(one of the reading rooms at Dickinson College Library)
“There is a castle on a cloud, I like to go there in my sleep . . .
Nobody shouts or talks too loud, not in my castle on a cloud.”
from Les Miserables
Today is a headache day.
It’s there from the moment I wake up - pressure in my forehead and sinuses that extends around to the back of my head into my neck and shoulders.
When the babysitter comes I’m sitting on the floor surrounded by wiggling people. I’m trying to wrestle a onesie onto a baby as my pre-schooler performs gymnastics half-on/ half-off of the couch. The oldest is bopping back and forth on the rocking chair as another baby teeters trying to hold onto it. My head's pounding and I can’t think straight, can’t make a plan.
When someone asks where I’m going, I have no reply because I haven’t thought that far ahead. I only have about an hour and a half before I need to round everyone up for swim lessons. I grab the laptop and my journal and make a quick exit, stammering instructions as I leave. No one even gets a hug. Mommy has got to go, NOW.
I picture neighbors or the drivers of passing cars looking up to see me flying out the door, hair frizzed-out from the heat, clutching my gear as the twins crawl after me and Solomon stands at the screen door calling a cheery, “Bye bye Mamma. Bye!” I imagine I look like someone fleeing a burning building as I throw my things into the van, pop it into drive and squeal-out not yet knowing where I’m going.
I head to the local college library, not more than a few blocks from our house. I can maximize my time this way, by not driving across town to Panera or a local coffee shop. Every second counts.
I find a nice parking spot right in front of the library. It’s beautiful here. Tall, old trees, fully leafed out for summer. A fresh green lawn and the beautiful library full of windows and light and silence.
I feel better even as I open the door to walk in. It’s cool and quiet with the humming of the air conditioner providing a steady pulse under it all. I head past the café where a sign explains that turning left will lead to a “semi-quiet” area, while turning right leads to pure silence. I turn right and follow signs toward the quiet area like a starving person follows a path of crumbs.
The headache is still there, but the effect of the silence is immediate. It’s like aloe on sunburn, cool and smooth, calming. It’s as though some part of me that’s been holding its breath relaxes and lets out a long, heavy sigh.
I’ve always needed this sort of retreat, always felt this way about libraries, academia and books, using them as a refuge from the intensity and volume of life. I remember meeting with a professor when I was in graduate school. His office was on the top floor of an old brick home on the edge of campus that was used for faculty offices. I climbed narrow stairs covered by faded and decidedly un-prestigious old carpet to a large attic-like room. Two more stairs and through the door and there sat his desk with a large window behind it filled with the leafy green branches of a tree. I imagined myself sitting there – reading, writing, pausing to peer out at the world below – and I loved it.
Not long ago a seminar revealed that my personality type uses cognitive activity as a way to recharge and regroup. An observant friend noted the same thing after listening to my life story, “You retreat into your mind when life gets overwhelming.” Suddenly I saw the Sudoku and crossword puzzles, the endless reading, the love of libraries and their contents in a new light.
I used to feel very torn between academia and the nitty-gritty of everyday life. The ivory tower is much maligned by those working in the trenches and I’ve often found myself vacillating between the two. I don’t believe in the value of what some would call pure academia cut off from the ebb and flow, the flux and tumult of everyday life. I refuse to climb the staircase of my mind expecting to find there the answer to all life’s questions. And yet, I love, enjoy, crave the retreat it offers. The space it gives to look at life, to sort through the onslaught of thoughts and feelings that accumulate as I race along through the day.
I’ve often felt guilty about this, even ashamed. I was teased as a child about “hiding my nose in a book” and my need to spend long hours quietly making order of my little room in our house on a hill in the leafy woods. But more than all of that, somewhere along the way I believed the lie that to be holy meant to be busy, to be fully immersed in the hustle and bustle, the suffering and relief of life without flinching or pausing to look away for even a second.
I can see now that I will constantly straddle two worlds. I’m not content to sit in my tower day in and day out thinking deep thoughts – too many people need me in more ways than I can count. But I’m also beginning to understand that times of retreat are essential to my ability to provide a real presence when I engage with the “crowds,” whoever they may be.
Jesus did this, of course. Retreating to a garden or hill or even, if need be, to a small boat in the middle of a lake. Luke tells us that “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed (5:16).” Surely no one’s time and presence has been or ever will be more in demand than the son of God.
It occurs to me that I cannot steer my little ship full of children safely or wisely when I’m constantly drowning. So, with much grace, I re-imagine my departure from the house.
I’m not a woman fleeing in desperation, shaking off children and tripping on scattered toys as I lunge for the door. Instead I try to see myself as Christ, edging his way toward the shore and stepping with purpose into a small fishing boat. Pushing off even as the crowd presses in, hardly waiting for Thomas or Peter to climb in as the bottom of the boat breaks free from the sand. Leaving the chaos of the crowds for the chaos of the sea, but finding in the tiny boat the space to simultaneously disconnect and reconnect.
The van is my boat and the curb is the shore. The library is my “secluded place” and this writing is my prayer. This retreat takes me not out of the world, but deeper into it to the place beneath the wave tossed surface where love and joy and grace reside. I paddle out deeper into the cool dark waters to the place where I might find, we all might find, the one thing that’s needed.
I wonder, where do you go to retreat, where do you find the space to both disconnect and reconnect?