Last weekend, I spent twenty-four hours at an Episcopal retreat center in the heart of Sonoma County, along with other women from my church. It’s an annual retreat, and every year I hold a vague intention to attend, until ballet driving, dinner invitations, concert schedules etc. fill up the calendar and I stay home. Sixteen years running.
But this year, one of the organizers asked me to make a thirty minute music mix for the Saturday night, which works on me like raw steak works on a lion, and that invitation was enough to rouse me from my torpor to register. Even then I couldn’t commit to the whole weekend. Driving north from Oakland under threatening grey skies, I arrived just in time for Saturday lunch, and the four hours of unstructured time on the agenda that followed.
Here’s how I spent mine: sat in my spare, comfortable room and read The Goldfinch, uninterrupted, for two hours. Took a nap for an hour. Then I pulled on my rain jacket to find one of the many hiking trails that criss-cross the property. It sits on a ridge in Healdsburg, overlooking the vineyards of Dry Creek Valley, next to an organic dairy.
It is a sign of either the duration of our drought, or the fact that I’ve been in California for a long time, that the rainy, foggy, drippy weather was perfectly fine by me. When I moved here from the East Coast I missed that muffled sound of Yankee winter, the low blue light and the crack of cold air. If I were to move back now, I’d miss neon green moss dripping with moisture, gnarled Sleepy Hollow trees, and soft, persistent fog. It wasn’t raining, but within five minutes my glasses were coated with mist.
And with each step I took down a path that cut its way through a field covered with exuberant green shoots of grass, I felt lighter, less closed in on myself. I may get out and hike with the dog in a city park full of redwoods most days, but even there I can still hear the planes overhead, the sirens on the highway, trucks grinding their gears as they climb uphill to reach Skyline Drive. I think it’s quiet on my weekday trail, but only in comparison to a busy street corner.
Usually the city noise that filters through suits me fine. I find it reassuring. I’m not very good at being silent and reflective (my childhood nickname: Aunt Blabby.) You’d be surprised how much I find to talk to Achilles about during our walks. It is so much easier to yakkety yak, than to sit quietly with the shy thoughts that skitter away at the slightest interruption.
But up in Sonoma, out on the trail, the loudest sound I heard was the rain when the wind shook it from the pines. Between the quiet, the rest, the reading, and the walking, I had an unusual sense that my chest had expanded and my head was lighter, like I could think more clearly. And suddenly one of those shy thoughts was right inside my head, saying: You pray for the wrong things, kid.
Because I pray all the time. Not in a down-on-your-knees, renting-of-garments kind of way, but more like a thread in my internal monologue, prayers for help and prayers of gratitude, trying to keep them in equal measure. What was the right thing to pray for? Who knew? It was time to eat in the big retreat Dining Room again so I couldn’t stick around to ask. And maybe I didn’t want to.
On Sunday morning, toward the end of the retreat, we paired off with a prayer buddy and were invited to share our thoughts, whatever they were, after the weekend of reflection. In 0.003 seconds I was surprised to find myself sobbing into the arms of one of our church’s grandmotherly matriarchs, confessing that most of my prayers were pleas to God that my children be more this way or more that way, to protect them from this and from that. The weight of guilt, that I don’t spend more time just being grateful for who they are right now, thankful for their well-being instead of worried it will be taken away from us, kept pressing the tears out of me.
The grandmother looked at the quivering wreck in her arms and said, “Nancy. What you need to pray for is sturdiness. You need it, to withstand what parenting asks of you,” like it was the most obvious thing in the world. Not to pray for things to be the way I wish they would be, but for the strength to withstand it when they aren’t. She went on to say that her prayers now are all of gratitude. “Because I’m old, and I never could have imagined what a wonderful life I’d lead.”
So as the Lenten season gets underway, I’m trying hard to remember three things. To take a few moments every single day to be still, really silent, and listen. To pray for sturdiness in myself, not change in everyone else. And to remember that some day, this imperfect life with all its dings and dents and problems will be the same one that I look back at in wonder and gratitude.
Also: I have finally found the Kryptonite to my music mix skills: a church women’s retreat. I had quite an eclectic selection queued up, only to realize that my joke song in the third spot, “Singin’ In the Rain,” was the one that got everyone to their feet, singing and dancing. “More show tunes!” they yelled to me. Show tunes? Aside from Adele Nazeme and the cast of Wocked, the Show Tune cupboard on my iPhone is bare. Thankfully the retreat leader was fully prepared and took over, and I slunk off in shame.
That is, until one of the older ladies took me aside and said, “What was that first song you played? I just loved it.” Vindication, by way of Ben Lee and “Whatever It Is.” (And a h/t to my friend Maitreya who told me about it in the first place.)