This excerpt is the third in a series of Country Retreat posts, penned by blog-contributor Charlie Chaplin:
My memories of the few Country Retreats (hereafter referred to as CR) I attended blur and jumble together, such that I’m not even sure how many I ended up at (either three or four), or how many nights I slept over (I can only recall one). I am sure that my only Friday evening there was the first one I was invited to. Every other time, I drove up alone in the early morning on Saturday. Since my wife was either pregnant or taking care of our infant during this period, I insisted on being able to leave immediately, if necessary, and went up early Saturday rather than coming directly from work Friday evening. I couldn’t abide leaving my wife and child (soon-to-be or newly born) for two and a half days straight. As long as I arrived early enough for the full day’s work, they let it slide.
I enjoyed the solitude of those trips, driving down back roads through small Massachusetts towns, surrounded by the early morning mist. Groton particularly impressed me as quaint and lovely, where the speed limit slows to a crawl, allowing the opportunity to soak in the pleasant peacefulness of the town center. It served as a rough halfway point. The population density seemed to drop off after Groton, and the roads seemed to stretch and disappear into more wooded and mysterious realms. The return trip gave just the reverse impression, with Groton marking the emergence back into my everyday reality. One time, on my way home, I stopped at a roadside farm store for a fresh pie to to share with my wife. It was one of the best pies I’ve ever eaten.
While I can’t speak directly to the ways a typical Friday evening agenda differed from the one I experienced, my impression is that they were basically the same – dinner, then meeting and talking about the weekend’s work agenda.
The rest of the weekend proceeded according to a common schedule. Saturday began with a 6 AM wake up call, executed by designated students within each room or area of the house. On the occasion I remember, I was up without needing to be awoken, due to the unusual environment and the absence of curtains thick enough to block the early morning light. We all went to the main living room for a meeting at 6:15 to establish everybody’s work schedule. When each group had gathered at its designated location, everyone stated an individual internal aim in addition to the external group aim. A typical internal aim might include working fast, relaxing, working without resentment, being useful, etc. The group aim could be to chop and stack all of the wood in a particular pile within the next hour. Assignments included physical outdoor work, cooking, childcare, cleanup and creative work such as weaving. After the initial work period, we all ate breakfast together and received our assignments for the next work period, which lasted until lunchtime. With lunch came another meeting to discuss afternoon work aims, followed by another work period, after which we evaluated our work and noted what remained to be done the next day.
At this point, we had a chance to shower and get dressed up for our fancy dinner. We transformed the space by moving around and arranging a lot of tables and chairs and beautifying them with tablecloths and candles. It was very nice, though nowhere near as elaborate as the Christmas parties. The food planning and preparation generally fell on the shoulders of the same few talented chefs who had this responsibility whenever culinary expertise was required.
The Saturday dinner was generally quite pleasant and enjoyable, with excellent food and beautifully dressed fellow students. We were able to sit, eat and talk more or less casually about whatever we pleased. After dinner we met again to discuss our impressions of the day’s work as well as the reading we had been assigned (from Maurice Nicoll’s Psychological Commentaries on the Teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, which can be found at amazon.com or downloaded for free here ). Four or five people made suggestions for the next reading, and Robert selected one upon consulting with the other teachers. Many of the older students had the entire six-volume set of Nicoll’s Commentaries in bound photocopies, which they had purchased from school. It was suggested, but not insisted upon, that we in the younger group might want to do the same. We each stated a CR aim to inform our work on ourselves until the next retreat. These aims were to be periodically said aloud, preferably daily, on the voice mail of our aim partners.
Sunday began as Saturday – 6 AM wake up, meeting, but only one work session. The remaining time was spent cleaning the houses and taking an inventory of food, drink, and supplies that would need to be replenished for future visits. We left the space as spotless as we found it, some students hauling away trash in their cars.
In spite of the regimentation of time and extraordinary physical demands, I found many aspects of the weekend exciting and invigorating, particularly the work sessions. It felt good to work hard physically, at least to a point, and to spend time out in the woods. In general, my opportunities to work outside with tools are pretty limited, and I found it satisfying. One weekend we chopped wood, and I felt a special delight in landing the ax in the just the right spot to make the wood magically split apart with no apparent resistance. Another time we built a shed from scratch, and I enjoyed climbing on top of the half-built structure with a hammer and pounding in nails to attach the plywood roof. Sometimes the biting flies were incredibly frustrating, but we tried to see it as an opportunity to separate from our mechanical responses to them. At times the work itself was just taxing and unpleasant, such as when we had to move large, heavy pieces of wood uphill through the forest while being shouted at to hurry up and finish before we ran out of time to make the aim. In that afternoon’s meeting, Paul said that he had assigned that task knowing that it was impossible, which added to our sense of accomplishment for having succeeded. The atmosphere was mutually encouraging and congratulatory. I cannot recall anyone being called out for insufficient effort.
At one of my first retreats, we were cleaning up after an ice storm. There were split branches laying on the ground, or in some cases dangling limply from the trees, requiring us to climb up and detach them. These we collected and pushed through a gas powered mulching machine. I remember lifting branches over my head with my work gloves and shoving them into the machine, scratching up my arms. One branch backfired into my chest and left a bruise. I didn’t mind any of it and saw the bruises and scratches as physical evidence of having worked hard. There was a close call when the pile of mulch built up enough to surround the exhaust from the machine, and by the time anyone noticed, smoke was beginning to rise from the pile, which was damn near fully ablaze. We doused it with water and moved the machine away from the pile, relieved that we had averted what could have been a disastrous fire.
I remember mainly feeling amused by this potential calamity. I felt no harm could befall us while working on a school event, as we were somehow mystically protected. This was the same feeling I had several times while riding the school-chartered bus down to New York City for the Christmas party in near-blizzard conditions. While I was anxious about my own deception and fearful of negative repercussions with my wife, I can’t recall any practical fear that our bus could crash or any number of other entirely plausible misfortunes could occur on our various school adventures. Something about that promised protection altered my cognition, not by a lot, but enough to tilt the balance in favor of what now appears a kind of foolish wishful thinking, or at least faulty risk-assessment. I suppose there was something of this same mechanism at work in evaluating the potential for damage to my marriage – the sense that so long as I was laboring for a higher good, what I cherished most in life would not only be protected but enhanced by forces working in the “invisible world”.
Country Retreat, Pt. 4: The Grande Finale