I have been struggling to articulate my thoughts on last week’s — no, that of the week before last — retreat for days. That and whether they are worth articulating specifically here, or publicly at all.
I think my stay at the monastery may have been too short, something I suspected going in. I also had a migraine that lasted throughout my time there. (I packed my contact lenses but never wore them. I am entirely and irrationally convinced that migraines leak out the eyes and ears, and that contact lenses hold them in somehow, prolonging their stay and my feelings of nausea. I blame the crazy-making pain for that notion, but there you go.)
Also, there was crying. Lots of crying. Set off by the strangest things. Breakfast one morning, with the particularity of removing the tiny bits of shell from a hard-boiled egg, did me in. Not in frustration so much as wonder at the egg I had not cooked myself and the great silence, the silence which was wonderful and difficult and very good and so hard. The silence was a profound gift, and I loved one of the monks for describing it as permission not to speak rather than prohibition against speaking. Free not to speak, not to explain, not to answer or question.
Another particularity of the place is the vertical wall of shale that the Hudson is eating away at with its going and coming, its waves and tides. The first photo here is of a segment of that wall. Several of the flat friable stones are loose in their spaces; like lenses in an optician’s instrument they can be slid up and out, and placed back in again. I found them fascinating, their varied colors exquisitely beautiful.
Some of the ill-fitting thoughts I have been wrestling with include the following in no particular order. In haste the first evening, one of the brothers called me a foolish woman. It was carelessly said and, while out of context it sounds outrageously rude, I do not believe he meant to hurt me with it. However, I spent a long while afterwards thinking of all the ways in which it might be true. There are several, each painful to contemplate and the words, for better or worse, have become part of my narrative.
Another revelation was the extent to which I will bend myself to accommodate others. Unnecessarily more often than not. Not a new trait but one I realized is ingrained in my character and of which I became acutely aware in the silence, and did not like encountering very much. It reared its head more than once in my interactions with others, both the silent variety and the aloud. It is so deeply a part of me I found I could not be comfortable in silence unless I was sure others were too. Someone mentioned in passing as we were leaving that I tend to over-think things. And so I do and here I am.
We were encouraged to visit the river, to listen to the water, the birds, the trees, the wind, our inner voice, God. That was the best advice. I climbed down the hill and visited the river three times during my stay despite my pain, the steepness of the trail through the woods, and the treachery of wet dead leaves on slippery shale. I could hear trains rumbling to and from New York City on the opposite shore. I saw ships with their tugboat guides slip by. I listened as the river nibbled away at the wall of shale in high tide. I felt wrenched to leave it when the time came. It is a thin place.
The headache disappeared as we headed for home, but things have not gone especially well since returning. I have another paper due at the end of the week and have yet to write any of it. I am knee-deep in figuring the tax return and have not made any progress on that either. I tried to bake cookies a few days ago, and broke a yolk into the batter to which I was trying to add egg whites only. I soldiered on with it, missing the instruction to flour the cookie sheet after greasing it. The cookies spread far and wide, making one giant thin mass and the whole thing got very dark. It all crumbled to pieces when I tried to pull it off the pan. I kept trying with the doomed batter until it was used up. The results are barely edible burnt cookie crumbs for ice cream. That’s about all they’re good for.
“My will is as still as a drop of water within the placid lake.” Except I feel as though my will is the roots of a tree from which the soil and fragile shale has eroded, stripped bare by a wide, ever-changing churning estuary. I am clinging to what is left of a shore that is not always above water, and rocks that are as exposed and vulnerable as I, and so unable to serve as anchor and may in the end become my undoing. At least that’s how I feel since returning. It would help if I could get the tax return done. And the paper. Maybe.