this is not a review: ‘in praise of retreat’, by kirsteen macleod

I have my own preferred forms of retreat, not the least of which being an annual solitary escape at xmas to a tiny highway motel about an hour north in the country. The kind of place (I have discovered) divorced men go to lick their wounds and couples whose house burned down await insurance dollars and where you park your car in front of your room, where there’s a metal chair beside the front door if you feel like being conspicuous and a wooden one out back on your tiny private patio. It’s the latter I choose and sit wrapped in a heavy blanket under an awning on a snowy night with a glass of wine or a mug of chai; more stars than at home, the dark is darker, the silence more silent. I’m the only holiday traveller to this lonely sweet place at this time of the year where everyone leaves everyone else alone. I read and write and every night I stamp a labyrinth in the snow behind the motel as I watch the sun set. I eat wonderful meals from my cooler and in the morning I have a square of dark chocolate in bed before breakfast.

I can and I do all of this at home too (not the chocolate in bed and maybe that’s key) but on my retreat it all feels different. That too is key. Not what you do but how it feels.

I’m thinking a lot about all this currently and in the way of how things find you when you need to be found by them, I was found by Kirsteen MacLeod’s ‘In Praise of Retreat’, in which she writes of various retreat-ers, from Thoreau and Celtic hermits to E. Jean Carroll, Emily Dickinson and others whose lifestyle or parts of it demanded serious and regular isolationg from society. A gorgeous and enlightening read in which I’ve learned so much about ’emptying’, including that ‘kil’ is the Celtic word for ‘cell’ and refers to the caves of hermits up and down the Scottish coast.

Each of those place names that begin ‘kil…’ indicate they were once an inhabited space by some monkishly minded soul.

Written in my favourite style, heavily researched but conversational in tone, like lunching with someone whose every word you hang on to the point your soup gets cold and you don’t care one whit. In personal stories of yoga retreats, writing retreats, high and low end, historic and new-fangled retreat facilities in various corners of the world as well as accounts via third parties, MacLeod knows exactly how to balance research with a good anecdote. She tells of people who are drawn to retreats and the different and same things they, and we, are all looking for.

“A retreat is a place, but it is also an act of independence. A resolute effort of will is required. While it’s easier to go with the powerful tide of the mainstream, which requires no thought or cultivation, we can choose to withdraw our attention, step back. Like prayer, piano playing, tennis, yoga and meditation, retreat is a practice –the effort you put in shapes what you get out of it. The practice of retreat attunes you to the extraordinary, to the sacramental world.”

I’ve read other things on solitude that can get preachy or downright ho hum but not here. There isn’t a part of the book that feels heavy-handed, overdone or slow moving including a lovely section on Leonard Cohen that feels fresh with insight, in which she quotes him with this that I love because I love seriousness and it makes me happy to see someone taking it seriously:

“I think there’s an appetite for seriousness… [it] is voluptuous, and very few people have allowed themselves the luxury of it… Seriousness is the deepest pleasure we have. But now I see people allowing their lives to diminish, to become shallow, so they can’t enjoy the deep wells of experience.”

I’d like to paddle in this stream a bit longer, the idea of retreat and solitude, what it means, the various forms it takes, so if you have something to share on the subject, a quote, a photograph, a personal experience, a book, please do. I will be all ears and eyes and gratitude.

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