Yes, I am going to visit Wisdom House again, this coming Friday and stay the weekend…
But I haven’t even told you about the first time there, so forthwith I will make up that lapse.
I had no difficulty driving up to Litchfield from the Hartford area, despite my usual tendency towards sleepiness,. This was largely I think because I left home at 8:30 a.m, an hour after waking, and got there by 9:30, well before my 11 a.m. sleepy hour when I ought never to be on the road (unless well medicated, and armed with a strong cup of coffee to boot). Barely had I gotten my suitcase out of the car and was deciding which door to roll it towards, when I heard a voice call, Hello, and saw an arm wave over the hedge.
Sr Jo-Ann is, well, I do not want to say cherubic, because that isn’ the word I want. If I use it, it would only be in reference to her size, and her positive demeanor. Very cheerful, so far as I could tell she was never without a kind smile for everyone. As for her size, well, I am not quite 5’3″ but in comparison to this tiny, tiny Dominican sister, I felt like a giantess! I do not often tower over people, but in Jo-Ann’s case, that wasn’t hard to do. 8D
Be that as it may, we went by elevator to the third floor of what used to be the convent (?) I suppose you would call it, of the Daughters of Wisdom community, first built in the 1940s as a residence and then later with a college added on to it. I must have “lucked out” because it turned out that I had been assigned a room with a private bath; it seemed that the room had once housed a mother superior or at least a fully professed and senior nun/sister, as opposed to a novice, postulant etc. Now, the dormitories have all been refurbished and turned into single or double rooms as well, so none of the accommodations are anything but just as comfortable, but some do share bath. I had assured them I had no objections whatsoever to doing so. But as it turned out, it didn’t seem that there were many people housed very close to one another, so that shared bathrooms or no, it would have posed a problem either way.
Mother Superior’s room or not, it was just perfect for me, and really nice. I dunno what I was expecting, a room perhaps like what I’d gotten when I found myself at that horrible YMCA in New York City (back in the early 1990s when I was so ill and on my way “to Orlando” — a long story) which was almost literally a cell, just a closet of a room, with a cot, a sink and a hard wooden chair, and that was it. The bed had a stinking blanket and ripped sheets and the walls were dirty and stained as well. The window looked down on a grit-filled air shaft…SO when I saw this room, with a window looking out onto the woods and grass, and a full bed with a nice bedspread, a desk and chair and a small arm chair, I frankly was in love with it immediately. Plain, yes, but exactly my “cup of tea”.
The first words I said to Jo-Ann were “Oh, how lovely,” and I hope she knows I meant it. Sure, having done some public speaking in various places now, I know that a few hotels, like the Hilton, can be “fancier”, but in terms of where I have been most comfortable, Wisdom House beats them all. The hotels are always too cold, and too, I dunno, cold in every sense of the word, I guess…
But there is more to talk about that just the bedroom, and it is getting late so let me move on. We went for a tour of the building then, and I was astonished at how many little nooks and crannies there seemed to be for a person to hole up in and write or be alone. Now that may have been an illusion of sorts, because I was overwhelmed and it was all new to me. But it seemed that every other room that Sr Jo-Ann pointed out to me was another one she said could be used for quiet times or writing or reading. I was also very pleased by the fact that there were several places where coffee and tea was available literally 24 hours a day.
I had come a day later than others, though, so the quietness of the silent retreat was in full force. This did not prevent Jo-Ann from talking to me, not at all, though we did speak in low voices so as not to disturb the retreatants. But I came to understand that a silent retreat did not mean no one was allowed to talk, only that silence was to be respected and honored as much as possible, or at least that quiet was. But at meals, the spiritual directors usually sat in the talking dining room as did I and Joanne the other writer and Jo-Ann as well.
The first day went all right, as I recall. At least, I had lunch and sort of enjoyed meeting the sisters who were “running” the retreat, in the sense that they were acting as the spiritual directors, and it was interesting to listen to them talk. I had never had any opportunity to be in the presence of “religious” before so it was simply an experience to observe them. And hear what they talked about. But at the same time, for some reason, I felt I had to make sure that Joanne was not left out, because she was younger than I, and I always feel responsible for people. So I would ask her about herself and what she was writing and where she came from etc. And I dunno, all this socializing was tiring to me, and I was glad at least when she left to go upstairs, so I could just sit and listen to the sisters. Until I realized that they were just being polite and waiting for me to get up so they could too! At that, I immediately stood and took my plate to the kitchen, apologizing for keeping them. Which of course, they denied, but what else could they do?
