This excerpt is the second in a series of Country Retreat posts, penned by blog-contributor Charlie Chaplin:
The Friday of my first Country Retreat, I headed over to the Billerica space after work. Several of us were meeting there to carpool and caravan. Parking was limited at the New Hampshire space, and those of us who had never been there were to follow the veterans to avoid getting lost (entering the address into a GPS device was naturally forbidden). I was one of the drivers, because I was going to return home later that night. The following morning my wife and I were traveling to New York, where she was to attend a wedding. In fact, I had expected to exclude myself from the retreat entirely, but after discussing it with Michael I agreed to be there for that first evening until 10 PM (and of course pay the same $65 fee for the retreat as everyone else – our monthly tuition covered nothing outside of Tuesday/Thursday classes).
When I got to Billerica, Michael said we were waiting for two last-minute invitees. One was my friend Jake (not his real name), who had joined the school a couple of years earlier after I brought him to a lecture. He and the other late invitee had been in school for a much
shorter time than any of the rest of us. I felt a slight prick to my sense of status, and some jealousy that Jake was going to have the full weekend experience without me. I went from wishing I’d been able
to fully extract myself to wishing I were staying the entire weekend. At the same time, I was excited to share this inaugural experience with him and felt it added to our friendship.
To explain the surprise late additions, Michael mentioned that two of the initial invitees, both fathers with wives outside of school, were not coming. Of one in particular Michael said, “his wife won’t let him come,” with obvious contempt. Apparently this fellow’s wife was keen neither to allow him to take their three young children out of state for an entire weekend to some unknown place with unknown people, nor to accept being left to care for them on her own during his absence at this mysterious event. In retrospect this seems entirely
reasonable, though at the time, I experienced a flicker of camaraderie with Michael as he implicitly invited me to join in questioning my fellow student’s manhood.
Robert had invited students with young children to bring them along, up to age ten. He assured us (and insisted we assure our spouses) that during the retreat the children would be looked after by experienced caretakers. Their time would planned and prepared to keep them entertained and well fed. He described it as hearkening back to a time when communities were more tight-knit and people looked out for each other. Our little group would be like a temporary village, and the children would benefit from this experience, so rare in contemporary American society. I bought into this romantically nostalgic notion, only regretting that my own wife would not be able to experience it with me. As I had many times before, particularly during Christmas parties and the work leading up to them, I envied those couples who were in school together, able to share these experiences and, most important, not lie in order to cover for them.
Jake rode shotgun for that first drive up, though I remember nothing of our conversation en route. The trip took roughly an hour, much of it through winding back roads and small towns. When we pulled into
the long, unpaved driveway and got our first glimpse of the location under the twilit sky, a definite energy filled the air. The property
was beautiful and serene, typical New England countryside. Twenty or
thirty people were there already. We unloaded my car and helped
others unload theirs, then had some time to look around.
We had parked at the main house, mostly surrounded by woods with a clearing on one side, where a path led to the smaller second house.
Both were nicely renovated and decorated, the results, we were told, of past aims by older students. Each house had a kitchen, a living room and several bedrooms. Most of these were dormitory style, designated for men or women, with two or three twin beds, one for each student who would sleep there. The main house had more rooms and a much larger living room, where all of our full group meetings took place. There were private rooms for married couples with children and rooms set aside for children with only one parent present.
For dinner, pasta was set up buffet style on tables in the kitchen. This was prepared mostly by the older students who had taken off work to arrive early. We all gathered and ate together. After the children were put to bed, we had a meeting with the entire group to talk about plans for the weekend, discuss the assigned commentary and have the opportunity to ask for help. The whole evening seemed enlivened by a spark of vitality and sense of community, everyone happy to see each other and dine together, and our meeting had a sense of lightness and good humor that often seemed lacking in our regular classes – finer vibrations, as we would say. As a newcomer to the retreat, I felt welcomed by the older group and sensed their excitement at having us there with them.
When I left, between 10 and 10:30 PM, the meeting was still going, and I felt awkward about walking out of the assembled group. I felt some disappointment, like I was missing out, leaving the party early, but I
was also happy to be getting home, and enjoyed the drive through the dark back roads, listening to music on the way.
The next Tuesday evening before class in Billerica, a few of us gathered in the small office room to receive copies of the newly assigned commentary. A couple of other students told me the aims they had stated over the weekend, and I stated one for myself. These aims were multi-part, with two or three specific internal efforts, incorporating something in the spirit of the commentary. For example, if the commentary focused on worry, one part of an aim could be to observe and separate from worry. The other parts might be to
externally consider one’s spouse, and to make intensified efforts at self-remembering or relaxation. In this way I suppose the aims resembled daily affirmations. Since we had never stated multi-part internal aims like this, they felt substantial, and I was hopeful that remembering my aim every day would yield positive results. The others also seemed to feel this hope, and appeared to enjoy heightened states of mind after the weekend they had just experienced. I felt I had missed something really fine and worthwhile. Michael told me he wished I had been there for the whole event, and that he was sure I would have just loved it. I expressed regret and said that I probably could have stayed if I had really pushed it.
I was determined to get the full experience at the next opportunity.