The Silent Retreat

At the SILENT retreat/nunnery that I just went to this past weekend, I was honestly expecting to have a complete mental breakdown. I packed loads of salty snacks, chocolate and a stress ball fully anticipating that when I got there, I would fall to my knees (hoping it was carpeted) and end up eating my way into a state of numbness.

It was quite the contrary.

I drove down to the retreat listening to Toni Braxton’s “You’re Makin’ Me High” and singing at the top of my lungs while making my car gyrate all over the highway. I figured this would do two things: 1) exhaust my voice since I wasn’t going to be using it anyway, and 2) expel any extraneous sexual energy I might be carrying around with me so as not to repel or disgust the nuns.

Hey, it was just a theory…

I stopped the car in a panic at the crest of a hill because I was sure I had passed the nunnery and used my cell phone as a phone (imagine!) to call them. Sister Pat assured me I was not more than a few minutes away. As it turned out, I was less than twenty seconds away.

I met Sister Pat whom I wanted to hug instantly. She is a grey-haired non-habit-wearing nun that walks with a slight wobble. She led me through the house and whispered instructions on where to find things, how to eat in silence and about the house rules in general.

The place itself is a restored log cabin that creaks and whines with every step you take. These sounds are magnified when there is no other sound in the house at all. I found myself tip-toeing all weekend like a lover sneaking around the house trying to surprise their partner with notes tucked into things while the other is sleeping (why go with the ol’ “creeping like a burglar” metaphor when this is so much more romantic?)

Both Sister Pat and Sister Betty knew that I was there to write. They just didn’t know what I was there to write.

On the second day I saw Sister Betty in the kitchen and she asked me how the writing was going.

 

Me: I’m so excited! I think I’m actually going to finish it here!

Sister Betty: Good for you dear!

Me: Sister Betty, I have to tell you I feel a bit weird though. I’m not embarrassed or anything, but it just feels a bit odd to say that I’m upstairs writing about sex.

Sister Betty: We all have something we must do. The rest is up to God.

Me: Thank you! I agree.

Sister Betty: I’m sure what you are doing is very important.

Me: Words are flowing out of me like a tap that’s been turned on full blast.

Sister Betty: I understand. When you don’t let go of these thoughts and write them down, your brain becomes inundated with an abundance of words and your mind gets clogged up. You have to pour them out or they can overtake you.

 

And just like that, I recognized a kindred spirit and fellow writer in Sister Betty.

I also met someone in the house who whispered to me, “I’m reading 50 Shades of Grey” (there was some context to this) to which I responded, “I have a much better book in the trunk of my car. Hold please while I go get it.”

This to me, seemed to underscore that it doesn’t matter where I go, the topic of sex finds me and it offers me a chance to connect with others.

So instead of having a complete meltdown, (I have had one of those which I shall document in said second book but you’ll have to wait for it to come out), I was focused and driven by that delicious juice that writers or any other creative soul will understand.

I simply had to write.

And write I did. Just under 50,000 words in less than three days.

In fact, the entire first draft of “Bring Your Own Batteries” was completed up in that creatively energizing environment. The only thing I had trouble with, the entire time I was there, was eating in silence.

On the first day I realized that when I like something that I am eating (yes, sorry to be crass, but that applies to non-food type things as well), I am a VERY vocal person.

I moan a lot.

I also cuss a lot.

Like: “Motherfucker, this salad is fucking amazing, fuck!”

I often don’t eat out with people that don’t really know me all that well so this isn’t an issue.

In a nunnery it is.

Therefore, on day one I realized I had to squash my desire to tap the person next to me on the shoulder and disrupt their contemplative, quiet time with, “Have you had the fucking salad? It’s off the motherfucking charts! I want to make love to that entire bowl!”

On day two I started to become resentful of the other guests when they wouldn’t talk to me about the food or what they were doing in the house of prayer.

I realize this makes NO sense.

We are supposed to be silent so it’s not like their quietness was a personal affront to me and yet I felt slighted that no one seemed to be rejoicing in the yummy eats the way I was.

It stirred up too many memories of eating lunches alone in university where I felt completely isolated and alienated from everyone else. Good thing I was working on my memoirs, eh?