The next day, well, I can barely recall Monday, in truth, except that it was harder to stay sociable and not feel ugly, not feel that I was contaminating and upsetting everyone. At one point, I even left the table abruptly, and clearly upset, not because they had done anything to me or to upset ME, but because I felt I had upset or oppressed them, obtruded in on them, and had to betake mysefl elsewhere so they would have some breathing room. That was when I began to feel I could not stand it any longer. Already the silence had begun to take its toll. I had less trouble at night, because I enjoy the nighttime quiet. But it was during the day, when people were around, but ignoring me, and I suppose ignoring everyone else as well, that it was difficult (the retreatants each had a meeting every day to speak to their spriritual advisors, but I had no one at all to talk with…which was a big problem) Finally, on Tuesday late afternoon, I had had enough, or at least I was crumbling, and called Josephine in tears. I didn’t call for any reason in particular except to hear someone’s voice and talk. But when she heard me she said, “Why are you staying if you are so upset? You don’t need to prove anything to anyone. If you do not like beiing there, just come home, they do not care, and no one wants you to be miserable there. Just come home!”
You know, ordinarily, I would not have listened to her. I would have felt that there was indeed something to prove, that I did have to stay and make myself do what I did not want to do, to “prove to myself” if to no one else, that I could force myself to do what I did not want to do…i.e. punish myself, discipline myself, stick it out, despite my discomfort and misery…all the old sadistic childhood lessons. and because I think if it feels bad, if it is hard for me, it is probably GOOD for me, rather than just simply something I do not enjoy…
For some reason, though, this time I heard Josephine, I heard the sense she made when she said that NO ONE CAREs if I proved anything…No one wanted me to prove anything and I was NOT in fact proving anything to anyone by staying. She was right. She was absolutely right. All I was proving that I could make myself miserable yet again. “Go ahead, pack the car and call me when you are leaving,” she said, and I finally answered, “Okay, you are right, I am on my way. I’ll call you when I am in the car.”
Luckily, I thought, everyone was at afternoon mass for the first half-hour of my packing up and carrying things to the car. It was only during the final trip to the parking lot, when I carried my pillow and sweater out, that anyone saw me. I kept my eyes averted and my head down, pretending nothing was wrong. Why make eye contact now, when it was too late? But I did catch a glimpse of Joanne, the writer, sneaking her dinner on a plate and bringing it upstairs to her room. I wondered whether she was too busy writing to eat in the dining room, or if perhaps she was as miserable as I was…
Finally I was ready to drive off. Just as I was about to call Josephine to tell her I was on my way, I thought about Sr Jo-Ann and decided I really ought to tell her I was leaving. I knew in my heart that she would not try to make me stay and would not reproach me for leaving, but I was embarrassed for her to see that I was quitting, frankly. And I didn’t want to be a burden on her. That was what stopped me from trying to find her in the first place. I called her this time though.
“Pam, is that you? Would you mind if I came out to the parking lot to say good-bye?” Jo-ann asked.
“No, not at all.”
I stood up outside the car so she could find me, and by the time she approached me, I was in tears all over again. I am afraid I cannot now remember why, except that partly what upset me so, aside from the sheer loneliness and isolation, was that being there with all the sisters and the religious aspects of the place, had brought up a lot of memories and old feelings in me. Maybe some not so old feelings as well. I had been reading Thomas Merton, or trying to, and yet the very fiirst pages of his journal, Entering the Silence, about his “becoming a writer and a monk” were so terribly disturbing and even destructive to me that I could not bear reading any further.
I spoke to Jo-Ann about all this, and about Joe as well, and about our small argument and my big reaction to it, my exhaustion and inability to decide how to have a life in the light of his Lou Gehrigs disease and whether I had a right to one at all…Well, needless to say, if she hadn’t been enormously supportive and wonderful, I would not have made it clear that I would love to come back there for a “second chance” this weekend. No silent retreat this time, either. This time the N.E. Choristers and singing will fill the rafters. Which should be jolly to the max. I look forward to it, but if for any reason I can’t stand it again, (which I surely hope will not be the case) I now know that I can seek out Jo-Ann, one, and, two, that it is perfectly okay to say, Enough is enough, and go home.