August 12, 2007

My retreat places

Here is a heads up and warning. This post has nothing to do with homeschooling, lesson plans or anything other than me and the paths I have walked. It is long and unless you really want to know more about me probably not that interesting so you can save yourself the reading. Still I felt compelled to write it and I have written it over the course of several nights so I am posting it. Which means Dad and Serona will read it :) Now on to the post and my random thoughts.

Each of us have them, those special places that are so important to us. Over the years and as we move both in location and in stages of life those places will change though some always stay important to us. Tonight I took a walk in one of my favorite places and it got me thinking about those special places that have held an important place in my heart over the years. Of course the truth of the matter is the most special places to me are the places Serona and the kids are - even when they are the mundane places. Being with those I love makes them special. So maybe what I mean are my special retreat places. The places I will go to recharge and re-energize myself when I am weary and need some good introvert time.

As I blog this I am sitting in a Starbucks - there is really nothing unique or special about this Starbucks - other than it is the only thing open for miles at this hour. One of the things the New Yorker in me can not understand about the Midwest - why everything closes at 9pm. Starbucks has really gotten down the whole uniformity thing - while each Starbucks has a slightly different feel based on their location and workers overall they are the same and bring back memories of the hundreds of Starbucks I have been in over the years. Okay maybe not hundreds but more than I can count. Sarah McLachlan is playing in the background and the selection is reliable as is the service. Still is Starbucks one of my favorite places? Nope but I do enjoy the comfort and consistency they offer me in times like this. A dependable and comfortable place to sit for awhile and collect my thoughts in a relatively quiet space.

So tonight as I walked through our local arboretum I was struck as I came up the hill to my favorite spot in the arboretum and that says alot because I have many special places that are important to me here. Still if I had to pick one it is the hedge display garden where the kids, Serona, friends and grandparents have played hide and seek so many times. As you look out over the horizon their is a red farm house back in the distance that just fits so perfectly. From the hedges you can see the Poplar and Linden trees, some of Serona and my favorite trees. Serona loves the way the poplar trees look when they are growing - all tight and close together. As for me the Linden trees just look like the essential "tree" to me - from their shape to the way they all look together.

They will also forever remind me of one of my favorite mentors M. Jack Parker - my debate coach and the "smartest man" I ever met who informed me every chance he could "If only you were as smart as me" and meant it from the bottom of his heart. By the time I worked with Dr. Parker he was the quintessential crabby old man who truly knew better than everyone else but he taught me so much not just about debate and argument, but about life and about myself. Those trees will bring me back to the first time I met him to the tournament we dedicated to him as we planted a Linden
tree on campus in his honor. I also just love them and that they are so close to other things my family loves - the hide and seek hedges, the poplar trees and Sirah favorite field to run and spin in. Sometimes the simple things are just so perfect.

As I walked along the trail and took in God's creation - smells, sights and thoughts kept bringing me back to different special and important places in my life. Places I can go back to in a moment and feel the peace of them and miss the retreat they brought me. Everywhere I have lived I have had to find a place. A secret place of sorts that I can always retreat to when I need to be refreshed. Sometimes this is easy and at some points I had to stretch and find those places. These are the places I think of when I hear Dan Fogelberg's song The Reach. Though that song will always take me back to the beach I can move from the ocean shoreline to those other places that have had to try to play a subsitute role to the ocean in my life. Still each of those places revealed to me their special beauty and peace that was unique and important to me in ways the ocean could never be. My horizons and special places have been expanded beyond what they would have been could I always have retreated to the comfort of the ocean shores.

As you can tell by now the ocean was and is pretty important to me. Interesting and challenging being as land locked as I am. Still my home was close to the ocean and it became an important part of me - one I always long to return to and always cherish the time I have there. AS long as I can remember I loved the ocean but I made it my
special place somewhere in high school, retreating there with friends whenever I could. I know my mother and father strongly influenced this, both have a deep love of the ocean and shared that with me. Offering me special opportunities to enjoy the beaches of the east end of Long Island despite the long drive and driving me and my
friends to the beach whenever they could before we drove ourselves making it possible to spend long summer days there.

