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I'm on a retreat. Where? That's a secret. Because retreats are supposed to be just that... a stepping away from daily life, with it's bills, phone calls, laundry... the endless stream of little to-do's and distractions that eat away at your day, your best intentions, your ability to think deeply and create.

On this retreat, one of the main things I was going to do is write. So I'm writing here, which was set up for just that and has not seen a bona fide entry in far too long.

Though I still have laundry.

And groceries to buy, and dishes to do. But those activities are different here. Without the avalanche that is my daily life they are more like satisfying accomplishments -- and at times, become meditations.

I still have my free-lance writing to do every day, which makes me have to go to bed and wake up a little earlier than I'd like M-F. But I sleep in on Sundays ( as a grown up, that can still mean I wake up at 6 something but it's my choice). I also signed up at a gym. I have learned that it's good to do a few things to anchor you - or to have a place to go where you feel you belong in a strange new place, while the rest of the hours can be wild. That could also mean finding a coffee shop where you become a regular, or a park that you visit to feed the birds, or a bench you return to to read or people watch.

Remember the endlessness of days when you were a kid?  You weren't even aware of time and had no idea of what day it was. With school out, and an adult to tend to the things that make a home run and provide your meals, all that was left was to lose yourself in your imagination and spend your energy any way that you found to do it. Summers were endless then.

How often have I (you) in adult life, wished for a way to get a little of that back. Self-imposed retreats are the only way I've found to create it now. So I make the space for them from time to time.

One of the great things is that I don't talk for hours at a time, sometimes for days on end. When I was in my early 30's I rented an apartment in Paris at a pivotal time in my life. It was to be for 6 months, but in the time between planning to execution the time shrunk to three months, then to about seven weeks. Still, it was one of the truly golden times in my life. I gave it to myself as a gift, and reveled in each and every single minute -- a whole other essay. I went knowing no one, and speaking only the most basic French. It took me 13 days before I felt the need to go somewhere and hunt down someone to talk to.

Short of ordering a croissant and a cafe creme or asking if the museum was up the road, I spoke to no one. I was having a giant love affair of the senses, and was totally absorbed, leaving no need for any other kind of communion.

When I approach a retreat, the weeks of preparation - of thinking in advance what I want to do with the time and therefore what I need to bring - begins to make subtle shifts in my consciousness. For me, who has lots of stuff, picking what is most essential is a lesson in itself. It's quite like picking three things if you were going to a desert island -- only you can essentially bring a whole trunk.

There are only so many books, paper, pens, and inks I can bring - and now, I add devices, cords, chargers, headphones, discs. Only so many clothes - things that work together, will cover me for any occasion, be appropriate for where I'm going and what I'll do (Hiking? Beach? Glaciers? Yoga?). Oh the things I could read, the movies and documentaries I could catch up on, the things I could learn about my computer and my camera, the languages I could learn, the recipes I could try, what I could finally write if I only had the time.... These compete for space when planning an open span of time.

On my retreats, the point is to leave time open. So I get fantasy fulfillment in putting it all out, but the discipline of choosing what to put back. One of the those was my guitar, something I haven't played in decades, but which calls to me often from the corner in which it leans... This is also an exercise in setting expectations and honoring limitations. Good practices all.

An advantage in taking only what you need is to experience the sheer lack of clutter. Tidying up becomes much easier. Things have a place - a place that is not found under or blocked by piles - so it is very easy to return things after use. Starting with surfaces free of junk mail, magazines, files, etc. it's easier to toss to keep it that way. I know some people who live like this every day. My brothers home is spotless. There is not a bic pen cap, poorly re-folded newspapers or a misplaced coffee cup on any surface in his home. The dishes, including bakeware, look as if they were bought yesterday (at Williams Sonoma, mind you). They hand clean and DRY every dish and fork themselves. Not a spec of dust in the furthest corner of the tile grout behind the john. I've always wondered - HOW DO YOU DO THAT? I give hours a week to trying to keep on top of things, but my place never looks even close to that. Here, everything is spotless, and it easy to keep it that way, with minimal effort. I realize how much those piles subtly stress me out. How much awareness is blocked to ignore the clutter. How much extra energy is spent working around them or trying to get on top of them (which often feels like scooping water out of the ocean). Do we really need so much stuff?

The best thing about waking up the first day (and most days thereafter) is the sense that you can completely change your life solely based on what you choose to do in each hour. You don't need to do what you always did. How simple that seems. Without thinking, a habit I've begun is to open the curtains onto the deck first thing and step out to see what the temperature is. The first thing my bleary eyes take in is the water, which is right across the narrow street, something I would wish for everyone. I check out the tides, see how the texture of the water's surface is always changing.  Yesterday it was choppy and this morning it's completely still and clear and reflects like glass. In my pink leopard pajamas, I stand in the chilly fresh air, and often the sun, sometimes in fog or snow and let my body become fully awakened by the elements. In a primal sense, it's completely natural and I realize how far away I can get from that.

There are lessons for me everywhere and in every thing.


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