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I kept a journal during my silent retreat last weekend at Holy Cross Abbey. Here’s what I wrote.

Sunday, July 25

Morning at last. I woke up a lot during the night, again. Very intense dreams. In one I was arguing with my mom, who was telling me to get a real job. I said I loved having my own business. She said, “no, you must hate it because you’re always in a bad mood” and I was very offended.

In another one I was going back to work at BoardSource. I had a large, oddly shaped office that had a long table as its only furniture, besides chairs. I had brought many boxes of stuff to unpack although I thought it was going to be a part-time job. One of the boxes contained several pairs of rain and snow boots. Rick Moyers came to see me, as did some other BoardSource people, including Judy O’Connor, who is dead. Some people from high school including Mark Meadows and Trucle, and the comedian Wyatt Cenac, were all sitting around my office, oblivious to me.

I am relieved to be going home today.


Dressed, packed, finished with breakfast. My next stop is the outlets. Every silent retreatant goes shoe shopping after a retreat, right? I will read for a little while because I’m really into this book, then hit the road.

I am a very social person. This is just too long without a good conversation.

Post script

My conclusion about the retreat was that I really enjoyed about 24 hours of having time to myself to read, rest, and walk. It was a relief not to have to take care of anyone or anything besides myself. I didn’t have to answer phones or email or do work or clean up potty training accidents or any of the junk of daily life. I didn’t have to sit in traffic. I didn’t even have to think of what to eat. So all that was lovely. But I am, at heart, a genuine extrovert and it was challenging not to be able to talk with anyone at the retreat center. In one sense it was liberating not to have to talk to them, but I wanted to. 

The retreat center itself is well-run and a nice place to stay. I would recommend it to anyone who wishes to have that kind of experience. I think if I were to do something like this again, I would look for an yoga-based retreat center or something like that. I did a little yoga in my room, but I would have enjoyed some more physical outlets. I did love taking the walks, but the weather made it impossible to do that until nighttime. 

And the ridiculous thing is that very shortly after I returned home Sunday, the stress of regular life came bounding back at me with a vengeance. A monster thunderstorm knocked out our power and we were scrambling to gather everything we needed for a sleepover and camp and work the next day so we could spend the night at my parents’ house. Then on Monday after client meetings and a barrage of phone calls, I had an early miscarriage. After my eight-week miscarriage last fall and abundant research and a much deeper understanding of my own body, I now realize this is my second early miscarriage. The first one, last summer, I didn’t even tell anyone besides Randy about because I didn’t understand it and thought I was just crazy. So I made an appointment with a fertility specialist and spent this morning filling out 15 pages about my medical history. 

Saturday I plan to get a manicure and pedicure. Not quite the same thing as a silent retreat, but I’ll take what I can get.

I kept a journal during my silent retreat last weekend at Holy Cross Abbey. Here’s what I wrote.

Saturday, July 24 (continued)

After spending an hour reading under a tree, in the breeze, which was lovely, I decided to walk up to the monastery store. It is hot. The road is not shaded. I am sweaty.

Turns out the shop is operated by the monk with a cold, who was blowing his nose during compline last night.

The store sticks a vast number of books about God, which I am not interested in reading at this moment in my life. Also lots of preserves, jellies, and candy made by monks and nuns. And a couple random books like the collected works of Flannery O’Connor.

Back to the retreat house. It is seemingly empty. I wonder where everyone is. I saw a handful of retreatants going in and out of the kitchen this morning but mostly people have disappeared.

Outside smells often like manure, which nauseates me. When I went to the kitchen for ice water I thought I smelled beans, which also nauseated me.

I hope lunch is not soup. I could never be a monastic because I am not that fond of soup.


