Wednesday, July 4, 2012


: not expected : unforeseen

Rock Cross on an outcropping near Lake Michigan
Thursday night, my three daughters and I set out for Wisconsin.  We stopped in Indianapolis for the night, crashing in two queen beds around 10 pm, grabbing hotel breakfast and getting back on the road.  Friday found us fighting Chicago traffic, having missed the correct route to 294 and mistakenly ending up on 90/94 (a mistake if ever there was one), followed by Milwaukee style fish fry and some time with J's family.  Saturday mid-day, after hugs all around, I left my daughters for some alone time with grandparents and departed for a solo retreat in Racine at the Siena Retreat Center.

After a few detours (there seems to be roadwork all over the great state of Wisconsin), I made it to the retreat center.  As one of the sisters took me on a tour of their facilities, I realized I was growing increasingly warm.  While not nearly at hot as the 100 degree temperatures I had left behind in Nashville, it was warm for this time of year in Wisconsin.  I thought I'd unpack my bags and rest for a while.  Once alone in my room, I realized why I was hot: there was no air conditioning.

Having grown up in a hot, humid part of the country, I can't even really imagine life without air conditioning.  Had I known there was no A/C, I would have chosen a different retreat center.  I quickly grew to be grateful for the fact that I didn't know about this facilities deficiency ahead of time.  Because the Siena Center ended up being a place with many unforeseen gifts - A/C or not.

Since this was the first time I've been on retreat alone, I had debated what my approach should be.  I e-mailed both my counselor (who leads story groups) and my spiritual director (who leads the silent retreats I attend) for suggestions.  And as I thought about how to approach this time, it was more and more clear to me that what I really wanted to do was spend time exploring my story.  A retreat would give me time and space to remember events that have shaped and formed me as a person - and the opportunity to explore those memories with God and see what He has for me in them.

Upon arriving at the Siena Center, I quickly found that I wouldn't be able to replicate the silent retreats I enjoy each spring and fall.  The Dominican nuns at Siena aren't silent, so it wasn't always possible to avoid areas where conversations were happening.  I did take my meals to a room separate from their conversations, but I decided early on to give myself the grace to move in and out of silence as the circumstances merited.  This helped me not resent it when people spoke to me and instead take things as they came.

I arrived with a goal of remembering ten key life events and writing about each of those stories.  At the end of each one, I asked myself what lesson that story taught me and where Jesus was in the event.  This was, quite frankly, emotionally exhausting work.  I needed a break after writing each story.  So I spent a lot of time at Lake Michigan, which was less than a hundred yards from my room.  After my first trip down there Saturday night, I made time at the lake a regular part of my retreat.  In fact, I skipped Sunday mass to head straight there after breakfast.

I've always been a bit of a snob about lake beaches vs. the "real" beach.  And by the real beach, I mean any of the beaches along the Gulf Coast.  That's where I grew up and I love that fine white sand and the feel of the salt on my legs as the sun dries the water away, leaving just salt behind.  Over the last few days, I learned to see the beauty of a beach that offered rocks for climbing, collecting and sitting.  I learned to appreciate coarse black and grey sand that did not cling to my feet, but brushed away easily.  And I quickly came to enjoy water that was so cold it made me gasp as I put my legs in it - there was no better or more pleasant way to cool off than this.

When I wasn't spending time climbing on the rocks, looking for stones to bring home or sitting with my feet submerged in the iciness of Lake Michigan, I came to love the craft room at the Siena Center.  There's something really lovely about a room stocked with art supplies just for use.  I collaged.  I painted.  I lost myself in making things instead of remembering things.  Which made it easier to remember when the time came around again.

It was past retreat experiences that made me want to try a few days alone at a retreat center.  But those previous retreats weren't exactly comparable to this one.  I am thankful to have found joy, peace and healing in the unexpected offerings it brought.

Shadow Self Portrait

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