About two months ago, a writer named Dani Shapiro who I admire and whose spiritual memoir, Devotion, inspired me to write mine, posted on Twitter that she was going to be teaching a writing seminar based on her latest book, Still Writing, at the Kripalu Center in the Berkshires. I had never heard of Kripalu, but apparently it’s famous. That is, if you do Yoga. The last time I tried Yoga was ten years ago at the Crunch Gym in West Hollywood, because it was fashionable to do so, where I pulled a muscle in my pinkie toe (I didn’t know toes had muscles, but apparently this one gave me an excuse to bail).
On impulse, or perhaps instinct, I signed up for the retreat on the spot. I hadn’t done this kind of retreat before because it had never appealed to me. Back when I was a mopey, single divorcee, my solo trips had consisted of a brief jaunts to exotic places where I could hangout or write, without any kind of structure or program where I had to interact with other people. But this time, something was different. Perhaps it was because I had just initiated a change in lifestyle: healthy eating, no drinking, and an opportunity to maaaybe try Yoga again. My husband, who cherishes his solitude and encourages my need to cultivate my own, was supportive of my weekend adventure.
I packed three identical workout pants, yanked from that neglected shelf in my closet, and a bunch of leggings as backup. And in an even more atypical move, I left my makeup and my blow dryer at home.
It was a pleasant train ride along the Hudson. As we got closer to Massachusetts, I noticed tufts of snow dotting the rolling hills and lacing the bare trees.
A shuttle picked me up at the train station for the one-hour ride to Kripalu. In it, I was pleased to meet three women, one of whom blogs for The Jewish Week, and another Jewish writer who is also part of a Facebook writing group I belong to called “Binders Full of Women Writers,” or in this case, a shuttle full of Jewish ones. We immediately began chatting about our stories, our lives, our writing, until at one point I turned to the driver who I was sitting beside, after noticing he had a slight accent, and proudly asked him, “Are you Israeli?” to which he replied in Hebrew, “Yes, and I’m sitting here listening to your ‘shtooyot’!” which means, “silly conversation or petty shit.” If it sounds rude, it wasn’t – at least not in Hebrew.
It was dark at Kripalu when we arrived, but I could already tell the campus was beautiful; secluded and vast and surrounded by the Berkshire Mountains. Retreaters were filing into the reception area with their duffels, knit hats, and socks shoved into Ugg slippers or Birkenstocks. The place was rustic and smelled like pine and vegan food, a scent that surfaced a memory from when I was fifteen and my best friend and I decided to raid her stepfather’s health food store for snacks with enticing names like “Rice Dream” and “Carob Chew.” I had never tried these kinds of snacks before (my family was non-Yoga and non-health food; we were more of a treadmill and shnitzel type clan), and decided after one bite, that I did not need to try it again. Like, ever.
As we checked in, my shuttle mates informed me that they were going to be lodging in the “dorm.”
“You mean like college?” I asked.
“Yes,” the Binder replied. “Except with bunk beds.”
You can imagine my relief that in a rare moment of wise planning, I had actually booked my own room. I’m not only too old for shares, but I’m a light sleeper, and if I don’t sleep well, you don’t want to go near me. But besides, I knew that if I didn’t have the mental space and solitude to curl in to, that I wouldn’t be fully benefitting from the writing sessions, and I certainly wouldn’t be awake enough to get up for Yoga at 6am on a Saturday.
I slept well, and woke at 6am. Just in time for Yoga! But, I didn’t go to Yoga. I told myself that there were grounds to explore and healthy foods to eat. And social media to cram in before I exited my room into the “no electronics allowed” zone. I could try Yoga that afternoon, and the next morning too.
I went to the cafeteria in search of coffee and scoured the beverage options. Filtered water, a cabinet of teas, hot water, spiced tea, soymilk, apple-something tea, but no coffee. I signed up for the no alcohol thing, but no caffeine when trapped on a campus with no Starbucks in sight was not cool. I looked around and noticed that despite the clattering of trays and scraping of chairs on linoleum, it was unusually quiet. I walked to the entrance and asked a smiley employee, “Is there any coffee here?”
She whispered something in response, but I couldn’t hear her, so I asked the question again, louder.
“Downstairs…” she whispered again, but it sounded more like a hiss. “In the café.” And then she put her finger over her mouth in the “sssh” position and pointed to the rather large sign on the door that yelled “SILENT BREAKFAST.”
“How could you be placid and silent without coffee?” was what I wanted to ask her, but I did not.
When I walked into the large room where Dani’s session was beginning, I immediately felt at home. I even remembered to take off my shoes and leave them in the cubby upon entering, and had a big water bottle as a Yoga prop. There were small folding chairs lined up in a semi circle, and Dani sat Indian style on an elevated platform with candles and yogi things behind her. She began the session with a brief meditation, asking us to get in a comfortable position, close our eyes, and pay attention to our breath. I wondered if this could qualify as my Yoga sampling for the weekend.
My mind began to wander immediately. Shit, did I turn off my phone? Why didn’t I leave it in my room like I was told to do upon check in? It’s ok. It’s too early for anyone to call, or expect me to be awake – even Mom. Is there anyone here I might like or click with? Or is the whole point not to? Maybe I’m supposed to sit in solitude, silent breakfast spreading into silent bedtime. Shit, my phone is so going to ring….
The next thing Dani said snapped me back to the present: “Now imagine a person in your life who is kind… your beloved…“ and my husband’s smiling face rushed in, looming large in my mind’s eye (and he’s 6’7” large already). I was pleased to see him (and it would have been weird had it been anyone else, although Mom paid a visit the next time).
“And say these words silently to yourself,” she continued. “May you be safe, may you be strong, may you be happy, may you live with ease…” I found myself surprisingly in the moment, a warmth spreading up through my chest and outward into the room, stretching towards my husband who was a hundred miles away in New York. It felt like prayer, something I was pleased to discover had become familiar and cozy.
When the meditation portion of the program had concluded, I turned and met eyes with the woman sitting next to me, her leathery skin and sandy hair gave her the appearance of a carefree hippie from California, but behind her glasses, her brown eyes were packed with layers of pain. It didn’t take long for her to tell me the reason. Her husband of 37 years, her beloved, had died two years ago. She had come to this retreat because she was still sifting through her grief by searching for the story line – perhaps a lifeline to a new life. At some point during that session Dani said something, about the “accumulation of losses,” and how this “burden is a blessing,” and this woman and I found ourselves looking at one another again, our hands suddenly grasped, both of us tearing up, as my heart ricocheted from the force of her grief. While at the same time, somewhere on the periphery of my consciousness, I realized that perhaps I had also hooked into the moment where the accumulation of my own losses had materialized into a blessing.
As the session dispersed for the day, Dani left us with a final thought: a reminder of why meditation (in whatever form) helps silence the chatter, the clutter, and makes room for the awareness and discovery of beauty in the every day… in the ordinary.
“It isn’t easy to witness what is actually happening,” she writes in her book. “…The eggs, the cows. But my days are made up of these moments. And if I dismiss the ordinary, waiting for the special, the extreme, the extraordinary to happen, I may just miss my life.”
As the retreat came to an end and I began to gather my things, I noticed the orderly stack of exercise clothes I had optimistically unpacked. I had never put them on, and it dawned on me that I didn’t need to.
Because I hadn’t come here for Yoga. I had come here to notice the ordinary moments, and to feel them in my bones. The silence, the snow on the mountains, a widow’s downturned eyes, and the sounds of strangers – now friends – breathing in the space around me.