On day three I spent my time focusing on every flavour and truly tasting every bite to distract myself from the lack of talking but this only caused me to moan more and throw my head back a few times. I blame it on the lime mousse.

Being silent for three days and only hearing the click of my keyboard or the tap of the rain against the windows brought me to a place of serenity that was beyond any measure of bliss I have known in a long time. I was able to feel every experience more deeply. Not just the glorious fullness a writer feels when a story is aching to come out of you, but also every possible emotion connected to each word you throw down in your draft.

I laughed out loud as I wrote.

I cried as well.

In fact, I was crying so hard I thought my blubbering could be heard throughout the house.

And I got so aroused at one point that I had to step away from the keyboard and take a cold shower in order to get back to work.

In fact on the last day as I was leaving, first draft completed, feeling more in tune with myself than I have in a very long time, I ran back into the house to hug Sister Betty and said, “Sister Betty I love you!”

She replied, “I love you too, Jasmine! Keep up the good work that you are doing. And God bless you.”

On the drive back to Ottawa listening to Toni Braxton just didn’t seem appropriate. I drove in silence for a distance listening to the road, my breath and the chirp of birds in the distance. Half an hour later I popped in my favourite song of all all time in the CD drive- Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”- and listened to it on repeat the entire rest of the drive home.

To Sister Betty, Sister Pat and Wendy (their magnificently gifted and loving chef), I dedicate the words of Gabriel’s tune (replacing “eyes” with “house”) and thank you from the bottom of my literary soul for your generosity of spirit, your warmth and the abundance of love you showed me.”

In your house, the light the heat

In your house, I am complete

In your house, I see the doorway

Of a thousand churches

Your house, the resolution

Of all the fruitless searches.

Oh, I want to be that complete

I want to touch the light, the heat, I see in your house.”

I guess I’ll save my mental breakdown for a later date. For now the heavy clacking of my keyboard which, for the last three years has been silent, is truly music to my ears.

Iphone 7 303

There will be no talking for you…

My blog is taunting me. It’s telling me that it’s been 91 days since I wrote a post. Funny how it manages to tell me, “You should be writing more”, “You’re paying for this blog but instead of writing, you’re just flinging your money to the wind. Does that make you happy?” and “Seriously, what have you been doing that you can’t write a simple post?” all without actually saying a word.

Well I do have something to say and it actually has to do with talking itself.

I leave this week for a retreat in the hopes of getting some much needed quiet time without working multiple jobs and also some concentrated writing time to myself.

This is no ordinary retreat.

It’s a silent retreat.

The kind where you can’t speak. No talking. That’s right…shut your yap or be quietly asked to leave…with hand gestures, I guess.

I’m not afraid to admit that I’m afraid. In fact I’m more than a bit petrified of what will happen to me when I am in a situation where I can’t speak for days.

It’s not like I’m the kind of person who talks to herself all the time. You know, like those people who mutter things under their breath or have full conversations with themselves even though you’re looking right at them and you aren’t sure if they are talking to you, their pet, their invisible alien friend or the cabinet.

I know myself well enough to know that I’m likely destined to be one of those people that others point at some day (luckily for now my invisible alien friend Choochie and I are only just learning to speak each other’s language so there is no harm in me making a fool of myself in public yet until I fully grasp their basic vocabulary). But not speaking for days…to anyone??? I may lose what’s left of my mind! I called up the retreat to book my room a few weeks ago.

Here’s how the conversation with Mary, the lady who took my call, went:

 

Me: I’d like to book four days at your retreat.

Mary: Okay dear. I’ll just take down a few bits of information and we’ll book you in.

Me: Mary?

Mary: Yes, dear?

Me: I, uh, well I just want you to know that I’m coming up there to finish writing my second novel. I’m a writer.

Mary: Oh, that’s nice dear.

Me: Mary?

Mary: Yes, dear?

Me: Well, I have to tell you I’m a bit scared out of my mind to be doing a silent retreat.

Mary: You’ll be fine dear. Don’t worry.

Me: How exactly do you explain a silent retreat to someone if you can’t speak?

Mary: (giggling) We’ll explain everything to you when you arrive.

