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!”