The Necessity of Retreat
How time away from the world leads back to the real self.
Posted Jul 12, 2018
I’m on retreat from the world this week. My friend Phoenix found an amazing haven for us: time at a beautiful environmental research station about three hours from our respective homes. Every year in July, the station welcomes writers and artists to come work on their respective projects at the wonderfully remote, quiet, comfortable facility. We pay a nominal fee, have lovely accommodations, prepare our own food, hike the many wooded trails, watch the sunset on the edge of the pristine glacial lake, and work on our books and paintings.
In three days, I have become the self I want to be: slower, relaxed, creative, open, curious, attentive. I’ve managed a couple of stressors: lost everything I wrote yesterday morning and rewrote it all yesterday afternoon (being careful to save to the cloud frequently!) I kept calm during a couple of insulin pump-related problems and weathered them with equanimity that surprised me.
I’ve done some new things: shared my current writing project openly with Phoenix and received her gently worded and helpful critique with an active, receptive brain—defensiveness isn’t part of me here. We’ve shared her work too, and I have seen and reflected all sorts of strengths in it without a tinge of competitiveness, pure admiration and pleasure in her accomplishment. I am feeling, in other words, what it is like to be a mature woman, confident and secure and at ease.
I’ve allowed myself to play creatively, taking 59 photos of the sunset over the lake last night with only the faintest negative self-talk, which I immediately took care to silence: Nothing like a cliché there, Elizabeth! No, nothing like the pleasure of capturing Nature writ large, nothing like the joy of exploring color and shape and shadow, nothing like playing with perspective, distance, focus, and frame. The sunset itself was a sacred experience to witness: the power of light, water, trees, space to remind me of the mystery and glory in the world is always present, but not always observed in my life.
I’ve met some scintillating people: a Canadian painter whose landscapes already haunt me; a young painter from the Rockies whose face lights up as she talks about teaching nurses how to draw and paint; a bravely sad young painter who is thinking, writing, and (I hope) painting about a recent loss. Phoenix has proposed that we all have a turkey dinner together tonight, a potluck in the lodge. The enthusiasm for the idea was so strong that she and I had a moment of maternal concern that perhaps there wouldn’t be enough turkey to feed all the starving artists, and then we looked at each other and said, in unison, “Whatever!” We know we’ll have enough food, and that everyone will get some turkey to go with their corn-on-the-cob, yam casserole, vegan treats, salad, brownies and ice cream, wine. I can picture the golden light over the table in the lodge already, hear the eager, happy, laughing voices. We’ll share our work, our life stories, our joys.
Away from the complexities in my daily life, I can attend to the spirit within, to the real self. I like having time with that self, time to let go, temporarily, of the weight of the world, the sadness and anxiety that constitute part of my work as a therapist and part of my own experience as a human being in relationship with many people.
When I worked as the bereavement social worker in a hospice, my friend Rich, a hospice chaplain, told me that he took a week off every quarter. My first response, which probably spilled out all over my face, was What a great idea! He smiled at me, and said that his wife, who was a therapist, had told him that he had to do that, or he’d burn out. “She’s right about many things,” he said. “And this was a big one.” He looked at me. “I think it might be right for you.” His ability to see me, and to care enough to advise me, touched my heart and my mind. I thought, Yes, do this. This is important.
Ever since, I’ve managed to take a week every quarter, more or less, and go away somewhere. Sometimes it’s been social: to a dear friend’s wedding across the country, to my brother’s in Florida during a bitter winter. But the weeks that feed my spirit have been the ones where I have been somewhere beautiful, alone in my thoughts. I write, I read, I walk, I sleep, I prepare food that’s good for me, I tend to my health. I do all the things I’d like to do every day, but don’t—perhaps can’t.
When I go home after a retreat, I take pleasure in resuming my daily life: clients, friends, a tight schedule, leftovers for dinner, an hour or two snatched to write. That life is very good, full of stimulation, learning, meaning. But I know that when I head home this Sunday, I’ll have my eye on the next retreat: when I get to be away from the world, be quiet and at peace.