A friend asked if I could go for a walk with her this weekend. No, I said, regretful to miss out on the walk but not regretful at all for the reason. "It's our annual retreat weekend."
Inevitably, the question followed as it does whenever I mention the retreat weekend to friends who haven't participated: "What do you do?"
We do nothing, I have to respond. Well, not nothing. We walk, talk, read and write. But what's so great about it is that it feels like we're doing nothing.
That's a retreat? people sometimes respond. Don't you have any more of agenda than that?
But the twenty or so of us who attend every year actually joke about how little agenda we have. In fact, the retreat house manager sometimes ribs us about how loose our agenda is compared to her other guests.
We know this. We've heard stories from other groups who use the same retreat house. They go for soul-searching. They dig deep into their psyches.
We, on the other hand, go for walks. We dig deep with the tips of our snowshoes.
Which isn't to say that soul-searching doesn't happen on our retreat. It just doesn't happen with much of an agenda. Important and meaningful conversations transpire over meals, by the fireplace, in the double and triple dorm rooms, on long walks along the country roads near the house. We learn about each other. We inspire each other.
I started attending the retreat when my kids were still very young and I was desperate for chances to get away, to think, to have silence, to sleep late, to write. Now, almost a decade later, it's different. I'm not so desperate anymore, with both kids in school all day, leaving me alone to write for hours, and then both kids sleeping well past nine o'clock on weekend mornings, I'm not so deperate for a good night's sleep either.
But in a way, it's almost more fun now because I have even less of an agenda than I used to. I used to head to the retreat house with stacks of books and articles to read, essay ideas to explore, journal pages to fill. The idea of a free 48 hours was so thrilling as to be almost overwhelming in its potential; I would totally overburden myself with all I wanted to accomplish.
Not anymore. Now I go just to be there. I go to walk and talk and write and read. But with no particular idea of what I need to have to show for my efforts by Sunday afternoon. I don't have specific issues to expurgate or goals to outline.
So maybe it's not everyone's idea of a retreat, but it's the habit we've fallen into every January: a retreat just for being away together. And regardless of how little of an agenda we have, everyone always seems to take all they want from the experience.