As a teenager I spent a lot of free time at the beach. I loved to boogie board and I would often spend all day there with friends. We would also go back at nights for mini-golf and bonfires on the beach, walks on the boardwalk and the occasional late night moonlight swim. I tried to make a habit of spending New Years day at the beach to reflect on the past year and look forward to the next year. I can just walk or sit at the beach for hours listening to the waves. It is the place I can go in my mind to relax. I can hear the waves, feel the wind, taste and smell the salt and feel the sand between my toes. I think the beach will always be my ultimate favorite place - really any "real" beach - I am sorry but a lake simply does not count!

Growing up the ocean was pretty much my place and since I was only about 15 minutes away - why go anywhere else? Well did I mention I did not drive until I was 22? So I was at the mercy of others who would take me there. If I needed to get away on my own someplace local I would go to the local "green" - yes can you tell I grew up near Billy Joel (there are some years between us though) still a "green" for non- Long Islanders is basically your local park. Often a combination of a playground, pool and open green spaces and yes I went there through junior-high, high school and then those summer returns from college. Just a place to get away or go with friends and be away from everything else. I still love swinging on swings to this day and in college I sought out big wooden playgrounds to run around.

Now I have been land locked and far from the ocean for a long time now. When I
left the island for college I headed to another beautiful part of New York but it did not have an ocean nearby. I must admit that I did choose my first college in part because it was on the Hudson river and had a crew team. I loved water and knew it was important and calming to me. I tried out for the crew team and the debate team at the same time keeping an absolutely insane schedule for the first months of college and I feel in love with being on the river in a scull so early in the morning but I injured my knee and had to give up crew and settled on debate instead. Still the dock at college became one of my retreat places. A place I would go to alone when I needed to be away from it all. Just go and sit there and listen to the water lapping on the dock and look out at the trees, rocks and the crew house behind me. A special and quiet place, one I did not like to share with others. I have special memories of going there in the winter when it was really deserted and walking on the ice and sitting listening to it crack - always amazed that part of the Hudson would actually freeze enough to walk on.

Eventually I needed another special place and I started going to this one special rock down along the rivers edge a bit further up the train tracks from the crew house. I first discovered it with some friends - we would go there late at night and hang out. I would also go there alone to just really get away where no one would easily find me. A calming and risky walk along the train tracks would bring me to my location not too far up the river, but yet far enough away that people were not stumbling across it. There I would sit and contemplate things. You see at the time I was going through major spiritual issues. I was raised Catholic in my family, went to Catholic school with nuns and all. When I headed to college I had a lot of questions to sort out and I went through various stages. While at my first college I probably would have self defined as an atheist and then by the time I reached my second college I was more of an agnostic. Sitting up on that rock looking at nature, hiking through mountains, camping in nature made me realize it was too special to be a coincidence. Still I could not find proof for anything and was pretty skeptical. I spent a lot of time on that dock and rock thinking about life and what it all meant.

In the middle of my college time in New York I lived for a summer in Boston doing a cross management training for my company. I moved to Boston knowing absolutely no one and moved in with my director and his roommate in a part of Boston I don't think I would live in now if it were my choice. Still living in Boston was quite an experience for me and while I never really made any friends I had enough co-workers and acquaintances to keep me busy. The part of Boston that most fascinated me was Harvard Square. Not the actual campus but rather the courtyard and shopping area right outside of it. Street performers, squatters, yuppies, college kids, professionals everyone just kind of mixed here. I developed a compassion for the squatters and often spent time getting to know them and developing friendships with them. Now I wish I had more than friendship to offer them and more than compassion and understanding but that was what I had and what I gave and developed relationships with several of them. It was interesting to watch how people responded to them and I think those days have always stuck with me. Both in understanding the honesty and the scams, but mostly in understanding the genuine brokenness that exists. Still it is strange but Harvard square was my retreat place despite it being a busy and full place. I was getting away from the people I worked with and relating to a completely different crowd and discovering more about myself.

I headed out to the cornfields of Illinois to finish college and I thought I was going for 2 years and ended up living there for 5 years, and leaving with a husband and a baby! I will always remember the first time I got out of the car and said "What is that smell?" that was before manure was a usual smell for me. Moving to the cornfields in the middle of nowhere was an adjustment to be sure. Still the town I was in had a lot of amenities as it was designed around the college so it was a good town that met my needs for the time I was there. There certainly was not an ocean there to retreat to but we did have a lagoon and a small river. For me there was a small group of willow trees located along the edge of the lagoon that offered a quiet place to retreat to.

