Inward focus: Notes from an at-home retreat

Several weeks ago I began making plans for a retreat. It has been a momentous few months and I felt the need for some quiet time — a chance (and a commitment) to looking inward, processing, and recharging. I briefly considered renting a room someplace, but given how much time we’ve spent on the road in recent years, home seemed just as appealing as some distant getaway (not to mention cheaper and easier). So I set ground rules for an at-home retreat:

  • limited social activity
  • extremely restricted online time and an almost total break from social media
  • regular outdoor time and/or physical exercise
  • healthy and appealing food, including snacks/treats, but mostly excluding caffeine
  • daily journaling
  • no multitasking

I cleared my schedule as much as possible, did some needed household tidying and grocery shopping, then alerted family and friends of my intention and set up an email auto-response. And so my retreat began.

Monday, 11/10/14, 10:11 AM.

This is the first morning of my at-home retreat. I sort of started the retreat yesterday afternoon, but waking up to it on a weekday is different…

I have done several social media fasts over the past few weeks but there is a very different and welcome feeling to actually nearly-unplugging for a week. I’m not quite sure why that is but I’m really enjoying the feeling. It feels like my time is my own again, a feeling I hadn’t realized I’d lost but apparently had, since it now feels so fresh. I’m not sure to whom I think my time belongs when I’m online, but it seems it isn’t me.

Tuesday, 11/11/14, Veterans Day, 11:35 AM.

I woke up around 10 today — very unusual. I think I half-woke a few times in the morning, after dawn, but somehow it didn’t seem necessary to get up. I guess I needed the sleep — and yesterday my physical therapist worked out a lot of stuff in my lower shoulder (trapezius) so maybe I was in need of rest to process that.

[I did a simple errand yesterday] and it took away from the retreat atmosphere, as did the mistake I made of reading a doc [someone] emailed to me last week… then I realized what this is a retreat from: others’ demands and expectations. Even, perhaps, my own demands and expectations, which is why, even though I’d intended to cook all week, I’d be fine with eating out [some days]. It seems the point of my retreat, which I hadn’t fully grasped before starting, is to step back from all situations that require anything of me except my full and unfiltered and uncompromising self. And it’s been very refreshing, even in only the first 24 hours, to live like that; not only was I smarter at physical therapy (because of lack of multitasking, I bet), but I felt a lot more confident just stating my thoughts.

Hmm. I’ve also begun writing my travel book and if it’s true that this retreat is making me smarter and more confidently myself, then this is ideal for shaping a book!

Wednesday, 11/12/14, 1:42 PM.

I’ve realized that time expands beautifully when it’s not dedicated to internet foremost — it turns out what the internet sucks up is not my free time, but my ability to allocate it effectively. That is to say, getting offline does something more to my focus than just freeing up the hours. I’ve noticed this on days when our wifi hasn’t been working, but it’s different to opt out voluntarily. Even now, I haven’t retreated entirely; I said I’d be offline but actually I’ve been doing a quick sweep of emails and Facebook maybe once every 1-3 hours, and checking Viber [group chat with family] twice a day, with a little more activity on Meetup, and yesterday I gave in and ended up looking up new friends on Facebook, and reading about Benedict Cumberbatch’s engagement. So the retreat has not been totally “pure” but it is still giving me the inward focus and productive mental space I wanted.

Perhaps the best thing the retreat is doing is making more seem possible: more writing, more cooking, more meaningful friend time, a cleaner and more comfortable home, etc. It dovetails quite remarkably well with Mari Kondo’s tidying advice. She says everything should have a place, and that’s just what I was doing when organizing my Evernote notes just now, and it occurs to me that limiting internet and outside activities is also an example of that — of not dropping things into spots that should be rightly occupied by other things. Being all over the internet, or doing things in an unrestrained fashion, is the time equivalent of dumping clothes all over my bed, or stashing books in the fridge — it’s not that I can’t own those items, but misplacing them does everything a disservice.

