I have been thinking that I need a retreat from the world. With the grief that’s accompanied my dad’s passing, my worries about my husband’s health decline, and my general malaise with the current leadership in these United States, I need a break. The long, cold Northeastern winter does not help.
A fantastic think piece this week in the Wall Street Journal about Tapping Into the Sound of Silence by Anne Kadet who took a silent retreat within the framework of her own day-to-day life, got me thinking, ‘Hey, I don’t have to actually do any big whoop to retreat. I can simply turn down the volume.’
Incidentally, since getting hearing aids, I can literally turn down the volume. During the school day as I help to monitor middle school lunches, this turning-it-down feature really benefits me in the noisy dining hall. I can still hear boys’ conversations near me, but I don’t have to take in the whole big din. The dining hall becomes a bit more civilized when it’s not so loud.
When we get silent, there is a “freedom from self-preoccupation,” according to Richard Rohr. His message popped up in today’s emails. It is as if the world is trying to tell me something.
When we recognize something as beautiful, that knowledge partly emerges from the silence around it. It may be why we are quiet in art galleries and symphony halls. If something is not surrounded by the vastness of silence and space, it is hard to appreciate it as singular and beautiful. If it is all mixed in with everything else, then its particularity does not stand out.
Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation From the Center for Action and Contemplation
To get quiet, one needs to focus, to control the kneejerk reaction to respond to every stimulus — whether it’s the red flashing breaking news update or the ping of a new email hitting the inbox.
The reward for this focus, this silence, this mindfulness, this absence, is the gift of noticing the world around you — be it the beauty of this winter season or the humor of children.
I know that I can be a little chatty. I love to joke around with my coworkers and family. But by freeing myself from the need to make noise, I am giving myself the gift of focusing more deeply on the natural world and on the people in my world. I am opening myself to all that is beautiful. I love to look at art and appreciate the specificity of words.
I’m tuning out, but not to drop out; my purpose is to drop in, go deeper, take time, listen better. Create a silent retreat right where I am.
Join me on the winter writing retreat where we will spend time in silence, in looking at art, and in noisy meal times.
You might set the timer on your phone for five minutes. Try these three things:
Sit quietly (Or lay down)
Close eyes (Or half close eyes)
Breathe (Or simply relax)
Yup, that’s it. Try to stay awake. And when the timer goes off, find a renewed sense of energy. Or feel rested. Maybe you’ll find clarity to a problem.
I love the image of the lotus flower as a symbol for the meditative mind. Like a lotus, let all cares rest on the surface. Let the mind be calm water. Or a cloudless sky.
I heard Thich Nhat Hahn once say that when troubles strike, let the troubles be like a storm that may toss and turn the top branches of a tree but your trunk, your center, stays strong. You bend but do not break.
Last year I dedicated the month of October to mindfulness. It worked. I felt more at peace — for a few minutes, for a month, for a while.
I have been to Ireland, at least, three times before – ’74, ’83, and ’96. When I was 12, in ’74, I was with my mother, we were on a tour, paid for, I believe, by a small inheritance from my grandmother Catherine. And we were with my aunt Terry and a couple of hilarious great aunts. I remember riding on a tour bus, having a lot of laughs.
Then in ’83, I’d been studying in an NYU London summer program, gobbling up delicious chunks of Cadbury, Shakespeare, theatre, French Silk, and art history. In London, I’d dyed my hair with streaks of blue. My roommate was punk and she inspired me. My hair was basically platinum blonde, so the color of my blue streaks was green. Pretty. So I thought. Sure, I couldn’t get a comb through it. The day after I got home to Park Ridge, Illinois, my mother made me visit Arlene to get my hair cut and colored. From that day forward, my hair has been, semi-normal. Well, at my first wedding, I wore it asymmetrical, you know, one side long and the other short. But that was just cool.
During that NYU London summer, I’d stayed with Colin, my grammar school penpal in Belfast. We were frisked just going into the movie theatre. And to get into the city center, soldiers eyed you, patrolled our bus.
When I asked Colin, ‘Where are all those soldiers, riding in the back of the open trucks, going?’ He said, ‘Nowhere. They just ride around.’ With machine guns, they rode around then. I haven’t seen soldiers like that on this visit.