The lagoon was busy as lots of college students came there to find a quiet place to read or study or relax. Still people were usually fairly respectful and would leave you to your quiet spot. It was at the lagoon that I would get away from everything and everyone and collect my thoughts and deal with my own personal "mean reds" that came from moving to the midwest and feeling like a complete outcast. The song "Talking to my Angel" by Melissa Ethridge was a favorite during those early years at the school. Still it was under those trees and hiking the trails along the river that I spent much time considering Christ and a Christian faith and ultimately made the decision to accept the gift of Jesus and become the person I am today - so those were pretty special and important places to me.

My other special place was our debate squad room. In general there was nothing quiet about this room as there were nearly always people there day and night. I could go at midnight to be alone and find myself with a room full of people. Still I thrived on this. I was good at debate, the captain of this squad and in demand. I loved the people (for the most part) and thrived on the intellectual stimulation offered in this room. We eventually brought a couch in and had radios (no streaming music back then) and just had a great time. It really felt like home and I learned and shared, discussed and debated more there than anywhere else (with a close second to 15 passenger vans driving across the nation) and it will always hold a special place for me. It was also a bit like my Cheers bar - a place where everyone knows your name, and maybe a bit more about your life than you wish they did.

There were some coffee shops in Illinois as well that became important to me. In the beginning it was a place I went to study or read or work on debate or listen to live music. Later on it became a place I went to see and support Serona in his own music playing. I started at this school knowing only one person and soon developed friendships (mostly centered around debate) and eventually met my husband (yes through debate) and had a baby here.

Serona and I were friends before we dated and at one point we moved to Portland Oregon for a summer. Portland was a special place that will always bring fond memories to mind and heart for both of us. It was a whim that led us out there and it was provision that made it possible to live there. We lived on the outskirts of the city and walked a few miles to catch our train into downtown. We often walked with a backpack of groceries consisting of a gallon of milk, some ramen noodles and a block of cheese (our staple diet). As we walked this familiar trail we found some special places that most people probably never even noticed. One was a special wildflower garden that seemed random but was absolutely beautiful and always brought smiles to us. Then one day we walked past and they had mowed it all down! We grieved the loss of our own private wildflower garden.

The other spot for us was the place where the telephone polls grow. Along our walk there was a small area where telephone polls appeared to grow. There were around 30 or so tall wooden posts with no apparent purpose or use standing together in this yard by a business. So we decided it was the place they grew telephone polls and it became one of our little special spots.

There were so many beautiful places in Portland and the coastline of Oregon and there we actually got out to the ocean and out to Multnomah Falls and I thoroughly enjoyed those places We spent time a lot of time at Pioneer Square and exploring all of Portland and will always love the Ram's Head for the Terminator Stout and malt vinegar fries but wildflowers and telephone polls remind me most of Portland. I think I could haved stayed there forever and I wanted to but Serona in his wisdom made me come back to Illinois to finish my last year of undergrad and then ultimately my graduate degree.

Serona is a year younger than me and I ended up choosing to do my graduate work here since he still had a year of undergrad left so I was looking at another 2 years in the cornfields. Still it was worth it to be with Serona and live that special newlywed part of our marriage right up until we both graduated with our Masters. Rhiannon was born 2 months after I finished my degree and a month before Serona finished his and then we were heading off to the deep south for his first job.

We landed in Americus Georgia must to my amazement and we actually lasted there a year. As you can probably guess Americus was not my favorite place to live still we have some great memories from there. I must admit that finding a special spot here was a challenge for me but I was determined to find something. The streets in our town were lined by beautiful Magnolia and Pecan trees and I found that I enjoyed biking or walking underneath the tree canopy. In part because this is the only way it was remotely tolerable tolerable to walk in the heat and in part because it really was beautiful and smelled lovely once you appreciated the scent of magnolias.

One day I stumbled upon the local college green and just found a tree to lay under with a book and found that became a nice retreat place. When Rhia was a baby I would put her in the stroller and walk until she fell asleep and then head to my spot on the green and read or journal. I was young enough that I did not look that out of place (unless of course you counted the baby stroller)and it became a reminder of places I loved before I was here at my other college campuses and a nice shady spot in a hot hot world.

