By E. Stahl
The Antonym of Retreat
Retreat: an act or process of withdrawing
especially from what is difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable
I attended my first Shalom Retreat in May 2011 and, like many people who have attended a retreat, it positively affected my life. As a writer, it was only natural for me to reflect deeply on and write about my experience there. The following are excerpts from a much longer work which I have chopped up and ordered in an attempt to provide a cliff’s notes version of my journey:
I began to think that trust-falls were not the right way to get me out of this. I had been assured that I would not have to fall backwards into the arms of a stranger, but as I drove closer to the small campground in Southwest Michigan, I began to wish I had made more serious stipulations. I imagined the steady diet of wheatgrass and granola that was ahead of me. I stopped at Wendy’s. I imagined the handholding and swaying to “Kumbaya.” I played my rap music louder. But by the time I realized I would have to talk to other people for three straight days, I was already pulling into the driveway of the retreat center, a patch of land occupied by horse stables and little shack-like buildings.
I stepped out of my car and almost choked on the smell of nature—manure, grass, fresh, crisp air. I walked nervously into the main cabin. It felt like a Girl Scout cabin I had wanted to flee fifteen years earlier. Though I was now an adult and supposed to be free of homesickness, it was starting to creep back in. Mosquitoes hovered around the entrance to the kitchen where odd smells (salmon being sautéed in soy milk?) leaked out. Everything was brown and depressing as I’m sure the beginning of the world was, before interior design existed. Wood paneling, wood rafters, a wooden canoe hanging from those rafters as if it had no idea what water was. As if finding its place in the water was so foreign an idea it committed suicide by hanging itself from the rafters. There may have been tie-dyed batiks and other colorful adornments, but these were not adornments I was apt to recognize at that moment, as I was looking for any excuse to leave and call the whole thing off.
Up in my room, a small cell on the second floor of another large, damp cabin, I felt I could breathe a little bit. My roommate not arrived yet so I was left in peace to spread my double sheets across my flimsy single cot. I had flashbacks to the last time I shared a room with someone—college—and my breath tightened again. Maybe if I didn’t unpack my bags, I wouldn’t really be here. I texted my younger cousin who I had seen the night before: “I don’t like this place I wanna go home!” Thank god I got cell service out here in the wilderness. He texted me back: “I’m sure you’ll do fine. It’s like an adult camp, by the time it’s over you won’t want to leave.” I highly doubted this. I doubted that “like” an adult camp meant days filled with archery, ghost stories, and water-balloon fights but with the addition of booze. I had never even been to regular-person camp. And I was beginning to see why. I turned off my phone and walked outside before my roommate arrived and I was trapped in a conversation with her.
The first time we gathered as a group, we were introduced to the “Principles and Skills of Loving.” We sat on the floor in a circle atop bulky, dirty looking pillows. Some people took their shoes off to get more comfortable. Others spread out their legs and arms and seemed to achieve a level of comfort I would not allow myself. I sat on the edge of the cushion not wanting its musty smell to rub off on me. I brought my arms and legs as close to my body as I could, pretending to warm or shield myself from the dank environment. I gripped the piece of paper that was passed around describing the Principles and Skills, releasing it only to swat away the gnats that hovered around our circle.
The leader began reading through the list of loving. I was overwhelmed, oblivious that others wanted the same thing I did: “more than anything else, we want to love and be loved.” I was so overcome with emotion that I could barely follow along as the leader read through the rest of the list. Maybe letting people love you wasn’t a sign of weakness. The leader continued: “love is a response to need . . . if you let me know what your needs are, within the limits of my value system, I will not run away. I will be there for you.” I looked past the lovey-dovey language. Maybe asking for help and not doing everything alone isn’t a sign of weakness either. Another one struck me: “love is a gift.” Apparently love is not a feeling—you cannot feel love. Sustaining love requires action or acceptance of action—I can only feel the presence of someone giving me the gift of love, in any given moment. Maybe I had a role in being loved—people loved me, but I had to accept that. Love was more responsibility than I thought. A challenge, a two way street, something so simple that I had struggled to understand. Though I relished being there for others, I had to let them be there for me.
