Two weeks ago, I went on a silent retreat in northern Minnesota and was rendered incapable of rushing. Pacem in Terris is a hermitage on twenty acres of wooded land. People come from all over the country to rest in their tiny cabins, to rock in their rocking chairs, looking out over forest with nothing to disturb them.
When I first started preparing to make this trip several months ago, I was nervous, excited, terrified, ecstatic. The emotional roller coaster I rode for weeks was relentlessly unpredictable. There were a million moving parts to this venture. I needed to night wean, to reduce my milk supply enough in order to not be totally engorged over the weekend. I needed to be okay with saying goodbye to my fifteen month old for two nights—this was new territory for me. That very week I was scheduled to leave, I changed my mind twenty times. I was scared of being bored. There was no electricity. Was there heat? The week though starting unseasonably warm, dipped into wintery weather of the sort that usually drives Minnesotans inside for whole days. Jada got sick and nursed fervently for several days. I thought: there is no way this is going to work. But I wanted it so badly, had been waiting for it for so long, I decided to go.
I decided to make the drive even if I didn’t stay for the whole weekend. I decided even if I drove four hours just to come back that night, I was going to try. The girls had been mentally prepared, Ryan claimed to be ready. I packed my suitcase and left.
Armed with a warm sleeping bag, two pillows, an extra furry blanket, two of Twila’s stuffed animals, towels, toilet paper, shampoo, conditioner, face wash, a variety of moisturizers and lotions, a bag of snacks, a flashlight, a note book, a drawing pad, numerous pencils and pens, a hard copy of my novel in rough draft form, a thesaurus, and a bible, I departed prepared to fend off cold and boredom.
In looking back, I think those were my two greatest fears. I was going to a tiny cabin in the woods, a mile away from the main building, surrounded by nothing, in the middle of a wintry April. I was afraid of being cold and I was afraid of being bored. But I was neither.
I guess if I’m being honest, I was also afraid of becoming engorged and of the deafening silence. Once when Jada was young, maybe six months old, right around the time she started really screaming when she was frustrated, it had been a tough day. She was tired and crabby and I had to put her in her car seat. As I leaned in to buckle her, she screamed so loudly in my ear I thought I might have gone deaf. That afternoon as I handed her off to Ryan, I walked back out of the back door and sat in my car for about ten minutes. I shut the doors and closed my eyes and leaned back against the seat. I wanted to listen to nothing, to just let my ears rest in silence. But they had been exposed to so much noise that day, I couldn’t stand the silence. In fact there wasn’t silence. There was instead a high pitched ringing that wouldn’t leave my brain. I wanted to cry because I felt like my body was damaged. I fought against resentment towards my baby for hurting my ears.
When I drove out to Pacem in Terris I was afraid instead of relishing the silence, relaxing in the peace of solitude, I would be aching in the pain of engorgement, rocking back and forth holding my ears as they were pierced with the hallow ring of deafening silence.
But again, my fears were for naught.
Sitting alone in my tiny cabin, looking out the giant picture window, I rocked for hours, wrapped in a warm blanket, incapable of boredom, incapable it seemed, of doing anything. I let my mind wander. With the windows open, I listened to the rustling of leaves, the chattering of squirrels, the chirped conversations of birds. Occasionally the wind swirled through the branches of the leafless forest. When I was tired I slept, regardless of the time of day. When I was hungry I ate.
When I was finished resting I put on my coat and walked the grounds. The tall, bare tress swayed in the constant wind of the open fields. By Friday afternoon the air temperature was dropping, the wind picking up and the sky clouding over. I walked in giant circles, listening to the wind and the creaking of branches overhead. The highest branches rubbed against each other creating an eerie squeak like an old wooden door opening and closing over and over again. The multitude of branches chorused in ghostly screeches as the wind grew stronger and stronger. When I reached the lake, the wind was so strong coming off of it, and the air so cold, numbing my cheeks and nose, I felt like I was caught in a blizzard.
Once back in my cabin, I turned up the gas heater and cranked the windows closed. There in the safety and warmth of my cabin I listened to the wind howling outside. As darkness overtook the last overcast rays of setting sun, I thought for the first time about my manuscript, printed and stowed at the bottom of my suitcase.
I lit the gas light and wrapped up on the rocking chair with a cup of tea whose herbs were supposed to help me sleep. I turned on my phone and called Ryan to say goodnight and ask him to kiss the girls for me. I rocked for a while longer, wondering if I should look at my book.
It had been my plan to use this time to read through my three hundred page novel at least once, redlining and editing, slashing paragraphs, journaling about changes. I was ecstatic about these plans. Until I got there.
Once inside the grounds of Pacem in Terris, I was blanketed with peaceful slowness. I was instantly humbled by the energy there. It was a quietly, almost regal vibe that commanded respect. No sooner had I driven through the gates did I pull over and shut down my cell phone. Like sitting in church or at a play, I felt it would have been egregiously rude to have my phone ring in this place. I was on hallowed ground.
