Three weeks ago, I returned from the inaugural Renewal Retreat on La Finca, in the cloud forest outside Bogotá, Colombia.
For almost as long as I have known my friend Andrea, she has talked with reverence about her family’s finca (farm) in the mountains. I’d always wanted to see it in person, and when she offered this first foray into retreat there, I knew I had to go. Rather than submit a travelogue here, I want to share the story of my inner journey. The intention I set before the retreat began was this:
I will write with courage and focus until my story is complete.
Though this was not officially a writing retreat, I had decided to treat it as such for myself. In the months leading up to the retreat, as I neared the end of the book I’m writing about parenting my daughter through her medical mystery, trauma, and healing, I found myself held back. Reliving the experiences while I wrote them was hard, and I fought the focus I needed to get it done. It was a struggle to write in the same house where many of those experiences happened. Sitting at a coffeeshop or at my rented co-working space kept me from writing courageously, knowing that the tears would come and, in public, I’d have to stifle them. Not knowing what the retreat space might look like, I did know that the land around the houses where we’d stay would be vast and, if necessary, I could hike into the forest with my laptop and sob as loudly as I needed.
And so, with a backpack containing my laptop and the notes for my proposal, I boarded the plane that would take me to Colombia.
Nothing had prepared me for the boundless, immense, boastful beauty of Andrea’s family farm. Standing at dusk in the grassy courtyard between two of the houses, I stared into an unending vista of green, undulating land. Aside from the worn horse path that connects the grazing fields for the farm’s dairy cattle, there was nothing to interrupt the work of nature. Ten-thousand feet above sea level, my steps necessarily slowed by altitude, I simply stood and stared. Over the course of the next six days, I lost track of how many times I stopped in my tracks to stare.
Because everything I needed was provided by the lovely people Andrea hired to cook and clean, I was left — perhaps for the first time since childhood — with no decisions to make aside from where I wanted to put my body and what I wanted it to do. I opted not to connect to the patchy wi-fi, and so I surrendered my hold on my family at home, too. I woke and ate, walked and looked, stopped and rested, spoke with the other women or chose solitude.
And, finally, I wrote.
In the end, there were many choices for places to sit and write comfortably. On the first day, I started by sitting on the warmed bricks that flanked the houses in the courtyard, my back against the exterior wall, facing the rolling hills and pastures. I heard birds and farm workers and wind. I wrapped myself in a grey shawl against the chill that came with the fog, and rested my head against the bricks when the words in my head bumped against my skull too aggressively. When I got hungry, I went inside and filled a juice glass with trail mix, setting it on the bricks next to me.
Later, when the sun came out, I carefully filled a sack with my laptop and a stadium cushion, and made my way to the foot of the hill, where lillies grew against the fenceposts. I pressed my back into a tree trunk and rested my laptop on my knees. Over the top of a screen filled with words like “endoscopy” and “heartache” and “fury,” tiny yellow butterflies danced through the tall grass. When my cries came in small shudders, writing through the discovery of a doctor’s dangerous error, the breeze blew gently to dry my tears.
I wrote more.
When I couldn’t face another word of my own story, I walked back up the hill and plugged my laptop back in, changed into hiking shoes, and set off on a trail. With one woman, I hiked the path cleared by Andrea’s grandfather, discovering bright fuchsia, orange, and purple flowers nestled in the wet grass at the edges of the trail. Alone, I stumbled through fields and stopped to rest where I fell into grass that caught me like a pile of blankets. Staring over my feet at a lush land that went on for as far as I could see, I did nothing but breathe and soften my gaze for twenty minutes.
One day, I went with a small group of women in Andrea’s car to the top of a trail leading through the forest to the mountain we’d been watching from the house for days. Trusting in something — the other women, the safety of the space, the energy that held us — we walked reverently through a trail-in-theory, seeking the tiny orchids Andrea had taught us to see. We saw leaves the size of elephant’s ears, trees that seemed as old as the earth, winding vines that arched across the path like they were on a mission. For many minutes at a time, we were silent. As we hiked across fields for an hour to get back to the houses of the finca, I sang “Now Is the Cool of the Day.”
And then, as afternoon brought the clouds down to the ground, obscuring the world, I re-wrapped myself in my shawl and sat in the house designated as silent and wrote again. I turned a chair toward the window and watched the fog roll in over the top of my computer. I wrote into the last surgery, into the fear of uncertainty, into the misery of not knowing, for months, whether my daughter would survive. I cried silently, a poet reading her book on the couch to my left, and sometimes I cried audibly, and both were without consequence. As I sat, a woman with a beautiful smile walked gently out from the kitchen, tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “Perdón. ¿Café?”
Then she brought out delicious coffee, in a lovely cup with a saucer. I drank it in greedy sips at first, and then watched the steam come off it against the audacious green outside the window and felt held, cared-for, and awed.
On our last night, Andrea and I found ourselves outside as lightning streaked the sky. Without light pollution from any nearby town, we could see it so far away that there was no sound of thunder. It danced across the darkness, playing, hiding, appearing in one spot and then leaping to another and another. It was magical and unexpected. It was funny, somehow, and I laughed, thinking of an old fairy tale where a string of light turned out, in the end, to be a baby dragon. Just as suddenly, the clouds we hadn’t realized were there parted, revealing a moon so bright that it nearly dropped me to my knees. Without thinking, I recited the Jewish prayer shehecheyanu, which thanks a universe “who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this day.”
And just as suddenly, I dropped back into my daily life at home, arriving immediately into commitments, drama, work, parenting, partnering, mistakes, misgivings, and distractions. I think back to my time on La Finca and search, digging through myself, for the version of me that listened to the wind, to my own cries, and to the silent lightning. I want to find that version of me in more places. I want to learn how to say yes to the hot coffee given, to the orchids, to the community and the solitude.
Invite me again, universe. I will say yes.
This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post, with the prompt of “I want to learn…” hosted by Kristi of Finding Ninee.