Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Weekends Away: A Silent Retreat

After months and months of planning, deliberation, anticipation, on the last official weekend of the summer, I finally made it to the East Mountain Retreat Center for that blessed promise of peace, solitude, and nature. The retreat was nestled in the Berkshire mountains, in a forest off the small town of Great Barrington, MA (Pop: 7,000).  The Reverend Lois Rose ran it, a vivacious woman with long gray hair in a ponytail that still carried traces of blonde, who despite her stooped figure carried the energy of a young girl. She showed me my own cabin in the woods. It was a small, slanted little house with sparse, rustic decor. In the kitchen, the clock ticked away, but the red second hand had fallen to the bottom. She gave me a brief tour of the retreat grounds: the meditation room, with its hushed stillness and open wood floors, the cozy library with its books on spiritualism, religion, and novels with the same leanings, the outdoor gazebos with their screened doors and windows, and gave me tips on walks to take and explore. I want you to really notice things, she said, about the fish in the pond, the animals in the woods. Then she left me on my own.

That weekend I passed many hours sitting in one of the gazebos outside, with my journal and pen in front of me, writing pages and pages, journaling and the beginnings of stories. I watched the dragonflies hover at the edge of the screen doors and the quivering of the leaves. I tried writing poetry (as the Reverend suggested, though I tend to have a distaste for usually) and liked the empty spaces it left on the page. In the mornings I went for a walk, up the ski trail which revealed surprises of mushrooms budding from the ground, butterflies fluttering with their yellow and orange wings, a frog that leapt beneath a stone. More stunning was the view of the mountains, especially when they were shrouded in a glaze of fog, and the empty and still skyrides overhead. To imagine that the desserted grass fields and forest around me, in other times of the year, could be padded with thick snow and busy vacationers....while I could hear the crunching of the pebbles and grass beneath my feet...was a remarkable feeling of wonder, relief.

There was a predictability to those few days that was reassuring. Every evening at six, cooked hot meals would appear in the kitchen, and next to it, green bowls that matched the number of guests who would be eating. I'd spent the rest of the evening curled up in a chair, reading novels from Lois's library. One evening I came upon a porcupine, who regarded my approach with raising its quills, then climbed onto the branches of a pine tree and mostly ignored me. I listened often to the spray of wind against the trees. Though the people were silent, the birds didn't stop their chirping, and animals treading through the trees sounded often like human footsteps. 

But though I tried, I could not keep my mind from wondering to non-nature related things. I thought about shades of lipsticks and boys and songs I longed to hear. One night I heard the sound of fireworks and after combating my fear (without street lamps, the darkness there was utterly complete, frightening) ventured outside to catch glimpses of sparks over the tops of trees. It made me long for immersion of a different kind, of dazzle and not so subtle charm.

On my last day, my voice sounded like a surprise, foreign even to myself. I had breakfast--an all organic ham and egg baked sandwich and Earl Gray--at a charming cafe in the small block that counts as town center of Great Barrington, and delighted in finally being able to listen the song stuck in my head--Billie Holiday's "Guilty"--on the bus ride back. In the end, however, it was the sight of New York: the gloss of the yellow cabs, the brownstones and men with dark skin and white tank tops in fire escapes, the pavement of the calculated greenery of Central Park--that made my heart soar, and the smile that sparked to stretch on my face. Perhaps it took this flirtation with nature (and about a hundred bug bites) to remind me that, disillusionment aside, my one true love remains, New York, with its greed and ambitions, poverty and squalor, dazzlingly distractions. 

Home, sweet home. 

1 comment:

  1. So that... was beautiful. Your writing just never fails to blow me mind. ^^