Suddenly, my plans and ambitions for the time here seemed laughable. After helping me settle in my cabin, the kindly woman who had driven me and all my luggage to the cabin, oriented me on the grounds and acquainted me with all the amenities I might need, left me to my solitude. I realized two things as soon as I was alone. The first was that I had overfilled my itinerary with the busy work of normal life. The second was that I had overfilled my suitcase.
Of all the many things I had packed, the only things I would bring again were my clothes, toothbrush, face was and moisturizers. And maybe my personal notebook.
So well thought out and designed are the cabins there that I could have literally turned my car north on a last minute whim, or in a desperate need to escape the stress of life out “there” and rolled up to the gates with nothing. In utter saint like service, the Pacem staff provides for every need. They give you a basket of food, they make dinner each night at the main house. There are showers with towels, shampoo and conditioner in the main house. In the cabins there are beds with clean sheets, blankets and pillows, a heater, a light. In the cupboards there are plates, cups, bowls and utensils, notebooks and pencils and pens. There is a giant bible and one other book about the practice of going into the desert. There are candles and matches, clean drinking water, coffee, tea. I literally could not think of one thing I needed that wasn’t there for me.
I felt a little silly with my stacks of luggage. I was armed for sleeping in an empty and unheated shack. I didn’t just survive my weekend in the woods. I was nourished by it. And so I sat, on Friday night, my pajamas on, my flashlight in hand, my book on my lap. I wanted to read it, wanted to wrestle with the characterization, layer the plot and iron out the wrinkles. I love writing. It’s my lifeline. So why did I feel so uninterested in turning my writer’s brain on?
I couldn’t help but move slowly. Hours flowed by and I didn’t feel the need to fill them with anything but my thoughts. Awareness became the only thing that mattered; the only thing I had to do was be aware. And the only thing I wasn’t aware of, was the one thing I was afraid I would be aware of: time. I was scared of boredom, but the time flowed by.
On Saturday morning, I woke up to thick, sticky snow coating the twigs outside my giant picture window. I made coffee and rocked for an indeterminate amount of time. As I sat, watching the forest, the hot sun burned off the cloud cover and melted every clinging blob of snow. I don’t know how long it took but by the time the snow was gone and the birds were playing in the leaves, foraging for seeds, I was hungry. So I ate and then I took a nap.
Since I became a mom four and a half years ago, I have not one day of my life done so little as I did the weekend I was away at Pacem in Terris. Yet the weekend flew by. On Sunday morning I woke up to tiny balls of hail showering the roof of my cabin. It was so cold that the hail remained, scattered across the dirt paths and the open fields until mid morning. I missed the girls and Ryan and I was slightly engorged when I left. I was fully ready to be home. I had done a lot of writing in my journal and had read about two thirds of my book. It was less than I had wanted to do in theory. But in practice it was more than I felt like doing. I felt oddly like I had cheated myself by creating chores for my time there.
I came home a week and a half ago now and since my return to real life, I have yet to feel like I am back in my real life. Though the house is the same and my kids are the same, more or less, and the challenges of motherhood are the same. The unrelenting assault of viruses seems to be the same. But I am not quite the same. I seem to be missing the urgency impulse that drove me through the last 1,642 days of parenthood.
There is still a lot to do. The house still gets messy faster than I could ever hope to pick it up. My kids are still battling stomach bugs, still want to be read to and played with. The warring question of what to feed my family is still as unsettled as ever, the bills still need to be paid, the office is still a disaster and appointments still need to be made, emails checked and responded to, phone calls returned. And most importantly, I still desperately want to make books, to tell stories, and create. But unlike before, I don’t feel the bursting, manic compulsion to accomplish all of these goals today. In fact the priority order may have reshuffled itself too. Because, as I start each day, being yanked from deep sleep by one whispering child or another, just like always, I see the necessity of things differently. My impulse is to do the less urgent things first. My impulse is to make coffee, eat, sit on the floor with my daughters as I slowly wake up. My impulse isn’t even so much an impulse these days as it is a lack of impulse. I tend toward looking out the window as the morning unfolds, searching for our loon and spotting ducks with Jada, watching the direction of the waves and the caliber of the wind as it gathers across the lake.
My homing device is still drawing me on towards writing, but the pace of my vehicle is slowing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t still struggle with the need to do a hundred things at once. To stop juggling ten top priorities at once would, it seems, be to stop being a mom. But I’ve stopped viewing most of the priorities as ticking time bombs. Life is short but it’s also long. It’s long compared to how short babyhood is. It’s long compared to the relative short amount of time my daughters will be here under my roof.
The time to write will be available my whole life, God willing, the time for a clean house will maybe be in the future. Now is the time to quack at the ducks with Jada and play “Jack and Annie” with Twila and have play dates with our friends and happy hours with other weary moms.
This past week was a time of reflecting, of growing and letting go. Things are shifting in my mind and in the atmosphere all around. As winter finally gives way to spring, life and vitality prevails outside. And clarity, order and a small glimmer of peace prevail inside.