Six minutes can be not enough time, or way too much. I found it to be both when we were asked to share our stories with the group. Everyone had the opportunity (or rather, responsibility) to sit in front of the group and introduce themselves. At five minutes the bell rang—a minute left, wrap it up. At six minutes you were left to wonder what you just said and if it could possibly give the group the slightest sense of who you are. Or were. Or want to be.
No questions, no directions, just six empty minutes that thirty expectant faces were waiting for me to fill. I had delayed this as long as possible, let everyone else go before me. I had identified parts of myself in many people, had cried with their stories, nodded along to mentions of narcissistic mothers and being born to the wrong family. I really had nothing new to bring to the group, no specific trauma-laden story. I was pretty boring, a little sad, a little lonely, but who wasn’t? Who cares?
I cannot relay to you what a mat trip is. Maybe for the same reason the woman who suggested the retreat made no mention of “the mat.” There is no way I can put it into words that would be understandable to one who has not experienced it. I could tell you there are blindfolds. Tell you there’s screaming, crying. Tell you there’s some sort of breathing method that is forced upon you that leaves you sounding like you are having the scariest orgasm of your life. Tell you there’s role playing. Tennis rackets. But none of that—the props, the setting—means anything. None of that matters or compares to the actual work being done.
I walked into the main cabin and into the kitchen. Seeing the cook I said I’m reporting for kitchen duty! As I rolled up my sleeves the cook looked at me: in THAT getup?! Stunned I looked down at myself like a shamed child. Ummm yeah. It’s just leggings and a shirt. Uhhh, and a scarf. My hair was done in the Bridget Bardot-esque style that I had been wearing for six years because that’s one of the few ways I feel comfortable. I wasn’t wearing makeup. Wasn’t bedazzled in crown jewels. I’m sure my eyes were bloodshot from a day of crying along with the mat trips of others. Well you just always look so nice and pulled together. Why were we having this conversation? Twenty-eight years has taught me that this was not a compliment. I’d had this conversation too many times. Felt this judgment like air against my skin—something I obviously couldn’t live without. I thought I was in a judgment-free zone, in an environment exactly the opposite of the rest of the world. No one else was called out for what they were wearing or what they looked like. Wasn’t there a Skill of Loving that had hit my heart the strongest: “seeing—I do not look over or through you, I see you in your uniqueness.” I had seen everyone else at the retreat and in one moment this woman confirmed my deepest, most persistent fear: that no one can see me.
I got through the dancing without the aid of drunkenness. Handled the hand-holding. The gazing into one another’s eyes (souls) silently. I talked to people about things I hadn’t prepared scripts for. I shared the meals, ate, surprised at foods I recognized (tacos, salad, chicken and rice, the most delicious cranberry scones). Saturday night came and quickly, in one more sleep, I would be home. The days had been long and laborious—I was ready to decompress from this weekend, sit in air conditioning, watch shitty TV. The procrastinator that I now recognized I was in every aspect of my life had allowed me to put off my mat trip and, in effect, convince me it wouldn’t happen. Everyone else was tired. They didn’t want to sit through another. I’d happily forfeit—let’s just have dinner and call it a night. But, no such luck. Because for the first time in awhile, I found myself surrounded by selfless, caring people. They aren’t going to make me do this, they want me to do this.
At the beginning of my trip, the leader asked me to take off my rings, perhaps for safety? No one else had been instructed to do so, but no one else wore their armor like I did. The hair style, the nail polish, the necklaces, the bracelets, the rings—the only ways in which I knew how to present myself to the world. The only way I would let people get to know me. Or knew how. Quite possibly, it was my own fault for the judgment I had felt the night before. The cook was someone who took my bait, who probably thought people who wear glasses are smart. I realized I had a role in how people see me; I had a responsibility in the tug-of-war between the wall I erected and myself, myself and others. I no longer felt angry at the woman—she has limitations just as I do. And now I was on the mat, prepared to free myself of those limitations, ready to allow love.
I woke up on Sunday morning, May 22nd—for many, the day after the supposed Judgment Day. The world still existed, but it was a new world. I felt at ease for the first time in my life. My cousin was right. I didn’t want to leave. But as I drove away, down the dusty road, past the caged cats, I wasn’t leaving. I was beginning.