods
Once every year, I go to the woods, to a small Catholic retreat center in northeast Kansas, which may not seem like the likely place you would find a Jewish girl from New York and New Jersey, but it is the perfect place. I arrive on a Thursday at Shantivanam: Forest of Peace where, after greeting the caretakers of this center, I head out to a small cabin in the woods. There is no internet, only phone service when standing on certain hills when the stars are aligned just so, hardly any other people, and a schedule of short, meditation-centered services followed by one communal meal a day (lunch) or a thermos of soup for dinner.
The woods, to quote Robert Frost, are “lovely, dark and deep,” and my promises to keep on these retreats is do the opposite of what Frost does in his poem. I am to tarry here, to wander, to aimlessly explore until some of the noise in my little head loses its volume. Here, I put aside any of the promises I usually tarry to keep to, instead, concentrate on the promise of being alive.
The first day on retreat is always uncomfortable as I trot in with several story lines of what so-and-so said to me, and I’ll do or say in the case of scenario #1, #2 or even #28, all of which I keep spinning. My brain, when put on retreat, must first stage an all-out rebellion against truly relaxing and coming to see, feel and hear where I actually am: in the woods in a little cabin in late fall. So reckless is the in-mind in-fighting on the first day here that I think many times about getting in my car and going home, or driving to where there’s internet.
Then something happens, or in my case, un-happens.
I stop worrying, rushing out battle plans or obsessing on the small stuff. Sometimes I glimpse myself face-to-face with someone I’m worried about, angry with or hurt from, and I imagine handing her a trembling bird, promising to be kinder. Or I see someone I love, in pain and beyond my reach, walking with me, and I promise to listen to him more carefully without judgment or trying so hard to fix the unfixable. These little visualizations help me put some of the raging story lines on a shelf or, in some cases, dissolve completely the heat and energy behind the story line’s hold on me.
By the second day, I’m a much more sane person, which is good, because on this day, my husband usually arrives for our time together on retreat. We walk trails into the deep woods, try not to make a sound sometimes with our steps, which is always impossible because the trails are covered with fallen leaves. We listen for deer, owl, marvel at the turkey flying down from the tree. We sit on a big stone at the miniature Stonehenge in the field and watch the orange just-past-full moon rise, laughing at how the coyotes closest to the eastern horizon howl first, then the ones further back, and eventually the ones down the valley. We eat oatmeal, drink coffee, and at night, sip our soup and have an annual state-of-the-marriage discussion which, as we get older, gets more concise and focuses more on cultivating greater presence, kindness, patience.
Within a few days, I leave, and he stays for his time alone, romping the woods and reading. By the time he returns a few days later, we’re thrilled to see each other. Our eyes are brighter, our hearts clearer, and our minds just enough calmer to see how much everything around us is showing us ways to dwell in the beautiful refuge of the living world.