I am leaving on Sunday to attend the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. It’s not a retreat, far from it, at least what I think of as a retreat—living in silence for a week or more, writing, drawing, meditating or praying, excused briefly from life’s chores and life’s interactions. A writers’ conference at least will have more than a typical representation of introverts, I am hoping, and not the overabundance of noise and chattiness that I associate with groups of people getting together.
I went on my first real retreat on my 50th birthday, at a lovely center in Westfield Massachusetts, Genesis Spiritual Life Center, run by a progressive and welcoming group of nuns who run the center to offer hospitality to persons of all faiths, cultures and lifestyles. I took a week-long silent retreat, the silence broken once daily with a conference with my spiritual adviser; otherwise I was able to wander, walk, write, think, and cool down into my own pace and way of being. It was a revelatory experience. I have since gone on at least one retreat a year, hoping to hold on to the way of being that such an experience allows.
I have been on retreats that were mostly torture, when I never achieved any internal quiet or rest. Even those were profound experiences, giving me some strength to continue seeking the sense of peace in being that I long for. Here is a journal note from one of those difficult times:
What can I learn from this pain? What can I learn from this fatigue? I brought this sadness and melancholy and fatigue and pain with me to this retreat. So that I can find the center of my misery, my discontent. Also to tear them apart, chew them into small pieces and digest their paralyzing power.
I am meditating on wilderness and temptation. My wilderness is any territory I enter anew willing my heart to see and to imagine. How to live in this place? What are the temptations here? Jesus was tempted to use his power for personal gain, to save himself alone, to test God. I sense that these are the three temptations we all face. How to live not alone, but with others. This is such a trial for me.
I will lean into the pain. The specific pains this year of betrayal, loss, death, accidents. Pain in hips, back, feet. Pain of unremitting anger, wily distrust, and constant uncertainty. Going deeper into the pain. Facing my own temptation to leave by absorbing, entering, accepting, maybe even loving, my own pain, others’ pain.
Today I read Everyman, by Philip Roth. I am struck by this scene: a woman who mourns the loss of her husband and is in terrible pain commits suicide. She believes her husband would have enabled her to soldier on. Throughout the book, there is a rejection of turning towards God for strength to go on. Really the book offers a simple rejection of God. Yet the protagonist–an elderly, frail, ill man who is out of sorts with his own children– returns to the gravesides of his parents, feeling consolation in being “close to their bones”. He is like so many of my patients who wonder how they find themselves where they are. Feeling useless and empty. Unable to do things that bring joy and meaning to their lives. Some of my patients find strength in God and others do not. I’m not sure whether I see a difference in their suffering. There is the surprise of having gotten old, a surprise of sorrow, not gladness. Many ask me is there a pill to gently bring death. Everyone wants to die in his sleep. Like a prayer lifted to heaven.
I plan to continue blogging while I’m at the conference. I also hope to do a lot of writing. Cautiously, I also am longing for meaningful conversation. But also some sense of retreat and silence in which to greet my core self.