My retreat was so restorative in so many ways, and I really truly didn’t expect that; I just thought it would be a nice thing to do. Almost immediately I felt like I had more breathing space in every area of my life (I even began, without thinking about it, skipping lines in my closely lined journal), I had much better focus and memory, I got sleep I didn’t even know I needed, and I had just generally an astonishing feeling of having had hours of time given back to me. I did things I’d been putting off for months.

Synchronicity was everywhere during my retreat. I’d just finished reading Mari Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and so I was already beginning to make more space in my surroundings; I donated five bags of clothing and a suitcase of books, with more coming (or going, to be precise). An iPad issue necessitated the kind of hard reset that wipes all apps from the device, so even my tablet got a clean slate. And during the prior week I’d had an epiphany about how I could structure a book about our travels — I’d long given up on the idea of a book since I couldn’t come up with a meaningful framework — so it was beautiful to have this new project to nurture while I was in retreat from outside influences.

And then there’s this stone:

Blue-green polished stone

On Thursday of the retreat, I accompanied my brilliant friend Jenny as she was preparing for the début of one of her own creative projects; we went spice shopping, and then we stopped into a crystals-and-stones store. I’m always a little skeptical of all those claims about the healing powers of crystals, but I’d forgotten how instinctively pleasing it is to examine and handle attractive rocks. Originally I was checking out a stone said to boost creativity, but I ended up with a different one, which fits so happily into my fingertips.

Polished blue-green stone held in fingertips

The label at the shop didn’t say anything particular about its alleged powers, but later I read this online: “One strange property of Chrysocolla known since antiquity, is its property of encouraging people to stay at home. It is the stone of monks, hermits and prisoners, diminishing the anxiety and depression that often accompanies seclusion. People with wandering temperaments, who never stay in one place, would benefit from it.”

So, entirely unintentionally, I basically bought the stone for at-home retreat.

There were, of course, challenges during the week; I didn’t get as much cooking done as I wanted, nor as much exercise, and I had trouble staying totally offline. I also ended up seeing people every day, which wasn’t in the plan — but without the constant interaction of social media, I found I really treasured my face-to-face meetings, whether they were long conversations with friends or brief encounters with acquaintances.

I particularly enjoyed two special events toward the end of my retreat, both having much to do with creativity as well as connection. On Friday I met up with Erik’s cousin, Cliff, and we took turns posing for portraits. This is only the second time I’ve done such an exchange, and I had just as much fun as last time. All fruitful creative collaborations come with their own energy, but there is something extra-wonderful about mutual portraits, I think because the posing process is as meditative as the painting/drawing one is generative.

Process photos of my painting of Cliff, taken approximately every 20 minutes:

Partially completed portrait of a man

Partially completed portrait of a man

Partially completed portrait of a man

Watercolor portrait of an Asian man

Cliff’s pastel-pencil drawing of me, which took about the same length of time, and which I totally adore:

Blue pastel-pencil portrait of a woman wearing glasses

The pleased artists and models, after hours of work and a lunch:

Man holding artworks

Woman holding two portraits

On Sunday, capping the retreat (by design), Erik and I drove to Santa Cruz to hear our friend Adam play a solo piano recital. Adam lives in New York (where we saw him last year) but often performs in other cities; I will follow him anywhere I can, not just because he is a jewel of a person, but because he’s an amazing musician and charismatic stage presence. And we studied from the same piano teacher when we were kids, so that makes his performances extra-special for me. He played Beethoven, Prokofiev, Bach, and this lovely piece by living composer Kevin Puts, and then we had dinner with him and some of his family and friends. It was a cozy and expansive day, and as I sat under the vaulted ceilings of Peace United Church and listened to Adam’s playing reaching all across the space, I thought more about my book idea and got a bit shivery at the thought of how good it could be, if all goes well. I am beginning to know this feeling that I often get while witnessing the accomplished creative work of friends; it is the same strong combination of awe, gratitude, and fierce inspiration.

It has been a very, very good retreat.