I Guess This Is What It Would Feel Like to Leave My Life Behind
I have found myself daydreaming recently about my next secret trip to a favorite monastery tucked away in the hills of Kentucky. I think about the few days I have set aside this coming January much like I might reminisce about a trip to the sea as a child, or the sweet milky breath of a favorite girl, immediately preceding a long-ago first kiss.
After reading The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton, I knew I had to visit the monastery where he disappeared as an educated, well-traveled young man to embrace a life of devotion, rest, and intimate prayer far from the din of the clamoring world. I was delighted that the Trappist monks were more than willing to offer me a simple room, a few light meals a day, complete anonymity, silence, and approximately a thousand rolling acres of fields and woodlands for walking at night alone. I try to visit the Abbey at least once a year, to give myself one of the greatest gifts I have discovered in my life thus far: Solitude.
The following words were written easily on my last visit, as I sat grinning to myself.
Abbey of Gethsemani
Arrive 14 January, depart 17 January
of the year 2000
I arrive on a Friday and the world all but disappears.
I hear only the occasional car and the ringing in my ears. This feeling of being here—daunting and foreign that first time I arrived so long ago—is now pleasant and familiar.
I unpack and neatly put away my things: Running clothes, a few books, a toothbrush. I used to bring suitcases full of hardbacks and notebooks, changes of clothes, songs to finish, poems to edit. But now I travel light.
I sit at this small wooden desk and look out over the abbey gardens, the fields, and tree-lined hills. I guess this is what it would feel like to leave my life behind, taking with me only what I could carry.
The chime rings out the three-quarter hour, and I begin to wonder why I like these little getaways so much. What is a retreat? What do I bring? What do I hope to take away?
For me, a retreat is essentially a quiet time for looking back and looking forward. What I bring is a tangled but mostly happy life. What I take away is a wild card, something that’s hard to put into words, big or little gifts that grace usually gives to us when we find someplace quiet enough to listen for a change.
I come with no agenda. I let a few days unfold like wildflowers, tiny and surprising splashes of colour in unexpected places, a few days alone against the backdrop of a calendar year filled with comings and goings in the spinning world. The white brushstrokes of the sycamores against the sleepy browns and grays of the January woods are like fresh paint on a canvas. And the sky is a low, goosedown feathertick covering Kentucky as if to shield us from some danger.
What does a day look like down here? What is my retreat palette?
Green is the fertile field of these pages for scattering seed.
Gray is the smoky, internal shadow of all the things I’ve been given in my life to teach me what sadness feels like. White is an epiphany least expected that sneaks up on me while walking in a sloping hayfield with the woods rising ahead like an army conjured up out of my own middle age.
Yellow is just the late afternoon light on the pines.
Black is after-dark walks, God’s bright thumbnail, the gibbous moon, spied through bare winter trees with outstretched, swaying limbs and bodies backlit by stars, beautiful and dark as silhouetted women, underneath bright fleet clouds on their way (purposefully) to who knows where. Perhaps to the sea, traveling by midnight like secret schooners across the winded sky just above the knitted brow of the grassy hill where I have come to see the show for free.
Blue is a few hushed, strummed, clandestine guitar chords, evoked so quietly that a monk walking in the hallway passes by undisturbed.
Red is my blood that—I am reminded here—beats with Christ’s in me. Or maybe it’s just the redheaded woodpecker I watch by the lake moving above from here to there, chirping crossly at the life he’s been given, constantly beating his head against a wall.
Pink is the painted underbelly of the clouds on a Gethsemani Saturday night at six o’clock. Vespers are over. It’s time for supper.
Warm burgundy is the nap I take after breakfast on my single bed.
And yes, I want to write it all down. Confessions. Whims. Ideas wise and otherwise. But I mostly want to listen with no end in mind.
I want to ask myself, “Am I alright?”
I can already say one thing for sure: I feel free.
And now, here by the canteen green pond, I hear the bark of a distant farmer’s dog and the faintly audible fly buzz of a teenager’s motorcycle. There is the trace of a warm January breeze. This feels more like a mild day in late March than the 16th day of a new year. The breeze becomes wind for a few seconds. I am aware of the restlessness of birds, the clatter and knock of dry, leathery oak leaves on branches that can’t let go, the feathery swaying of pines. I planned none of this. This is the luxurious, slow pace of solitude.
And I am free.
Some people fear dying alone. But some part of me wishes I could go somewhere alone to die. To savor for the last time the story I helped write with this gift of too large a life. To close my eyes and see all the characters who played their parts and enabled me to see myself—both the good and the bad—through their eyes.
And I would pray, “Lord, meet us here.” For all prayers are plural. OUR father. Give US this day. Forgive US as WE forgive…
Meet us here in the last few pages of our story. Help us write the words,The End, with grace and satisfaction.
When I used to take these retreats, I would often think deeply about radically changing my life: Leaving behind my music and troublesome working relationships, leaving behind those closest to me, leaving behind my city. I thought I would be suddenly free if I could orchestrate some sort of great escape—fly the chicken-coop life I had chosen. But I think I was really just searching for ways to escape myself.
The problem with running off and finding a new life is that you have to take yourself with you.
But now I don’t feel the need to run from my past—or the parts of me that keep my dreams at arms’ length. I tell the shadows inside to come on out and have a seat and, “Let’s talk.” I have a hunch it’s all going to come to light eventually anyway, and I quite like the idea of telling secrets. Making withdrawals from my memory bank of shame.
What are the things I have done that I am least proud of? Somehow they are all part of me, too. But by telling my secrets, I don’t alienate the world. Being vulnerable and open makes us all a little bit closer somehow. And there are good moments to remember—times when I participated in something so much bigger than myself.
There are days now when my life fits me quite well somehow, and I seem to have more of a sense of place. I’m actually quite anxious to return to my life and my work and my love. I simply want God to speak into the life I’ve been given. It’s a good life. And learning how to say “thank you” is my life’s work.
Saying thank you is what I want my life to be about.
I want to dream new and better ways of expressing gratitude. I want to conjure up joyful syllables, and make a mess in the kitchen, and get paint and ink stained on my fingers and hands. I want to garden a harvest of you, the thickening plot of this coming night, this eerie light of angels descending. I want to bury my heart in this starry basket of unforbidden fruit, and run headlong until I trip and sprawl face down into whatever hard-won, muddy redemption might be handy. I want to look up and smile and say…Thanks.
Oh yeah, one more thing: I don’t want the noisy, numbing world to take my hand and teach me incrementally how to live comfortably with deafness.
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