There is not much in my life that is quiet. Certainly not my home, with young kids and a barky dog. Certainly not when I leave my loud home to go to work, in a loud symphony orchestra. And I’m not exactly what you would call a quiet person. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I love and crave silence. Since it’s not built into my life naturally, I have to create it and make it happen: my own personal silent retreats.
I started the tradition of going away by myself after I weaned each of my four kids. It was a gift and a reward to myself for the hard work of nursing a baby around the clock. It was a symbolic gesture as well: proving I could be away for more than three hours at a time without pumping or racing back home in a panic.
The most interesting thing I found about going on these little retreats were other peoples’ reactions to them. While planning a solo trip to Sedona after I weaned my third child, an acquaintance heard about what I was doing and came up to tell me that she felt so sorry for me. She would never, ever do that-- Couldn't I find a friend to travel with?
Whoosh, the point, she missed it.
I love getaways with friends, but this is something else I’m talking about. I’ve noticed that the people who are most uncomfortable with the thought of being alone are not exactly my favorite kind of people to begin with. “I just wouldn’t know what to do with myself,” they say, while I hear, “I’m so boring even I don’t want to be alone with me.”
Get to know yourself, I want to tell them. Be comfortable with yourself! As hideously cheesy as this is to say, it’s true: make friends with yourself! Become so interesting that you actually want to take the time to listen to what all those delightful voices in your head are talking about.
I know I need a retreat when I am mentally climbing the walls of my life. When my set point on the Irritability Scale is a 5 instead of a 1. When my patience is so thin, and so rapidly used up, that I don’t like who I am as a parent or a wife. Ohhh, it dawns on me, it’s time for a break.
We don’t have family around to help us with our kids, so we don’t have the luxury (and oh, you better believe it’s a luxury) of having grandparents or aunts and uncles at our disposal to take our kids overnight, here and there, for this or that. Maybe once a year, if we play our cards right, we can get family members to watch our kiddos. Instead we use our beloved, heaven-sent college-age and young twenty-something babysitters to get away. So my husband and I cheer each other on whenever one of us has the chance to get away and take a break: Go on that ski trip! Get away with your friends!
I explain all of this because another question people frequently ask me is, what does your husband think of you doing this?
I’ll tell you what my husband thinks. He thinks it would be lovely not to have a stressed out, cranky, snappy, over-tired, irritable wife.
He likes that I have my own interests. He likes that I have the confidence to be independent. He likes that I come home refreshed, affectionate, with more to give to him and our family. I mean, what’s not to like about that?
And I get a chance to come up with new creative ideas, plan, strategize and even take necessary first steps. I get to play my violin simply for fun and pleasure, read, read, read and write, write, write.
The idea of a silent retreat didn’t really interest me until my Mom passed away. Her illness was so consuming and traumatic, there was not much time for reflection. My kids were so young during this period. I mean, my youngest had a blow-out diaper at my Mom's wake. I remember that moment so clearly: standing there, feeling like I was caught between grinding gears, the pressure was so immense. There was no time to process my loss, grief, sadness, anger. Honestly, I didn’t have time to cry.
I needed a break, but had no idea how to get one. I needed to press “pause” but I couldn’t even begin to imagine how. I was at the end of my rope and I don’t think I realized how close I was to letting go of my grasp on it.
But here’s the most amazing thing I have found out about life: whatever I need miraculously appears. Every single time. My faith is so deep because it happens to me over and over. Sometimes, I don’t even know what I need and still, exactly what I need appears on my doorstep. Call it the luck of the Irish or my angels working overtime, whatever you want. I am lucky that way.
For example, a couple of months after my Mom passed, I got a call from my friend MJ, reaching out and giving me advice. MJ was our neighbor when we lived in the city. We shared a floor with her in our tiny building. When we first met MJ, she was a recent widow and has just sold her big family home in the suburbs, where she had raised her six children, bought a condo in the city and a lake house in Michiana. We became very close with her, quickly. My husband was there to help her with anything she needed fixed or moved, and I was there to talk with her and bond.