Just woke up from a long, luxurious nap. I slept much more soundly than last night. I dreamed that I was here but it was different. I suddenly discovered a big playground filled with tons of noisy children. I realized I had brought Zoe with me and wasn’t sure why or where she was. I was at the playground and was surprised to see a bunch of my friends, including Silvia, Sara, Diane, and Alexis. Alexis was visibly pregnant and wearing a lavender shirt. I wanted to tell them that I thought I was pregnant, or maybe I actually did. I realized I needed to find Zoe so I rode a very old bicycle around the playground. I scooted it between equipment and some kids buying snowcones at a cart. There were a lot of sticks on the ground so I had to stop riding and carry the bike. I walked it up the steps of what was supposed to be the retreat center but what looked like an elementary school. Inside I found Zoe running up and down the halls and wondered how on earth I had brought her there.

Lunch, thankfully, was not soup or beans. It was beefaroni, broccoli, and corn. Not particularly flavorful, but fine. I wondered who or what the beans I had smelled were for. Daniel (the caretaker) told us the monks eat mostly vegetarian, plus fish on Sundays. He said previously that he’s only been here three months and during that time ambulances have been called to the retreat house three times. He talks a lot about the monks and encouraged us to write them letters, presumably if we knew them. I’m not sure how exactly we would know them. He seems to revere them. I wonder if he was once a would-be monk or maybe revering monks is just the thing to do.

He read to us last night at dinner and today at lunch from a book on spiritual disciplines, on the topic of celebration as a spiritual discipline. It’s must easier to worry than to celebrate joy and life, which is apparently why it’s a discipline you have to work at and practice. Apparently Jesus told people to be free of care and not worry so much.

As always, I wondered why I am so attached to my anxiety. Part of me wonders who I would be without it.

I was the only non-Catholic in the room at lunchtime. I wonder if there are Unitarian retreat centers, or whether it matter. Perhaps the only difference would be reading material that I find more appealing. But I brought books.


I went to Vespers. Heat outside was overpowering. I felt like Vespers was largely indistinguishable from Compline. I acknowledge I was distracted because I felt nauseous and itchy. An elderly monk wheeled himself in with his walker to concelebrate the service. He slept through most of it, his head bobbing up and down as the other monks chanted. Perhaps I will skip Compline tonight and just take a walk at 8.

I’ve been here for just over 24 hours not and I feel ready to go home. Maybe I’ll leave after breakfast.


I think one of my favorite things here is cleaning up after dinner with everyone. 

The reading at dinner was more about celebration. This time, how to practice it. He talked about noise and laughter and joking and singing and dancing. The author also wrote (and Daniel read aloud) “there is also a kind of dancing that promotes sin and evil, but that’s another matter entirely.” I laughed. The monk-in-training at my table laughed too.

After cleanup one of the women whispered something to another woman and they laughed and hugged. I started to get lonely.


Walked two more miles. Saw one person, plenty of cows, beautiful butterflies. The cows were loud. Wonder what they were talking about.


I really miss Randy and Zoe

I kept a journal during my silent retreat last weekend at Holy Cross Abbey. Here’s what I wrote.

Saturday, July 24

Last night I walked 2 1/2 miles. It’s been a long time since I did that. Especially in virtual solitude. Encountered one other walker and one truck the whole time. I kept thinking “this is the countryside” and wishing I could show Zoe, who’s been asking constantly about the countryside and what wild animals roam through it at night. Lots of cows grazing, including some splashing and drinking in a stream just a few feet from the road. Butterflies, bugs, dead bugs. Sun setting. Moon rising.

When I came back to the retreat house I went into the kitchen for a glass of water. Another retreatant was there looking for ice to fill her McDonald’s cup (a forbidden item according to the instructions in our rooms). She and I spoke briefly about the ice. I offered her some water when I was pouring mine and she said she had drinks in her room. More contraband! Also a nun listening to headphones was in the kitchen making herself a PBJ. I wondered what she was listening to but of course I couldn’t ask.

The caretaker of the retreat house reminds me of a short Henry Winkler, if Henry Winkler were playing the role of caretaker of a retreat house at a monastery.

I didn’t sleep well. I woke up a lot. Maybe because I had contemplated waking up for the 3:30 vigils service but didn’t commit to going. It sounds like it would be cool but I think my sleep is more pressing.

