Last week, I was walking by the river when I came upon a man sitting at a typewriter on a small folding table in front of him, pecking away at who knows what. “Poet for Hire” the sign said. “Pay what you like.”
Intrigued, I asked if he would write a poem for me.
Sure, he said, what would you like me to write about?
Could you write me a poem about retreat.
Ah, he said, and pulled out a fresh page to feed into his typewriter.
Over extended. Overreach. The center lost
Time to beat
A dignified retreat.
To mountain stronghold, to dark forest den,
To marsh, to fen,
To barren moor and blasted heath.
Here we sit in silence, accumulate energy,
Consolidate our forces, gauge our
Strength and the strength of
Bide our time
Wait for the propitious moment
A renewed assault
~ Luke Davis
This is the poem he wrote. It took him all of four minutes, and somehow it captured the notion—every nuance of what I was feeling.
Retreat, the outcome of overreach.
Retreat, the need for peace.
Retreat, a return to center.
Retreat, a drum to beat.
Retreat, the regrouping.
But never defeat.
I have been in retreat, now, a kind of spiritual breath-hold, for about two months. Or maybe it’s been two years. Two years since my mother was first diagnosed with cancer.
The call came, quite unexpectedly, in the middle of the day.
This is not how it’s supposed to be. Bad news must always arrive in the dead of night or the early hours of the morning, the insistent ring shattering the silence, the peace with its terrible timing.
But not this time. This time it came in sunlight.
And ever since, I have been in retreat.
From the glare. From the noise. From the bustle of bodies hurling to and from one accomplishment to the next to the next.
The movement was slow at first. A declination of one invitation then another, from one event or another. But gradually, it picked up pace. The relinquishment of responsibility, the resignation from a job. The release of ambition, time, joy. The slow float through the day, face turned lee-ward.
They do not tell you this about retreat—that there is deep contentment. In fact, this is the very definition of retreat—contentment, enough. The emptying of oneself, oddly, resulting in a feeling of fullness, completion.
Of course, I still had to get through my day—work, home, family, friends. And for all intents and purposes, outwardly at least, nothing had changed. The iceberg still stood even as the water level rose around it.
But that is the gift of retreat. It takes place on the battlefield.
Even in noise, silence.
And as there is a from, there is also a to, a retreat to.
To the most essential. Food. Clothing. Shelter. Love.
A crocus. An orange tree.
The touching of forehead to feet. To earth.
A hand to the small of back.
A dog. Three dogs.
The comfort of routine.
Let me help, I would ask.
But in retreat there is no help. Just presence.
And they do not teach you that. Presence.
It’s all in-out, count this-count that.
But not the space between the in and the out, the distance between the numbers.
Or the sitting. The endless sitting. Interminable, at first, but soon, the blink of an eye.
They do not teach you that.
You have to find it for yourself. If you can stand it that long.
And sometimes you do not have a choice.
Retreat finds you.
One day, I was sitting under a tree and a ripe peach came tumbling down upon my head. I should get that, I thought to myself. That is one fine peach.
But I could not move.
And that is how it began. This retreat.
I who am always moving, I the lover of peaches just sat and sat and sat.
And now I am big and ripe and full. Just like that peach.
And like that peach I am untethered, removed from source. And I cannot go back to stem and branch and mother-love. Only transform. Reseed myself.
And like those soldiers marching through marsh and fen and barren moor, I must consolidate and wait.
For propitious moment, that slippery bastard.
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