“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” — Parker Palmer
Retreats. I usually schedule retreat dates with care, finding calendar space with little disruption to my life. I aim for a good chance of pleasant weather–Arizona in January, Collegeville in June, Duluth in September. I consider themes and thoughts I wish to ponder. Not this year. This year my retreat scheduled me.
The coronavirus pushed me into retreat—distancing me from the many distractions that fill my days. I am thrust into the present moment. The past seems so very distant. Thanksgiving with its bounty laden tables surrounded by family and friends feels like years ago. I was on an airplane in January, all but impossible to even imagine now. February’s lunch with friends had us in the throes of a presidential primary campaign that has all but been decided and now falls far below today’s headlines.
Distant past. Unknown future. I sit in the present, practicing mindfulness.
The gift of the present is that here everything is okay. The sun rises, a little earlier every day. I attend to daily tasks––cleaning, gardening, listening to birds, noticing cloud formations, greeting masked passers-by—all from a safe distance.
I recall childhood summers where I awakened when I was finished sleeping, slipped into an easy routine and let the new day unfold. I was free to meander through woodlands, create my own adventure, get lost in my imagination. My days were full of just a smattering of tasks and few obligations. There was a peace in that life. I get wafting memories of that now.
I find I am very tired by the end of the day. I fall into bed weary and not sure why. I welcome sleep which had become a fitful companion over the years. Now she enwraps me for 7-8 hours each night. How can this simple life be so exhausting? A friend likened these days to what bikers call a “false flat.” The trail looks flat but in reality, there is a low gradient climb that takes more energy than we expect. We are living in a “false flat.” The stress of uncertainty is always in the background like an energy draining phone app.
Wonderings, wanderings and worries invade this quiet world. What’s next? When will normal return? What is normal? Do I really want to go back to all that was? Might I take something with me? Can I allow what’s next to unfold?
How does this corona time mimic retreat time?
When I am on retreat I do not need to look ahead. Each day cares for itself. I have open space to observe—how I feel, where the sun is, which bird songs drift in and out of treetops. I take leisurely walks, delighted with nature’s gifts.
During this corona retreat I notice how calm I feel, the quiet city streets, the bright stars of night. My familiar walks are more relaxed. I catch subtle changes. Green leaf buds swell. Tiny maple blossoms prepare for midsummer’s burst of helicopter-like seed pods. Eagles circle overhead. I remember when eagle sightings were rare because their habitat was laced with DTD (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). Laws banning such poisons have ushered in a healthy supply of these graceful birds. It is a reminder that we can change. We can improve our lives. We can assist nature’s recovery.
Here, as in my regular retreats, I braid invocations of gratitude into my day. I pray for dear friends as they come to mind. Now I often couple that prayer with a check-in to see how they are doing.
In my silent retreats, as I encounter fellow companions, I meet their eyes, nod a greeting, move on. I do the same with those I greet now, staying the requisite six-foot distance, acknowledging our shared space, shared care, shared humanity.
Writer and spiritual director, Margaret Silf, in her book Going on Retreat, says in retreat “ordinary time is suspended to make a little space for eternity to reveal itself.” What might eternity be revealing now? Spring’s renewal of the earth is a sign of eternal hope. Each year new life pushes forward out of seemingly dead limbs of trees. Buried bulbs bring colorful tulips and daffodils out of bleak gardens. Robins return yet again to forage for food in the understory of autumn’s leaf clutter. Death entwines with life, over and over.
As my annual retreat draws to a close and I reluctantly prepare to leave, I reflect on what to take with me to hold as a reminder of the serenity that I enjoyed. What might I want from this corona timeout, this period of quiet, this unhurried oasis?
I appreciate the regular rhythm of the day, the blending of tasks with natural living—cooking simple meals (some that scent the house with memories of childhood), reading books, cleaning closets, sorting photos.
There is a novel balance to this life. I want to bring that balance into whatever might come next. A balance of quiet and action, joy and sorrow, peace and concern.If I come back from retreat and return to how things were before I left, I haven’t gone on retreat, I’ve gone on vacation. Click To Tweet
Why do I go on retreat? To adjust my life to better reflect who I am, who I am called to be and where I am called to go. If I come back from retreat and return to how things were before I left, I haven’t gone on retreat, I’ve gone on vacation. This is not a vacation we are on. This is a rigorous retreat.
We are retreating to a much more basic life, a simpler life (though it may not always feel simple), a life of cooperative living more than competing. If I come out of this retreat, if we as a nation come out of this retreat exactly the same, we will have squandered an incredible opportunity. Who of us, when we look at our life, cannot find an area where we want and even need to change?
Franciscan priest and author, Richard Rohr, describes life as a repetitive pattern of order, disorder, reorder. I see that pattern in the worldwide COVID-19 chaos. The old order has exploded. We are winding our way through a great disorder that will eventually transform into a reorder. We do not know what that will look like. I fear we may be in too much of a hurry to return to that which for much of the world was not very good. Even in our own lives there are places I am sure that were not good. The earth is laboring to bring forth new life. Can we join her? What do we need to let go of so as to have the life that is waiting? It is a question for all of us, individuals and communities. What is yearning to come forth?
Mary Lou Logsdon, has a Spiritual Direction practice and leads retreats in the Twin Cities. She is a member of the Sacred Ground Spiritual Direction Formation Program faculty. She can be reached at logsdon.marylou @ gmail.com.