I did attend the 7:30 compline service last night, which was new to me. The monks chanted. One of them blew his nose repeatedly. At the end one of the monks used something like a wand or scepter to sprinkle what I assumed to be holy water on all of the monks, then on all of us. That was a first. I don’t think any drops actually reached me, but it’s the thought that counts, right?

Last night when I was walking back to my room, I saw the young monk-in-training (I had overheard him telling the nuns that he’s in his third year at seminary) changed form robes into shorts and a t-shirt. I guess when you’re still in training there aren’t strict rules about wearing your monk outfit.

The downside to the silence is I have a lot of questions that remain unanswered and I don’t get to know anyone’s stories.

I think the best thing so far is I don’t have to do anything. For anyone. I’m only accountable to myself. When was the last time that was the case? Ever?

I kept a journal during my silent retreat last weekend at Holy Cross Abbey. Here’s what I wrote.

July 23, 2010


Why on earth am I here? After the tour of the retreat guest house I feel like crying. I wonder why I didn’t go visit Melissa in Charlottesville instead. This seems like a really strange place for me to be. I have no idea what I will do with my time for the next 40some hours. I was surprised to learn there are rooms for talking. I’m not sure how I feel about having an out. Although really, who would I talk to? On the check-in sheet most people seem to be priests or nuns. Again, how did I end up here?

I stopped in Purcellville at the Giant to pee and bought Wheat Thins and clementines. Being possibly pregnant, I wanted to be prepared. When I arrived, I felt like I was smuggling in contraband.

There’s a tv and dvd player here, in one of the rooms down the hall where you’re allowed to talk. Why? Who goes on a silent retreat and watches dvds? I’m hoping for a storm to watch instead.

The first liturgical service of the day is at 3:30am. Flashlights are provided if you want to walk the quarter mile to the chapel. I can’t imagine getting up that early. But at least it would be cooler out. It’s expected to be 101 tomorrow, at least at home.

There are no keys for the doors here. You can lock from the inside but have to trust no one will go into your room while you’re out.

People probably do not have sex here.

I asked about spiritual direction from a monk, as advertised on the website, and learned that the monk who had done that here died last month. He was 91. People had been coming back for 30 years to talk with him. Bad timing on my part. No spiritual direction for me this weekend.

There is a gift shop here. The monks make fruit cake. They probably don’t sell t-shirts. [Here I sketched a picture of a person wearing a shirt that says I SURVIVED A SILENT RETREAT AT HOLY CROSS ABBEY.]

Maybe the reason I’m here is to sleep.

The process of potty training my daughter possesses surprising similarities to how I felt about sex when I was in high school. I had always known what sex was, thanks to a book my parents gave me when I was eight called Where Did I Come From? There was no mystery there. What I didn’t understand, until embarrassingly late in the game, was all the other stuff that happens before you get to the baby-making stage. In much the same way, I’ve always known that potty training is the transition from diapers to underwear, and there are bound to be accidents along the way, but I never knew (until now) what happens in between. I’m beginning to feel initiated.

What happens in between seems to be, like sex, different for everyone. I’m a consummate collector of other parents’ tips and tricks and in recent weeks I’ve learned that some kids get it in three days while for others it takes three months. I’ve learned that, continuing the analogy, there are many, many techniques and it’s hard to tell what might work for you until you try it. What works for Zoe seems to be many, many stickers and many, many presents. Zoe may be a three-year-old incarnation of the Material Girl, without the backup dancers.

In theory, we’ve been potty training for over a year now. When she turned two Zoe started exhibiting all the readiness signs I had read and heard about. We bought a little potty seat and a potty ring (the kind you put on top of the regular toilet so the child doesn’t fall in) for our house and for Fuzzy and Poppy’s house. We switched to pull-ups (basically expensive diapers shaped like underwear that children can hypothetically take on and off themselves). We started encouraging Zoe to go potty before bed. She was enthusiastic and willing. I thought maybe that would be it. I had heard legends of children who decide on their birthday that they’re too old for diapers and quit cold turkey. Ha. Not Zoe.

