Every year, we go into the woods of Shantivanam, the forest of peace located on the eastern edge of Easton, Kansas. A Catholic retreat center focused on contemplation and solitude might seem an odd place to find a Jewish girl and her sweetie having their anniversary get-away, but it’s been perfect for us for the last 20 or so years.
We usually go in overlapping shifts, me hauling my cello and little suitcase to a small cabin in the woods on a Thursday, Ken showing up late on Friday, and me leaving before him on Sunday so that he can have some alone time too. But we always go with the intention of returning to the deep woods (not just a notion at Shantivanam, but a whole forest just south of the forest that holds cabins spaced far apart) and to each other. It’s our refuge, our time to just hang out without much interruption (although we do walk to high points in the field to call home and check with the kids), our space to just be alone and together.
The first day there, I’m more than a little all over the place, all the racing thoughts come home to roost and peck each other to death. It usually takes a good 24 hours before I calm down enough to stop spinning out thoughts about imaginary scenarios. What helps are the trees, sky, small pond where we can sit in the little tea house and watch what water does under the influence of wind. What helps is how much this place is imbued with decades of peace, the trails well-walked for years by people like us simply coming home to themselves. What helps is the big house — the main building — where we go to enter into a mostly-meditative stretch of prayer before meals (breakfast together although I always sleep through it, lunch communally, and a soup dinner in a thermos along with crackers and fruit we take back to our cabins).
The days are spent, when it’s cold or warm, in the woods as much as possible. We walk up and down hills, balance ourselves in leaves to see how quietly we can step, and occasionally lie down under tall trees and watch the brilliant sky. If it’s especially cold, we walk fast, take breaks to drink hot tea and read poetry or Pema Chodron aloud to each other, and head back out again. We sometimes watch sunsets or moon rises, and we always go to sleep when we like and wake when we wake.
Mostly we talk, tell stories, re-tell stories, walk paths, share soup and crackers, and marvel at the woods at the precise place they travel in the season. Sometimes we write to each other. Sometimes we watch a movie on our laptop, and then analyze every nuance of it. And we usually do yoga on the little deck. When we come out of the woods, we’re still ourselves, but more so, free of some of some of what distracts from the real.