Me: I see.

Mary: Would you be interested in the spiritual guidance we offer?

Me: No. I’m sorry. I hope you aren’t offended. I just want to write. But I fear that I might spend the entire time in the fetal position crying instead.

Mary:(giggling) I’m not offended, dear. It’s quite alright.

Me: Okay, then I’m excited. I can’t wait!

Mary: Oh, and I should probably tell you that our meals are silent as well.

Me: What if I chew too loudly? Will you ask me to leave then?

Mary: (fully laughing) Oh my! You are a funny one. I do think you might have a bit of a hard time after all. But you’ll be fine. Don’t worry.

 

But I am a bit worried.

Truthfully, I’m more excited than anything else to see what will happen to me when words are taken away and I am left alone with my thoughts and only my thoughts…

The anticipation of this time at the silent retreat got me thinking about words from a different perspective than the one that most writers look at them from.

 

Words are so valuable to us as human beings. We sometimes throw them around without truly meaning what we are saying. Clichés are a dime a dozen (See? I just did it!) and we tend to spew them out when we’re cajoling someone, counselling someone or coercing someone. But what happens when those words are taken away and you are left with only your expressions or hand gestures? Isn’t that what normally happens when you meet someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you do?

We tend to automatically use grand sweeping motions with our hands to indicate direction, or hunger or in some cases our very graphic need to pee. This last example reminds me of an incident I had in India when I couldn’t convey in any language that I was looking for a restroom and ended up signalling with my hands so that it looked like I was saying I had a penis and needed to void it (I figured squatting in the street to show that I had to pee simply wasn’t as ladylike). Instead of directing me to the closest washroom, the woman I was trying to get directions from handed me money and asked for forgiveness because she thought I was a eunuch and that I would curse her if she didn’t pay.

And speaking of women, (which I was, since I’m not in fact a eunuch) it is a statistical fact that women speak volumes more in one day than men do. A woman can speak 20,000 words in a day while a man will barely speak 7,000. Of my 20,000 words a day, I take most of them pretty seriously.

Recently, I was told by a therapist after one session, “You talk a lot” to which I instantly took great offense.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I asked. Clearly I have some anger issues to work out in therapy.

“Nothing. I was just making a statement. I was just saying you talk a lot.”

“Yeah? Well what the hell do you know? How else am I supposed to tell you my life story and what’s bugging me if I don’t talk? Do you prefer shadow puppets? I only have 50 minutes you know! You’re not a mind reader are you? Cause if you are, you should take that shtick on the road and give up therapy. You’d make a killing as a psychic.”

Clearly I have some other issues besides anger, but let’s not go into that in this blog post.

As it turns out, I left that therapist and I ended up ruminating on none of the other points he made about me except the fact that I talk a lot.

It really bothered me.

And once, in conversation with a male friend before the launch of my novel, we were discussing what the definition of sexy is and he said to me, “You’re a gorgeous woman but you’d never be considered classically sexy. You talk too much for that.”

I let him explain his point (stupid as it was) and in the end, I left him too. Even if he did call me gorgeous…Words can hurt.

We all know that from as early as kindergarten. Bullies do damage to our self esteem not just with their fists but with their choice of descriptive language. “Paki go home!” were some of the words thrown at me from a very early age. I never understood this slur since I was born in Ottawa and my parents weren’t from Pakistan. But somehow their taunts still stung.

Words can heal too.

They can empower and connect people. Especially the dirty words that I am so very fond of. I’ve never had anyone tell me that when I string a nasty descriptive sentence together that they think “I talk too much”. They usually ask me to keep talking….

And now, for the next few days I won’t be talking at all.

Not a word.

Not a single solitary word.

I’m excited and scared all at once.

I’m scared I’m going to bank my 20,000 plus words a day only to unleash them on some poor unsuspecting chipmunk in the woods should I lose touch with reality and finally snap after being muzzled the first 24 hours. And I’m excited to see what will happen after that first 24 hours when I no longer wish to speak and the time spent yapping will be spent focusing on the words I really need to say and choosing them wisely.

I guess it’s time to start packing for my retreat.

Now if I only I knew which colour straight jacket to take…

shushing lips