HERmitage

For 48 uninterrupted hours last week, I lived in a little cabin in the woods – alone, and, I repeat, uninterrupted. (Today my children do not have school, and so the “uninterrupted” part feels especially important as I remember my retreat.)

When I started taking solitary retreats a few years ago, I approached them with a sense of lofty significance. I expected a burning bush, a still small voice, a bright light, or some other monumental encounter of biblical proportions. But that has never been my experience. Instead, these retreats have become well-anticipated rest times, and that is plenty.

Attached to the tiny cabin is a screened porch with a solid comfortable Adirondack chair. I sit in the chair and gaze into the woods. A breeze softly shushes through the sleepy trees, who absentmindedly undress, leaf by falling leaf. It is always autumn when I take my retreat, not by my intent, but it always works that way. It is probably the rhythm of my life – summer is large and loud and light-flooded, and usually around the first of October I am ready for a very long nap.

I have always been an introvert. I’m not sure if there is a universal definition for this word, but for me, it means that spending time with people, which is something that is so very good for me (and which I usually enjoy!), takes more emotional energy from me than it does from people we call extroverts. In my young and restless high school and college days, my house was a headquarters for social gatherings, and I loved it. But often I would sleep fitfully after everyone went home, dreaming that all those people were still there, sitting around me on my bed; and I felt I should keep up the conversation, try to be fun and smart and beautiful, but the shy wild creature inside me had already pulled the shades and turned off the porch light.

A solitary retreat, then, is for me a complete pulling of the shades and extinguishing of the porch light, with no expectation from anyone that I will keep up appearances and maintain social graces. I bring my guitar, a pile of books and a few journals (I like to read over past ones and write in current ones). Usually I end up just sitting for long periods, going to bed early, sleeping in late, walking breezy forest trails and sunny prairie ones, and singing quiet songs now and then.

This time I read three books. First, I finished Grace (Eventually) by Anne Lamott, a former addict, recovering G.W. Bush-hater, single mother, pro-choice feminist, and lover of Jesus. Her writing always refreshes me because she is so not me. She sometimes feels like the mirror image of me – child of divorced nonreligious intellectuals, wild background, outspoken demeanor, whose adulthood devotion to Jesus never sat well with her mother. Next, Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm, poetic prose that I enjoy like fine wine or rich baklava – slowly savoring each sentence. I try to set aside my own ambitions of writing when I read either of these Annes, because who needs that form of torture? Instead, I become a wholly abandoned, joyful reader, and it is good.

Then I tackled The Myth of Certainty by Daniel Taylor, a book the renegade professors at my fundamentalist Christian college used to praise. Fifteen years later, I finally got around to reading it. The subtitle is The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment. For those who ask about breakthroughs or “what God did” on my retreat, I humbly and with no certainty but a risk-taking commitment say that I found great comfort and voice for much of my struggle with faith in this book. I’ll leave that for another post.

For now, I feel rested and just a little more practiced at peace, more able to hold a center of calm even on very interrupted days like this, when I hear my children in the kitchen bustling around, yelling, “Mom, we’re cooking!”

3 Comments

  1. The Myth of Certainty was for me the first book I read which comprehensively addressed the doubts that were arising in my mind. It was helpful to me, more so than many of the books since. As I see the title in your post I think of reading it again, I’m at a much different point in my journey than I was then, even though it was only a short time ago. This past Spring seems like an age away. I look forward to your post with more thoughts.

    I think of trying more of the Annes as I hear you and Jodi talk about them, but the Bush-hater, etc in Lamott does get old to me quickly. But at the same time I think it’s good for me. Your thought “Her writing always refreshes me because she is so not me.” is so true.

    I’m not an introvert, though I look back fondly at the solitary overnight camping we did on Lake Superior as part of a camp I went to every summer growing up. We would be given matches, a metal cup, a packet of hot chocolate, and tarp. We were allowed a Bible, sleeping bag, and pillow, nothing else. Dropped off after an early dinner, we spread down the beach until we could barely see the next camper in the distance. We would gather up some sticks to light a small fire to heat lake water for hot chocolate, and find a support for the tarp we would sleep under. Otherwise there was not much to do but look at the lake, skip rocks, and think. I don’t remember what I thought about, my mind probably emptied rather than filled with thoughts. The lack of a flashlight bothered some, but the ability to lay back and take in the full expanse of the heavens without distraction was truly amazing. The sound of the water, the feel of the sand, it all comes back so clearly.

    After going to the web site Jodi sent me, I was intrigued by the thought of the Hermitage. I rejected it after some thought, but hearing your experience it does appeal to me. Maybe if Jodi tries it first I’ll give it a try. 🙂

    • An overdue thank you for this post, James. Such a vivid description of that weekend by the lake – sounds lovely. Though you may never do that again, you carry those memories (not just thoughts and images but I would guess emotional memories too) within you – and so you have a little “portable solitude” you can bring up when you want. At least, that’s how it works for me. In a rushy day, sometimes just recalling that hermitage in the woods, me sipping tea in the rocking chair, is enough to bring back some sense of calm.

      • I have thought of those memories at times, but not enough. I think because it was a time in my life before I had great concerns or cares that it didn’t seem as significant at the time, so it didn’t bear enough importance to create a memory I would often think of. But it’s a good idea to use that as portable solitude, it is a fond memory that could work that way.

        It’s funny about memories, it was a day after I posted that reply that I was thinking back about that time, and remembered the texture of lying on those smooth rocks that make up the Superior shore in that area. But in my reply I had written about remembering the feel of the sand… 🙂 I’m sure many memories are colored by our lack of specifics that our minds fill in, but I’m fine with that.

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