The homeless woman told me I looked pretty in yellow. I said she had beautiful blue eyes. I pulled a container of crackers and cheese from my purse and handed it to her. The light turned green. I rolled on.
The retreat I was rolling on to was a gift for my 50th birthday, meant to bring joy and relaxation. It did neither. Angst – that’s what I felt as I walked past cars in the parking lot with bumper stickers that read “Release”, “Planet Earth” and “Namaste”; and as I climbed four flights to my room, passing barefoot individuals with impeccable skin that appeared to sparkle with sweat. In their wake, a trail of sage incense.
As I stepped into my room, which oddly resembled my college dorm, I questioned whether the other guests perspired from yoga and meditation pursuits, or from the lack of air conditioning. Shutting the door, I noticed a placard behind plexiglass: alcohol was not permitted – me and the bottle of wine I had packed were now guilty.
It was over 90 degrees outside. I suddenly remembered the words of my fourth grade science teacher, Mr. Dalaney. “Heat rises”. I searched for a glass, in the hope that cool tap water would help soothe my unease and discomfort. Heat often induces anger, and this was no exception. That’s when I noticed the room was sparse. In addition to the absence of air conditioning and ceiling fans, there was no glass for drinking, no mini fridge, no desk, no pen and paper to jot down my anger and unease. The room, which cost the equivalent of a designer handbag (which I don’t own), had only twin beds, a sterile chair, a dresser and a night stand. This room had the personality of an introvert; it did everything possible to ensure whoever entered its realm would not become too comfortable. It wanted to be left alone.
The light streaming in from the window made the space unbearably hot, so I set out to the lobby gift shop to buy a bottle of overpriced water. It was cold, but by the time I walked four flights back up to my room, it was lukewarm like the bottle of wine stashed in my overnight bag, which I determined was time to open. After all, if you’re going to put me in a college dorm situation, I’m bound to rebel.
And that’s when I sat on the floor and cried, and I drank. Anger turned into guilt. This gift was purchased out of love in hopes that it would mimic the retreats I’d had while living overseas, when I would stay at abbeys run by nuns. The minimal cost is the most obvious advantage to staying in abbeys, but the rewards extend far beyond monetary. There are similarities between this retreat and staying with nuns: both offer humble rooms, three home-cooked meals daily, and beautiful properties perfect for hiking and exploring.
But overnighting in abbeys and monasteries is about the intangibles. Nuns who look like your grandmother cook for you, often using herbs from their garden. Location, location, location…over the centuries, the Catholics have inhabited (taken) some of the most prized properties, so when you overnight at a Kloister, you’re often hiking and sleeping with a beautiful view. Along these lines, the stately structures you’re temporarily inhabiting are often cloaked in centuries’ old history – think ancient stone walls, ivory towers and cobblestone flooring predating the French Revolution.
Depending on which abbey you choose, these sisters are making and peddling their wares – wine, beer, cheese, candy, jam, vinegar, bread, jewelry, scarves, mittens and candles. I once had a nun explain to me that the roof over their head and the property were paid for by what the sisters make with their hands and what they charge for overnight guests. It’s a simple concept, and in most cases, it works. I’m not religious; the nuns welcome all faiths, even those who have none (maybe especially those who have none). I’ve never had one of these women approach me, unless the encounter was provoked by me. And I’ve never felt anything other than nourished and safe in their realm.
This recent overnight retreat was an eye-opener. It felt forced, rigid and unwelcoming – although its claims were the opposite. The fact that it cost 4 times what the little old nuns charge only caused more irritation. How could the majority of tired, overwhelmed women afford this? They can’t. And what exactly was “this”, other than a mirage masquerading as a holistic escape with tired hallways, knickknacks and guest rooms with outdoor carpeting, where the only warmth stemmed from the lack of air conditioning.
It was disheartening and confusing overhearing staff mention that they were completely full the next two nights. Americans are fooled into believing this is what being taken care of means, when in fact they’re being taken advantage of. I will give them this – the word “retreat” was apt – it made me long to scurry and hide under the closest rock.
In hindsight, I should have high-tailed it back to the woman with kind beautiful blue eyes who said I looked pretty in yellow. She was genuine. We could have sat and enjoyed our combined vittles: wine, cheese and crackers, together. Instead, I stayed overnight and left early the next morning before the last meal, hungry for intangibles.