We had a lot of laughs in pubs and talked politics then. How we hated Ronald Reagan. I went to a party, this guy who hosted the party, this swank Iranian, made a recurring joke, more and more frequently as the drinking went on, about kidnapping me –because that was the thing then, the kidnapping of Americans by Iranians. And I didn’t think it was funny, but I went along, laughing. Because I felt it was impolite. I didn’t want to be a buzzkill in another country and say to the host of the party, “That’s not funny.”
That summer, when my classes ended, my boyfriend at the time, Jim, who would become my first husband, met me in London. We came back over to Ireland, rented a car and toured around. Mostly, we had a great time, going to pubs and driving the countryside. Snapping pictures. (As always, having a lot of laughs. My kids sometimes tell me now, ‘You have a laughing problem.’)
I remember thinking, Ya, it’s easy to take great pictures here. I took my pics with film, of course. And Jim, moody bastard, encouraged me, believing me to be a brilliant writer and photographer. So whatever other failings he/we had, I loved and was grateful for the way he encouraged me to write and take pics.
Then, 19 years ago, my godfather Uncle Kevin was taking his six siblings and their spouses and his two children on a round-the-country Ireland trip to celebrate his 50th birthday. And Chris, my new husband at the time, and I horned in on the journey (and I was self-conscious about that during the trip, believing I had imposed ourselves in their journey. I was/am sensitive.)
I was pregnant with Hayden. My aunt Judy told me, ‘This is probably the happiest time of your life – the pregnancy of your first child.’
And I remember being happy, so happy when I was pregnant, as if my purpose in life had been revealed, I was going to be a mother. And a damn good one. I had been a great babysitter. How different could it be?
I have had a lot of dreams in Laura’s sweet second bedroom in Dublin, near the docks.
My writing teacher Wendy Rohm said that her students report a lot of vivid dreams during the Dublin workshop. And, apparently, they also see ghosts at the Arts Club where her workshops were held. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I don’t not believe in them. I’m like Scooby Doo, a scaredy-cat until they’re revealed to be the local real estate agent, trying to drive away tourists or something. Then, I’m all bravado.
When I visited the Yeats exhibit at the National Library of Ireland, I saw how Yeats believed in automatic writing as a way to enter into your unconscious — to use writing to find a deeper level of existence.
The Irish are mystics.
The Dublin writing retreat with Wendy helped me organize my thoughts on plot points, blurbs, the structure of my narrative. Those are not my strengths. (Probably not Yeats’s either.)
I like to meander in my writing, in my life. Travel is good for meanderers.
I’m writing this from the train from Dublin to Belfast for my work with United Methodist Women. I love the blessing (and occasional curse) of working for this group — and Global Ministries too. I love that these agencies love and support peace and peacemakers..
In the Shadow a Gunman by Sean O’Casey which I saw Friday night at the Abbey, the poet is not the brave soul. He is grand, dramatic, beautiful, full of bluster. It is the girl Minnie Powell who is brave. She is a perfect mix of idealist and pragmatist. I love her. I love that it was Yeats’s muse, Maud Gonne, who inspired him.
Women are mystics.
Women are more revered in Irish culture than American culture. Maybe it’s the inheritance of the Catholic cult of Mary. What’s not to love about Mary?
A mother of three young children is nearby on the train. She is reading a paperback with a pretty cover, How To Cope, a welcoming approach to life’s challenges. Something like that. The Welcoming Approach. I must try that.
Another woman, across from, looks exactly like my mother’s cousin with Maureen. But with a different color hair, blonde instead of black (not green or blue). It’s funny to be in a place where people look familiar, like family, yet are unrelated. I am half-Irish.
And I’m from an island, too.
I remember when we were in Nantucket. Just me and the kids on spring break. A Jamaican guy in a sandwich shop – or was it a teacher at the Whaling museum? – one of the two said, “People who come from islands do well on islands, like people from the Caribbean or Ireland do well on Nantucket.” And I said, “Ah, like me from the island of Manhattan?” I joked.
There was a beautiful assignment my children wrote at PS 87- write a poem, beginning with, “I am from…” I am from here.
The Titanic Museum was ah-mazing. Highly recommend.
Last Sunday I went to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to celebrate the Feast Day of St. Francis. It was so peaceful even though there were so many animals in the sanctuary. The music of Paul Winter filled the immense Gothic cavern with the sounds of whales and wolves.
A restless set of boys and dogs in the row in front of us left before it was over so they missed the exotic animals as they paraded (processed) down the center aisle.