So for a year the potties in our house were primarily recreational. Zoe peed in them when she felt like it, mostly at bedtime or if one of her parents was using the toilet as well. But mostly she used her diapers. And we didn’t push it, having heard that forcing potty training is guaranteed to permanently traumatize you and your child. Then, as we approached Zoe’s third birthday, we thought we should get serious.

The month prior to her birthday, I took a potty training workshop. I sat there in a room with dozens of other parents of children ages two to four who were trying to figure out how to start, how to make progress, or how to finish getting their kids out of diapers. I felt reassured that we weren’t the only parents whose child had not magically trained herself. I took copious notes. Then the instructor mentioned that ideally you should keep major life changes (like potty training) eight to 12 weeks apart for kids. Zoe was scheduled to have eye surgery two weeks after her birthday. I didn’t want to overwhelm Zoe with stress, for sure, but I also couldn’t stand the thought of waiting until summer to tackle this daunting challenge. The instructor said we could introduce some of the concepts, but not to force the issue. We decided to be low-key.

So for a few weeks we talked potty a lot. We told Zoe she was the only person who knew when she needed to go to the bathroom, and we couldn’t figure that out for her. We discussed the virtues of underwear and the downside of diapers. The moment she turned three Zoe started referring to herself as a big kid and started asking questions like “what did I used to do when I was a little kid.” So we seized on that, talking about how big kids use the potty and wear underwear. And it worked. A little.

She increased her use of the potty, and begged to wear underwear. But she would pee in her underwear moments after she put it on, and didn’t seem to notice, or be bothered by it. Not so good. The biggest challenge was that she couldn’t be bothered to interrupt her playing to use the bathroom. Playing was her priority, understandably. We realized she had to make the switch in her head that it was more uncomfortable to wear a dirty diaper than it was inconvenient to take a potty break.

We laid off for a while, until summer. We supplied Fuzzy and Poppy and Zoe’s day care provider with many extra outfits and many pairs of underwear. We started putting Zoe on the potty a couple times an hour. We put underwear on her first thing every morning, even if it meant going through 10 pairs of underwear a day. We realized this was not going to happen in three days. We did a lot of laundry. We returned to Target a few times to buy more underwear. In case you were wondering, the fashionable varieties currently available include Elmo, Hello Kitty, Dora, and Tinkerbell. And apparently there are several Tinkerbells of different ethnic backgrounds, which I don’t really understand but I think is cool.

Knowing that Zoe responded extremely well to incentives (bedtime bedlam and drop-off drama had both been cured this way), we started offering a sticker for every time she went potty and her underwear was dry. At the end of the day, or after a certain amount of stickers, or after some other period of time depending on which parent was currently on watch, she got a present. This is proving to be slightly more expensive than I had anticipated. Fortunately I have a cache of treats in the closet, and I found a cool new toy store. And Zoe is extremely pleased with almost any kind of present.

At first I was worried that it would never happen. But over the past few weeks she has made amazing progress. She’s asked to use the potty at the grocery store, the library, and four times when we went to lunch with friends this week. She’s kept her underwear dry all day several days, and pooped in the potty many times. She even fell in the toilet today at my parents’ house and was extracted unscathed and held in her pee while my mom cleaned her up. Only a few pairs of underwear have had to be trashed. She’s only peed on the floor during a playdate once. My mom reported that she went to the bathroom about two dozen times today, and actually used the toilet about half of those times. But she’s definitely thinking about it, and getting it, and excited about it. Which is exciting to us. We still have work to do. Most of the time she goes it’s at our encouragement, but every day she takes more initiative. So she’ll be getting more stickers and more presents in the coming weeks. But I’m feeling confident that in September when she starts Montessori preschool she’ll be proudly sporting her stylish underwear like a big kid who can hardly remember what it was like to wear diapers. She’ll ask “did I wear diapers when I was a little kid?” And I’ll say “yes, can you believe it?”

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