Monday, January 17, 2011

Annual retreat

This past weekend was Winter Retreat for me. Every year since 2005, on the third weekend in January, I’ve joined a group of fifteen or twenty other women to travel to a retreat house in northeast Connecticut. We have only a very general agenda for how we plan to schedule the two days ahead: mealtimes are designated, as are a couple of discussion sessions, a crafts project, a Saturday evening film screening in the retreat house’s comfortable living room, an informal Sunday morning worship service in the retreat house’s chapel space.

But no one in the group cares who does and does not participate in the loosely scheduled events, and it ends up being a weekend when everyone who attends is free to spend their time however they wish. There aren’t too many weekends in my life devoted to spending my time however I wish, and I’m always grateful for this one when the date arrives each year.

In the past six years, not very much as changed about how I like to spend this time of freedom and non-commitment. If anything, it always crystallizes for me how specific my four areas of interest are when it comes to free time: running, walking, reading, writing. And in between, conversation and bonding with the other retreat participants. But the social aspect is lesser to the amazing opportunity of devoting so many long hours to the other four.

On Saturday before breakfast, I took a six-mile run through the countryside that surrounds the retreat house. This area, as I learned when I wrote a travel article about it a few years ago, is called Connecticut’s “Quiet Corner.” In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a favorite rural vacation destination for New Yorkers, especially those in the publishing and newspaper industries. Families would pack up and head to these rolling hills so that the parents could savor the quiet and the children could swim in the ponds and play in the meadows.

Today, the area seems to be about half preserved farmland and half suburbia. Being on a retreat here isn’t exactly like being deep in the White Mountains or the Outer Cape. Cars pass along this country road regularly, and there’s a Walmart less than two miles away. But that takes nothing away from the sense of escape we all bask in here. As I ran three miles out and three miles back, I passed beautifully preserved antique farmhouses, bungalows, and small shingled homes. The air was chilly, and vapor froze on my eyelashes, but I was grateful to be able to take more than an hour for my run without feeling like I was needed anywhere else – and even more grateful for the breakfast of eggs, scones, fruit and muffins prepared by the retreat house’s kitchen staff while I was out.

And then after a hot shower, a sense of absolute freedom for the hours that lay ahead. Some of the women were gathering for a morning discussion on six-word memoirs and an afternoon project making Joy Boxes; others were taking the time for themselves, as I was. I wrote for hours throughout the course of the day, reflecting on the year just passed and sketching out tentative hopes for the year just beginning. And then when I couldn’t think about writing anymore, I walked for an hour, down the road in the opposite direction from where I ran. Tired after that, I read, and then later joined the other women downstairs by the fireplace to work on putting photos from 2010 into my photo album. The latter has become a yearly tradition for me; since this retreat always falls in mid-January, after New Year’s I order prints of all the photos I think worth keeping from the previous year and then take an hour or two during the retreat to put them all in my album.

After dinner I read until I fell asleep. Sunday morning, another run – four miles this time, and it wasn’t nearly so cold. Then more time for writing and a little bit of reading before lunch and the trip home. Other years, I’ve felt more desperate for the escape and the solitude the retreat offers. These days, life is at a point where there isn’t as much of a lack of solitude in daily life for me. When I started attending this retreat, Holly was two years old; I was home full-time with her, and Tim was only in kindergarten and home a lot as well. These days I’m alone for six hours a day while they’re at school.

But I don’t spend their time at school reading, going for walks, or writing in my journal; I spend it working on paid writing or editing assignments. So it’s still a magnificent luxury to get away once a year for two days of this kind of self-indulgence. I write, I read, I walk, I run. And I go home ready for another year, feeling rejuvenated and slightly amazed that I had the luxury of these two days once again.

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