Benet Pines 10/3-10/7
I’ve been here for more than 24 hours now. I came to the Benet Pines Retreat Center—a contemplative getaway in Colorado Springs run by Benedictine nuns—for a week in order to think and write. I’m trying to make headway on my Master’s thesis. So far, my work has been productive. I spent much of yesterday evening and all day today writing. Around 4pm both days I’ve gone for long walks. I really like the solitude. I have no TV, no phone, no radio, no CDs to listen to… I could listen here on my laptop, but I left Abbey Road and Evolve (Ani DiFranco) out in the car. I made myself promise not to bring them here into my cabin. The only noise I want around me is outside my open window: wind worrying the pines and magpies fussing at black squirrels.
Let me tell you about yesterday first. I arrived early in the afternoon and checked in with Sister Josie at the main office. Then I drove down the dirt road to my designated cabin, Jesu Rama. [Please, could one of you language experts clue me in to the meaning of “Rama?”] I laughed when I pulled up. The cabin is the size of a Tuff Shed. I’m not lying. I unlocked the door and went inside where, to my delight, I found a cozy, charming writer’s nest. There is a kitchenette with a small refrigerator and microwave oven. There is a rocking chair with a corduroy cushion and crocheted afghan slung over its back. There is also a desk with a lamp and bookshelf containing an assortment of paperbacks. I had to call Mechelle on my cell phone at that point to report that the first book that caught my eye was Jung’s Man and His Symbols. “You won’t believe it!” I squealed into her answering machine, “They have Jung! I’m going to like it here!” Above the desk there is also a crucifix hung on a single nail. Its stainless steel Jesus has a sad, feminine face and long, spaghettilike legs that look like guitar strings needing to be plucked. I have a comfortable twin bed with flowered sheets and a clean, white bathroom that smells faintly of Pine Sol. The place is perfect.
Minutes after I arrived and unpacked, Sister Phyllis tapped on the door. She handed me a fistful of coffee filters “in case you run out.” She also told me she’s recently seen a doe and two fawns hanging out on the property. I said I hoped they dropped by for a visit.
After the sister left, I slipped my tennis shoes on and went for a walk. I crossed the road and headed up a trail—fringed with barren wild strawberry plants and kinikinik—toward the labyrinth. The labyrinth consists of a circular pathway outlined in hundreds of stones. I wound around to the center (Sue Monk Kidd and other "dissident daughters" would have been proud) and sat for a while on a stone bench. At my feet I noticed a small pit in which fires had been lit. I wondered what kinds of ceremonies had occurred here. Most retreatants are women, so I imagined the circle had facilitated everything from Catholic mass to goddess worship. Tired from my drive, I walked a bit further up the trail and lay down on a bed of pine needles. The ground was warm from the sun. I squinted, peering up into the lace of swaying branches. Then I fell asleep. When I woke twenty or thirty minutes later, I was a pincushion. Needles snagged in my clothes and hair. I didn’t care in the least. I returned to Jesu Rama, wrote some more, then curled up in bed and read Michael Cunningham’s latest novel, Specimen Days. It’s a sumptuous read—almost as good as The Hours. Cunningham is my idol; I hope I can someday be a fraction of the masterful writer he is.
Today I woke around 8am and wrote until 2. Then I ate lunch and went for another hike. This time I took a trail that wound past an 8’ wooden cross—which struck me as displaced out here in the wild—and up to a small statue of St. Scholastica. Was there really such a woman? I don’t know, but the pleasure (bookish contentment?) on her white face made me smile. [Mechelle informed me later that St. Scholastic did, indeed, exist.] Finally the path led to a grotto up on a rocky incline. In the grotto was the figure of Mary. Surrounding her were stones and pine cones hand-placed in geometrical patterns and rows. Beneath one of the rocks—smooth and oval, an egg— someone had pressed an aspen leaf. Beneath another was the faded photograph of a baby boy. Under four others were slips of paper containing writing. I probably committed some kind blasphemy by doing what compelled me next, but I couldn’t resist: I gingerly pulled each slip from beneath its rock and read it. (Is it possible to spy on God?) They were mostly prayers. One asked Mary to heal a man by the name of Arthur. Another said she was trusting in the pope’s intercession for a loved one with ALS. Another bore a heart and read simply, “I love you.” The last, held in place by a jagged crystal, thanked “My most blessed goddess” for teaching her faith and endurance. It closed with, “I will to will your will.”
Looking at all of these offerings, I thought to myself, “People need repositories.” We do. We need them for our loves, our hopes, our sadnesses, our triumphs. We need to entrust them to someone or some thing. Perhaps, I wondered, God originated in the lackluster, pre-creation void. He or she was the color white, the absence of all color. Then, as we filled God up with all the things we need to give away—the spectrum of threads, rocks, scraps, flecks, memories, thumbprints, wishes—we stained him or her black: the convergence of all color, the suggestion of presence. I don’t know if I’m making any sense. It’s just what came to mind there on the mountain, at the grotto, sitting on a moss-covered boulder, watching my silhouette ripple down the embankment like a dark river.
Last night I drove up to Denver to attend the Nine Inch Nails show with Mechelle. (On my way out I told the sisters I was off to go fellowship with a stadiumful of heathens and devil-worshippers. They flung a sponge soaked in holy water at my head. Such kidders, Josie and Phyllis. Of course I'm only joking :-).) Mechelle and I had a blast. My friend Steve was perceptive a while back when he called my fondness for rock concerts “Dionysian.” That’s usually how it is. Mechelle and I sipped beer, danced and played air tambourine like whirling—and slightly tipsy—dervishes. It was more than that, though. There were times when I stood completely motionless, simply drinking in the words, listening for the delicate pulse of this angry but sensitive musician whose thoughts are more consumed with God than most of the rest of us put together. It made me think about how a love/hate relationship with God is probably the truest kind.
This is it: time to return to civilization. I’m going to miss this place, this little Tuff Shed out in the middle of nowhere. I accomplished a lot on my thesis while here—and was reminded how impossibly difficult fiction writing is. Will I ever get past this lazy thinking, these clichés? Sigh… Back to reality. Then again, I could always take the vows and stick around. Hmmm...very tempting. I think I'll go talk to the sisters...
Benet Pines: http://benethillmonastery.org/about-us/benet-pines-retreat-center.htm