The procession of animals was lovely and mind-blowing. You can see a rat carried proudly by preteen girl. I loved the humility of the goats and sheep, made all majestic by a wreath of flowers around their necks! There is beauty in the humility of animals. There was a pig and my favorite, a kangaroo. On the way out, a yak!
I so dug the anomaly of animals in church – the sacredness of animals. That which is ordinary became extraordinary.
I am not really an animal-lover, but I appreciate their lack of subtext.
I left the cathedral, oddly, filled with reverence. There is a variety to life — a vastness of our ecosystems and our living relations that is truly awesome. I can only imagine there must be a creator when you see the variety in God’s creation (and in the crazy matrix of evolution).
Here are some pics I snapped at the service. Thanks to Joanna Parson for getting me to St. John the Divine this year, something I have always wanted to do and now have done! I recommend you experience this beauty too!
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred . . . let me sow love. Where there is injury . . . pardon. Where there is doubt . . . faith. Where there is despair . . . hope. Where there is darkness . . . light. Where there is sadness . . . joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek To be consoled . . . as to console, To be understood . . . as to understand; To be loved . . . as to love, For It is in giving . . . that we receive. It is in pardoning . . . that we are pardoned, It is in dying . . . that we are born to eternal life.” – St. Francis (c. 1181 – 1226)
In other words: Today, let me get out of my way. Let me find beauty in my ordinary world. Let me hear the music of nature. Let me be someone who goes with the flow. Let me not judge people harshly. Let me be kind and generous. Just for today.
Writing about anything but yesterday’s tragedy in Newton, Conn, feels insensitive. But to cope with horrors, ordinary or extraordinary, I need to write. Through any endeavor, creative and artistic, we find out who we are, what we think, and how we feel. And we figure out how to go on.
I’m a teacher, a mother, and a writer. I’ve been thinking about conflicts.
I know in families and schools and all our relationships, conflict is inevitable. But how we deal with our internal and external conflicts is optional. I believe our society preys upon our conflicts. Our media exploits our differences — red state vs. blue state; stay at home mom vs. working mom.
Honestly, we have more that unites us than divides us.
As citizens of the United States of America, we have to find a way to seek common ground and lift one another up, not put each other down. We cannot whip out automatic rifles when we cannot get along — with ourselves or with our mothers.
We have to find and share our public spaces like our schools and our museums. Our public places and institutions are sacred.
I teach my writing students that conflict is the essence of drama. We mustn’t avoid conflict. But we cannot rest in a place of constant conflict. We must learn to use conflict to further the plot of our lives, to reach out, to state our needs, and to work on how to find a common humanity. Even when we want to find a common enemy.
Every child and every adult should lean how to resolve conflicts in a healthy way. Those of us who live in cities and ride the subways or share public spaces know we must coexist. And when we cannot live peaceably with ourselves, our families or our neighbors, we must get help.
And as every one is saying on social media, getting help should be a whole lot easier than getting a gun. There is no shame in experiencing conflict or in getting help with whatever arise in our lives. The tragedy arises when we cannot resolve our conflicts without hurting someone else.
To manage our inner and outer conflicts, we can:
write in a journal
talk to a friend
seek professional help
listen to music
walk in nature
attend a worship service
read a book
I don’t know. There are probably a million ways to handle conflict healthily. But we must be taught them; they don’ t just come naturally.
Today’s daily prompt, What’s your ideal Saturday morning? Are you doing those things this morning? Why not?
Ideally, I may do any of the above conflict resolution items.
I write in my journal. I read the paper. I drink coffee. I go for a run. I make a nice brunch for my family with bagels and lox. My kids clean up the brunch without being asked. Then I go to a nearby spa for a massage. The kids get themselves to wherever they may need to go — basketball, Bat Mitzvah. I feel at peace. I make art.
While the first few things I listed do happen, reading, writing, drinking coffee — the last few things don’t. I cannot control other people. (I am concocting a plan to make the kids more self-reliant and supportive of one another and of me and my husband.) I also do not get lox or a massage on a Saturday morning because I worry about the expense. I feel guilty spending money on myself during the holiday season. My budget is already pretty tight with kids’ presents and holiday travel. I guess that would be an ideal too, not feeling guilty.
Just for today, I teach my kids to resolve conflicts in a healthy way. I love them well and hold my dear ones close. Just for today, that is my ideal.