Even before I ever knew the meaning of “retreat” I understood what it meant – to withdraw, to go back. For me it meant to go back inside myself, and I have been doing that since I was a child. My withdrawing had nothing to do with being a would-be writer – or perhaps it did. I would always find myself a place to ponder, to think about my world, sometimes in a big way, sometimes in small, perhaps insignificant ways.
My first place of retreat was the lilac tree that stood about ten feet away from the back door of the house I grew up in. It overhung the narrow footpath that led past the major’s house, before veering left along the old farm track and out to Robin’s Wood. The lilac tree was massive, not one of those suburban lilacs that stood to attention in line outside faux Tudor homes just outside London. No, this lilac had country roots and seemed to have taken one look at the oak tree and thought, “I can do that, I can get that big.” It didn’t quite make it, but its branches were wide enough and snaking enough to provide a seat for a child with a book, and its fronds formed a useful camouflage when I didn’t want to be found. I could spend hours in that lilac tree alone, often just sitting there watching my mother when she went out into the garden and called my name, always ending that call with, “I’ve got a job for you.” Who in their right mind would leave the comfort of the fragrant lilac tree and the gymkhana scene of Jill Has Two Ponies for sweeping out the grate of the stove in the kitchen? No, it was always best to stay in my tree, my retreat.
Behind the back door at the top of the stairs between the kitchen and the dining room was another favorite place. I could pull that door back on myself, and snuggle into the small space. I could see who came in and out of the back door and when, and could hear their conversations.
“Haven’t seen her all morning.”
“Perhaps she’s down the woods.”
“Well, the dog’s still here.”
“I’d better go and find her then.”
Perhaps my parents knew where I was all the time, because at that point I would crawl from my place, abandon my retreat and show myself. “Did you call me?”
As I grew older, retreat became more of a place I went to in my mind, to the extent that time seemed suspended. At college my friends said I must have a bit of the Aboriginal in me, because I would go for a walk and not come back for hours and hours, and it would surprise even me, how long I had walked. My mind seemed to be on a different plane – no wonder I would be greeted with, “Been walkabout again?” My brother’s the same – can go off for a walk and get lost in time. Reminds me of something one of my cousin’s once said, “You Winspears are all a bit fey
I’ve retreated to different places through the years, finding small guest-houses by the beach, or a quiet hotel just to be on my own. About fifteen years ago I went on my first real retreat – a silent retreat at a convent in the mountains near Santa Cruz. I am of no fixed religion (though I was loosely raised “C of E” – I remember being in the hospital when I was six and when my mother filled out the admission form and put my religion as “C of E” I said, “What’s that?” – “Church of England,” she said. I was a bit miffed – I had not long seen The Nun’s Story on TV, and I wanted to be in the church of Audrey Hepburn).
The retreat was run by Catholic nuns, but was for retreatants of any religious persuasion, including complete unbelievers. There was nothing to do except keep your mouth shut. You could go for walks, come to the dining hall to eat, or remain in your room. There was spiritual guidance, if you wished, and there were religious services, if you wanted to take part. But your time was your own. I loved the way the nuns walked around the premises with their big, soft German Shepherd dog at heel. There was something quite calming yet incongruous about that. But I loved being there, loved the meaningful silence – and when I drove away it was at a very slow speed. Time had been suspended again, and I didn’t want to break its spell. Coming back into the world after just three days was a challenge – even the smallest sound reverberated in my ears as if a band were playing. My mind had become used to the silence.
My most profound retreat came a few years later, when I went to what has become one of my favorite places – The New Camaldoli Hermitage in the Santa Lucia Mountains, overlooking the Pacific Ocean just along from Big Sur. This really was retreat, and again, silence was the order of the day. Home-cooked meals - all made from produce grown by the monks - were left in the kitchen for retreatants to serve themselves, and then take the meal to their “cell” – a simple room with a half-bathroom. If you happened to see someone else on a walk or in the kitchen, you did not speak. The exception was if you went to the shop to buy a book or – like me – to indulge in the monks’ amazing home-made cakes – even then, when making your purchase, you had to keep conversation minimal if you had a question. And regarding the cake - those boys know how to ladle in the brandy, that’s all I can say.
The interesting thing about that retreat, more than any other, was that the silence was so grand, so present and so there with me all the time. I began to realize that the everyday noise in my head was a cacophony, crashing around like an orchestra of baboons doing a warm-up. How could I ever even think with that racket going on? Then it began to calm, and I found the silence I was aching for. At night, standing in the small patch of yard outside my room, I would sit to look up to the heavens, where the Milky Way seemed to be putting on a special exhibition of itself. At once I felt both my insignificance, and a sense of being part of something miraculous – then taking that in without self-importance, because at the end of the day I was just a silent speck. Stardust, yes, but still dust.
I left the Hermitage at 4:30am on a Monday morning, so I could be at work on time. Driving along Highway 1 in the pitch black silence felt comfortable, but of course in time I had to join the world again – traffic, phones, people, life. At first it was so jarring, like being pounded by sledgehammers, but soon I was able to touch that place of silent retreat inside me – the place I found in the lilac tree, and behind the door at the top of the stairs between the kitchen and the dining room.
I think this season inspires thoughts of withdrawal from the fray, a hibernation of sorts. And we all have our places of retreat, don’t we? A garden, a shed at the end of the yard, a hobby, walks in the forest, our writing. They key is to be able to find that place wherever you are – it’s a freedom, of sorts.