While I was excited to be leaving Georgia we were heading once again into the unknown this time with a 16 month old and another one on the way knowing not a single person at the end of our destination. From the deep south to the frigid north we were headed to yet another place not near an ocean - even if it was the land of 10,000 lakes. I figured I would find some place with water and eventually I did though it took me longer than I figured. Minnesota was the most challenging of the places I have lived - it is kind of like moving into the world's biggest small town and developing relationships is complicated and time consuming, at least in the beginning.

After Ciaran was born and we moved from our apartment into our first home I found a bike trail that worked its way all along the Chain Lakes of Minneapolis and would put the kids in the trailer and head out to bike a dozen miles. Stopping at a bench or tree for some quiet time while the kids slept in the trailer or played at a park or field nearby. I had gone quite a few years without a place to retreat to or really any time to retreat on my own. Serona began traveling for work more and I was busy with managing life with small demanding children. Biking the lakes offered a much needed break from our intensive attachment parenting lifestyle.

We moved again to a bigger house a bit too far from the lakes and I was looking again for a quiet place. This time we created one in our home, our very own library. Which is really a bedroom filled with bookshelves, a reading table and a leather couch. We have a little over 1,000 books in that room and several hundred throughout the house in other places. No the picture is not of our home - but of my favorite library I have ever been in (The Great Room at Trinity College in Dublin). But it was nice to have a special place that was designed to be a quiet room, an adult room, a place to read, research and contemplate. It soon became my favorite room in our home and a place I could go without leaving but feel the same. It was great that it was part of our home that gave me that peace and quiet that I need from time to time. Like many others I am an introvert that needs people. So I can spend a lot of time in groups (preferably small groups) and with a good friend or two but my recharge really comes from quiet alone time not focusing on anyone else but myself. Like this quiet time in a local coffee shop writing about my history and retreat spaces.

As my kids have grown I have found that now some of my favorite spaces are actually family spaces. The arboretum will always hold a special place for our family. A variety of locations have special meaning for us now. Back when this ridiculously long post had a beginning I shared one of them. Another is a quiet koi pond where the tadpoles swim with a little bench I can sit at and watch the kids play.

Still another is the shade tree exhibit with the shade houses, the tree house, and the special red oak dedicated to an angel we know in heaven, the daughter of a friend. I go there with the kids, with Serona, all by myself and I am re-energized with God's beauty, God's love for us and a better understanding of who I am and what I am here to do.

That may sound trite or grandiose to some but it is how I feel. Often what I most need in those stolen moments away is a reminder of what it is all about and about what is important. Before I was a believer or even before I cared about being moral or good at all I think this still had a pull on my heart. Then I thought I was contemplating the important questions of life or retreating from the pressing stresses of the world and I guess I was but now I can see that I was needing a quiet time away from it all to be reminded of God's love for me, of my self-worth, of my purpose and of what is truly important and what is not. Every once in awhile I get a case of the mean reds and I need to find a quiet resting place to hear that which soothes my soul and touches the parts that most need to be touched. It's in those moments that I am thankful for those special retreats that have been carved out for me over the years no matter where I am or what stage of life I am in.

Of course I won't deny that I hope one day to live near the ocean and the mountains and to have that all available to me again. Like this beautiful picture of our favorite beach in Oregon, Cannon Beach. Still for now I have come to appreciate the color green, the forests, the trees, the rivers, lakes, ponds and arboretums. Even to find the beauty of God's creation in the business of a city street or the cornfields filled with manure. Take time for yourself to enjoy your special quiet places. Those places that touch and refresh your soul and fill you up so you can face what the next day will bring you.

Peace in Him,


  1. Anonymous4:00 AM


    I read it. I enjoyed taking your journey with you!

    (who has commented several times with merely a first name and finally sent a direct email a month or so ago...that amy)

  2. Thank you for the personal reflection on a wonderful life. You and Serona have nurtured a beautiful family with great family values. The constant in our lives is our family. Places and other people will change over time but our family will be there to support us whenever we need it. I would really like to plan a family (entire family) retreat next summer to the beach on the Jersey shore. Just thought now was a good time to plug it since you miss it so much.

    Walking the beach at Sunrise is still my favorite escape. I would love to share it again with you and the kids

    Family Forever

    Love Dad

  3. I can't blame you for wanting the beach. I miss it myself. But, for me, I am so grateful to have seasons for my children to watch change, and nature that is more accessible than I ever found it in California.

    I love posts like this. =)