Blast from the Past: Finding the Stillness

Already a month ago (time moves quickly these days!) I went to Philadelphia for a professional conference and stayed over night at the Quaker retreat center I retreated to during the one autumn between college graduation and marriage. I haven't been back in 10 years.

If you don't know a thing about Quakers (who prefer to be called Friends, by the way), the two things you should know about them are the peace testimony and that they are comfortable with quiet. Four hundred and fifty years ago, a style of worship was built around their reverence for silence. It was the Shakers who shook. Quakers sat quietly and waited for guidance before speaking.

A lower-case friend I traveled with to the conference agreed to stay at the retreat center with me, even though she had no connection to the place. We arrived late the first night, and as we drove up the twisty road in the dark, she asked me, "Does it feel like you are going home?" I let out a breath and nodded. "Yeah, it does."

A few minutes later when we checked at the empty front desk, there was an envelope waiting with my name on it. I reached inside and grabbed one of two room keys. It said #6.

Not that I've thought about my room number since the day I left, but I knew - this was the room I stayed in almost ten years ago.
When we walked into the building where we would be staying, the first thing we asked each other was, "Do you think they have wifi?" After 6 hours in the car from Boston, we were both itching to check our email and catch up on a little work before heading to bed.

When I got into the room, I set down my things. The room, with its white cinder block walls, looked very bare without the car full of things I'd brought with me as a 23 year old. No bike. No computer.

Wait...did I bring a computer back then? I couldn't remember. I laid down for a minute to take it all in. This felt an awful lot like going back to spend the night in my freshman dorm room. Exciting but uneasy.

As I laid there, I glanced over at the desk next to the bed and realized that there was no phone. When I arrived for my three month retreat in the fall of 2000, installing a phone in my room was my first priority. My quality of life away from home absolutely depended on being able to call my fiancĂ©. After a pay phone call to the phone company, I used calling cards to keep the long distance rates down.

I don't recall anyone having a cell phone back then. How is that possible? In only 10 years, our method of communicating has changed so permanently.

Next to the door in my room, there was a sign telling me when and where it was acceptable use a cell phone. A page in the visitors' binder told me that wifi was available in the library.

We headed there right away.

The grounds of the retreat center are gorgeous. It is basically an arboretum with 140 species of trees and flowering bushes, flanked on all sides by historic buildings that house a dining room with a massive fireplace and hand restored table sets, a wood shop, an art studio, a library, couple residence halls, a bookstore, and of course, a four square worship space. At night, with no one out and about, the quiet felt unfamiliar. Not only unfamiliar but almost uncomfortable. Ten years ago, I became accustomed to the quiet but now in the midst of my busy life, I realized I don't have a lot of space for stillness in my life. I still love the quiet, but I don't indulge in it for extended periods.

I think this absence has a lot to do with being online too much. Wifi obviously didn't exist back then. Everyone who wanted to check their email had to hope for no line at the one computer in the corner of the library. Most of us only checked our email once or twice a week, if at all. Who was sending me email? What did it say? I really don't remember.

I spent most of my time that fall in the art studio, often late into the night. During the day I was outside hiking, biking or rollerblading, hanging out with friends, doing kitchen chores, going to classes, heading into Philly to explore, or going to the rose garden or the archives at Swarthmore. Occasionally us early 20-somethings escaped to the most garishly neon-lit diner for milkshakes and fries, gleefully kicking off the shackles of organic, fresh cooked meals, just for a night. Except for the homesickness, the whole experience was divine.

These days I still do all of those things in good quantities, when I'm not earning a paycheck. I'm also online a lot. I love being connected. I love finding inspiration online. I love getting to write and post my amateur art in this space and that a few people care to read what I have to say. Part of me wishes I'd blogged back then so that I would have a record of what I was thinking and doing as a 22 year old. Instead, I have the scrapbook I made during my fall escape, which honestly, is even better than a digital record ever could be.

While I love what this connection has added to my life, I'd also love to find the time to be completely offline for awhile. A long while.

After we left the retreat center, I thought about how I was affected by being in such a peaceful place at such a critical juncture in my life.

By I stepping back into my old way of life, just for a couple days, I opened a window of understanding on how I relate to the world. I have workaholic tendencies, and as a 22 year old, I was thankfully wise enough to realize I needed to learn to put the breaks on my busy life before I could be anyone's wife. I also needed some time on my own.

The world is surely noisier these days. Even Quaker retreat centers have to tell people when they should stay off their cell phones. The pace of life is only quickening. Anyone who knows me well knows that I cram a lot into my days. I don't always know when to turn it off and tune it out. I've known that. But being there, I got some perspective on myself. I am calmer in the midst of the noise than I was ten years ago. I didn't leave that place a Quaker, but I found a quiet center in that quiet place.

I was also reminded: it's my choice. I can choose to jump off this treadmill and take a break when its moving too fast, when I can't catch my breath and find my stillness. I've done it before.

[This is the third post in a series of hopefully humorous reflections on how quickly this fast paced world is aging me.]


Frannie said...

Simply lovely...I, too, find that I can have deeper and more meaningful experiences OFF-line. Each summer, I plan a trip (2-3 weeks) and during that time, I shun all cell phones and computer use. It is incredibly difficult for the first day or two, but usually by the time I come back home, I still hold out a few more days and enjoy the connections to the real things in my life. Thank you for writing about this...I'm certain many people will relate. :) - Sarah F.

EmilyRSPS said...

Was just looking at your post about St. Johnsbury Vermont. I grew up there. Next time I go up there I need to take some pictures! Thanks for sharing and making me homesick!

Sara said...

Vermont is amazing! What a lucky girl to grow up there!!

And Sarah, I always toy around with the idea of a technology Sabbath one day a week... hard when working on a dissertation and teaching but I hope to get there at some point. I definitely need once week offline this year though.

Frannie said...

Good idea, Sara! I do try "Earth Hour" every week to just detox from technology (and all electricity). It's wonderful! :) I'll work up to a full day!

the loneliest monk said...

I remember you had some kind of a cell in your car- like an emergency cell to call your parents- it was a weird gadget for my narrow Russian mind then... nice piece- they placed us in the Jackson's apartment, by the studio, and going to move us to Carol's old house. Come visit!!! Anya