It turns out that she and I are cut from exactly the same cloth. We shared very similar views and I was impressed with her zest for life, her independence and her fearlessness. I am the same age as some of her kids, so she became like a second Mom to me, as well as a friend. I want to be her when I grow up. She is an amazing artist and was always painting, sketching, creating. Our cats even became friends and we took to propping our doors open so the two cats could slink back and forth between our homes. I would practice and she would listen. She told me she heard a difference in my playing after I became a Mom: it was better, she said. Richer.
So when MJ called me and said, “I have an idea of what you need. You need to get away. You need quiet. You need an escape. Oh, Lynn, I remember those days of parenting and it was so hard, and we creative types need to recharge. I want you to go up to my lake house, alone. This is the weekend it’s available, just go. Don’t think about it too much, don’t make excuses, just go,” I listened.
It felt like someone was throwing me a life preserver, just when I thought I couldn’t doggy-paddle anymore. I took her up on it and began planning. I decided I wanted it to be a silent retreat. For me, that meant no TV, no radio, no cellphone, no contact. I put an outgoing message on my phone explaining I wasn’t taking or returning calls for a few days, and if it was urgent, to call my husband. Then I found an app that held all calls so I wouldn’t even be tempted to look if my phone buzzed.
Anyone with a bunch of young kids knows what it means to leave for 48-72 hours. You have to get all your ducks in a row. You have to line up carpools, sitters, ask favors and be organized. I did all this and again, it was so interesting to hear peoples’ responses. I remember sitting on the sidelines of baseball and softball fields, explaining why I wouldn’t be at next weekend’s games and could someone give my kid a ride home in case my husband was home with a napping baby?
“Well, gosh, I just wouldn’t know what to do with myself! I think I’d like it for about three hours, max, and then, I’d just really want to go home. I mean, to just sit there and be quiet? What on earth is the point of that?” (The most tragically funny part is that later, that same woman’s husband pulled me aside and said, intently, “I would kill for just a couple of days of quiet. Just no talking. No! Talking! Why does everyone have to talk so damn much?”)
Another helpful Mom piped up and said, “Well, I would at least have to bring all the laundry with me. I mean, I couldn’t just leave dirty laundry sitting there! I’d bring it with so I could be useful and feel like I was getting things done. Are you going to do that, Lynn?”
Yeahhhhh, no, I said. I wasn’t going to be bringing my family’s dirty laundry with me. You can understand why I don’t count these women among my close friends, right? The shade, furrowed brow and tilted head crap was in high gear. For some reason, a lot of people were talking about my upcoming weekend. Someone offered to drop off meals for my husband, in case he was going to starve to death while I was away. Maybe they thought I was being selfish to take such deliberate time for myself? I don’t know. You can find out a lot about a person by how they react to your personal choices. It’s very interesting.
I drove myself up to the woods, to MJ’s lakehouse. MJ is the kind of person who creates beauty wherever she goes. Every single place you looked in her home, you saw beauty. Natural beauty coming in from the huge picture windows and beauty from her art that was hanging on all the walls. Wonderful books on her bookshelves, and cozy chairs with afghans to curl up in and read them. I felt safe and blessed by beauty, is the best way to describe it.
It took me a while to get comfortable, I will admit. My central nervous system was so unbelievably fried, I was like a cat on a hot tin roof, jumping at the slightest sound, real or imagined. It took me a while to calm down, sit, be still.
MJ has many, many grandchildren and there are signs of them everywhere. This included lots of toys. Like an antique doll, sitting in a little antique rocking chair in the guest bedroom where I was staying.
That doll had to go, man.
I couldn’t stop imagining the chair beginning to rock in the middle of the night and then what would I do, out here alone in the middle of the woods? So I took her and her chair and put her in the other bedroom.
Then, I went back and closed the door to that other bedroom.
Then, I went back once more, opened the door, picked the doll and her rocking chair up, and put them inside the closet, closed that door and finally, closed the bedroom door.
Then, I went back inside the room, took a big chair and leaned it up against the closed closet door, so Spooky Dolly couldn’t get out, even if she really tried.
