I don’t know exactly what attracted me to the idea of a silent retreat last April at Woolman Hill in Deerfield, Massachusetts. In all my relationships, I’ve been driven to communicate, to understand, to be understood. Admittedly, this adds effort to interacting with others, but I’ve never known any other way to achieve genuine contact. In signing up for the retreat, perhaps I was drawn to the possibility of discovering what was there, inside, if I just stopped. At the very least I figured, I’d get to spend some extended time in nature. I pictured sunshine, birds, and soft spring breezes.
Driving from Connecticut that Friday, I scanned the battleship gray skies, hoping against all weather predictions for the promise of a white cloud or even a lighter patch of gray. I arrived early at the old farmhouse where I’d be staying, dropped off my bags, and began to take a walk down Keets Road. The air was heavy with moisture. Breathing in the fragrance of field grasses and budding trees, I’d gone half a mile before a pinpoint drizzle turned into a downpour. When I returned, sopping wet, the others had arrived—nine of us in all. I found my room, changed my clothes, and joined the group.
After a relatively quiet supper, we gathered to speak briefly about our expectations for the weekend. Like me, everyone there had come with their life’s concerns. I shared what was uppermost in my mind—a love relationship that was ending. Most of the others spoke more generally about transitions they were going through, or “some different things” they were dealing with.
It is this very reserve, the way people hold back from disclosing who they are, that so often makes me feel alone with my life’s struggles and joys. In another setting, I might have asked questions, prompted conversation, or at least shown my empathy. This time, I tried to accept people’s guardedness without judgment or personal involvement. From someplace deep inside, a sigh of relief welled up in me.
During the churchlike quiet of the rest of the night, slight sounds stood out—the shuffling of slippered feet, the clink of a spoon on a cup, logs crackling in the wood stove. As I sat on a couch, flipping through books a group member had spread on the table to share, one by Wendell Berry caught my eye. I found this line about the ease of old friendships in his poem Kentucky River Junction: “Though we have been/apart, we have been together.” The words filled me with longing for the man I still loved, whose presence was ever in my heart.
Alone upstairs, I cried for the many gifts this good man and I had brought to each other’s lives; for the courage it took us both to let go with love; and for the knowledge that, despite our differences, we’d always remain connected. I pulled his borrowed sleeping bag over me and slept soundly.
A heavy rain was battering the roof when I awoke Saturday morning. After my shower, as I prepared to join the group, I noticed myself tensing up—a lifelong reaction to being with people I don’t know. Downstairs, I poured coffee, smiled at a couple of people, helped myself to breakfast.
Sitting at a long wooden table, I ate, chewing slowly and deliberately—really tasting the eggs, the toast, the home fries. As we sat together, I noticed each person around the table: savoring a bite, lost in private thought, or staring out the windows as rain fell. In our silence, I felt a sense of belonging.
It helped me to see how much of an outsider I usually feel in groups. I compare myself to others who seem more “popular” or at ease, worry about things to say, or feel compelled to ask (or answer) tiresome questions. Here, with no pressure for social talk, I allowed myself to just eat, just observe, to just be. How wonderful, I thought, if being with other people could always feel this relaxed.
During the day, I found that even smiling began to feel like an imposition—the demand to be friendly, to prove friendliness. I began to opt for nods or eye contact, instead, intimating simply, I appreciate your presence. I had never before realized how much reassurance we ask of each other all the time in daily life: I, perhaps, more than most.
I lost track of time. Around me, people sat at windows watching the rain, napped on the couch with comforters, read books—respectful of, yet minimally involved in, each other’s presence. I felt alone, but not left out. Not lonely.
At different times I’d stop to reflect on something I’d read, and I’d notice, as if for the first time, someone else staring away from the open pages of a book or slowly knitting or writing feverishly in a journal. My heart would soften to each person upon whom my gaze fell. I was struck by the irony that, with all the words we say to each other, we cannot ever really tell anyone who we are, nor expect to find the reality of other people in what they tell us. It is perhaps when we least intend to communicate that we most reveal ourselves.
Being together in this effortless way also gave me a chance to see how strained I generally am around other people as I attentively try to find out who they are. It occurred to me that getting to know other people is a slow process that cannot—and need not—be rushed. Here, I felt the implicit assumption that whoever you are, whatever you are doing here, I accept you. It was a subtler shift for me to ease into the flip side of that assumption: whoever I am, whatever I am doing here, I accept myself. If I could remember these truths, I could enjoy people even before I got to know them well.
I began to see that in conversation we have only the details of our thoughts and feelings in which to find mutuality. In silence, the specifics of a person seemed not only unimportant but potentially divisive, one more way I would judge myself similar or dissimilar to someone else. The fact was, we were all connected—we were all part of God—and I was one of them and they were one of me, and we were part of everything around us.
That evening, during a temporary letup in rain, I walked outside again, feeling unbounded love for single drops of rain on soggy branches; for another walker who’d stopped to listen to a bird’s trill; for the roadside stream that sloshed musically over rocks. I breathed love in. I exhaled love. In my room that night, I cried at the thought of love’s abundance—and at the strange human pull to assign such strong feelings to only one special person.
Sunday morning, the moment I woke up, I stripped my bed and packed my clothes. I found myself thinking ahead, almost frantically. Would I encounter a lot of traffic going home? Should I stop at an antique shop? What did I need to take care of when I got back?
As my mind began its old race, I realized that already, even before leaving, I’d forgotten to stay present. This, I could see, was going to be my greatest challenge in keeping the gifts of the weekend alive in daily life. For if I could not experience the moment I was in, how could I have a true experience of anyone or anything existing in that moment? How can I connect with what is when I am temporarily disconnected from the place where it exists?
After morning worship, our group remained sitting in a small circle in the dining hall, and as the rain beat upon those tall windows, we shared whatever parts of our retreat experience we chose. This time, people spoke more specifically about themselves, their struggles and insights. I cared about what they said, but I no longer needed to hear their stories to feel connected to them. The silence had given us a framework in which we could fit together while finding our separate places. It was as if we had been putting together a puzzle—individually and collectively—that only now could be revealed.
One woman seemed to sum up what I felt about this group of people whom I hardly knew, but felt closer to in silence than so many people I’ve known more personally. So often, she said, she’d missed the moments of her life by doing one thing while focusing on something else. She had been more herself with us, she said—more present in the act of living—than she had been hundreds of other times in her life, with hundreds of other people.
“I was really here this weekend,” she said, giving me the final insight I would bring back into the larger world of strangers, friends, and loved ones. “And you were really here with me while I was living my life.”