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When I hear the word retreat, I tend not to think of meditation, cedar scented cabins, or even a prettily situated lakeside bench. I think of troops of traumatized and malnourished shoulders slogging through mud to get back from the front lines, I think of standing in the doorway of a party and seeing some bad decision I’d made making his way to the front of the buffet line; I think of retreat as something to beat hastily in order to get somewhere I can I can let out that breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding. Like most people, I am a mixture of equal parts cowardice, reckless bravado and regret, but in one thing, at least, I am healthy: I have a good instinct for retreat. Every time I’ve turned and run outside a room that felt suddenly crowded and sour, that summer air felt like silk on my face…. and every time I’ve run from something it’s been a sound decision that led me to run into something better.
There are moments in all our lives when something tells us “enough, reverse your trajectory, get up and go”. Some call this “bottoming out”. At other times we refer to what’s universally known as a “moment of clarity”. I recalled this watching a memorial service on You Tube for a poet I had known and admired. I listened to the testimonials: funny, bawdy, harrowing, the speakers delivering both good and bad prose. Peering at the audience seated in an ad hoc half circle of plastic chairs I made out the faces of familiar peo p le, some of w h o m I hadn’t s e e n in thirty years. An ex-boyfriend looked exactly the way I imagined he would; balding, angular, with fashionable glasses. I heard my name mentioned once or twice as one of the “kids” who the deceased had mentored. We are all old I thought. I had expected to be horrified at the fact, but instead I was triumphant. I’m old! I yelled at the tiny screen….bet none of you saw that coming. There’s only one reason this memorial service wasn’t for me: because I knew when to retreat, which in my case simply meant begging for bus-fare back to rehab and Minneapolis where, at 28, I had to grow up, all over again, for the first time. It wasn’t that I felt no connection to the faces now on screen, it was that I just had to run away from them if they were ever going to see me again. I retreated, in other words, into life. It wasn’t so much pulling a geographic wrenching the wheel and making a last minute, screech-andskid swerve away from a cliff I’d been steadily driving toward. You never know how fast you are really going until you try to hit the brakes.
I’m not the only one, however. During the past years I have watched friends who were getting too close to bad things, some racing, some just traipsing toward sorrow.
For some “too close” meant jail, homelessness, trashed marriages… for some, the nimble ones, it was merely a sense of self disgust that made them turn around, turn away and then turn up in the rooms, cup of lukewarm coffee in hand and a grin on their face that said they knew we’d been expecting them. Why didn’t you ever say anything, one of them asked me. I was never one to tell someone they needed do anything if they hadn’t asked my opinion. If someone asks me if they have a problem, for example, I tell them I truly don’t know. I suggest seeing what happens if they try to stop doing whatever it is they want to stop doing on their own. How does it go? How do they feel? But I do see it on their faces sometimes: A story of a particularly skeezy one night stand…a three foot driving error that would have killed a pedestrian if it had been three and a half. Everyone hears their own panicked but ecstatic trumpet screeching: turn around, retreat, run away. The sound can be as chilling as any call to battle, charging out of the fray is as frightening as charging into it. Retreat can be implacable, nothing you can do to fight it. It picks you up and hurls you, like a wave takes a swimmer, and tumbles you head over heels: You’ve got no more say than a pair of socks in a washing machine. If you fight it, you will only lose oxygen faster, wound up scraped and contused; stiffen up too much and you can drown. Relax and you will find yourself on the beach, gulping in drafts of salt sprayed oxygen. Retreat is a power greater than yourself. The very need to retreat, the fact that you have to do it if you want to keep breathing, is a first lesson in humility.
So I’m not ashamed of retreating, or even of running away, because in the end I wasn’t just running away, I was racing into real life; a place more complex and amazing than I could ever have expected.