Then, I closed that bedroom door for good.
There. That felt better. Honestly, that was the hardest part of my first silent retreat. With Spooky Dolly taken care of, I had no distractions and so I just sat, staring off into space. I ate like a convalescent: hot tea and buttered toast for every meal.
I did yoga on my mat in the corner of the living room. I sat out on the back deck and listened to the hundreds of birds sing. When even they got too loud for my fragile nervous system, I went back in the house, to the stillness, and sat on the couch or took a nap.
And finally, I got to cry. It was the really good kind of cleansing crying. I grieved. I mourned and I got it out.
It wasn’t hard to be silent at all. It was like being in a warm cocoon. It was like pressing a reset button you didn’t even know you had. My ears rested, my voice rested, my mind rested, my body rested. I loved it.
Since that first silent retreat, I have gone on two more. One was back to MJ’s house again, this time in February when it was even quieter, as it was blanketed in several feet of snow. That happened to be over Valentine’s Day weekend and even though I felt bad, it was the only weekend that worked for my and MJ’s schedule. My husband had other ideas, however.
“How about I come up just for one night? I’ll drop the kids off at my parents on the way. You get there and have couple days to yourself, then I’ll come up.”
No, no, no, I thought. This is just for me! But I knew I would miss him and maybe we could try this silence thing together?
OK, I said, but there are ground rules and I mean it. (Sure, he said.)
No TV. (No problem, he says.)
No radio. (Got it, he says.)
No talking about sports, at all. (No problem, he says.)
No talking, really. (I understand, he says.)
And you have to eat vegetarian. (Well, that’s mighty specific of you, but alright, he says.)
And you can’t make fun that I’ve barricaded Spooky Dolly into the closet in the other bedroom. (I would never, he said.)
And he kept his word. My husband is the human embodiment opposite of a silent retreat, but he loved it. If he can do it and enjoy it, anyone can. He sat in a chaise lounge reading, while I sat in front of the big picture window and played my violin for hours and hours. He lit a fire in MJ’s gorgeous fireplace and kept it going all day. He gave me my space so we experienced it together, but in our own individual way. We watched the snow fall like it was a blockbuster movie. At night, we sat in front of the fire on the couch, watching the flames pop and dance as a sequel. We talked, quietly and calmly, reconnecting, our dog Blue at our feet and Spooky Dolly in her closet in the bedroom.
Every single time I have left for a solo weekend, I leave with the same terrifying thought in my head:“What if I feel the same way on my way home as I do right now? What if this weekend away doesn’t help me? What if I’m just as cranky, irritable and overwhelmed on Sunday night as I am right now? What if…this is just actually *who I am* now???
I am here to say that has never, ever been the case. Every time I leave for a retreat, I leave with horns, a tail, a forked tongue and I am carrying a pitchfork. Every time I come home, I am relaxed, so much calmer, positive and open. It’s like a miracle.
I read “Gift from the Sea” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh and it really spoke to me. She writes about the need for space, for reflection and most importantly, alone time. She writes from the perspective of a woman with many demands on her time and energy, as a wife, a mother of many children, and as a writer. Her viewpoint is profound and utterly relatable. (Okay, maybe not the part about piloting her own plane to their privately owned island and cottage, but you get my drift.) It helped me realize “retreating” is a necessary part of understanding who you really are: you have to actually spend time alone with yourself to find out.
I’m writing this essay as I sit in a hotel, twenty minutes and a whole world away from my home and normal daily life. We had an unusually free weekend, which almost never happens in our busy lives. I saw my opportunity and pounced, taking it with both hands. I booked a last-minute hotel deal on Friday afternoon at 3PM, and I was checked in by 5:30. I went through the same worry, guilt and anxiety that I always do before I do this. I talked myself off of every ledge and called and asked friends for extra boosts of confidence.
I wrote all weekend, I listened to the fun voices in my head, I stared off into space. I calmed down. It worked, just like I knew it would, just like it always does. I’m beginning to think that it’s actually silence that soothes the savage beast.