Monday, November 23, 2015

"Knits and Pearls"* Retreat

Please pardon the centering of the text; I've tried to get rid of the formatting, but it won't go.  So it can stay centered.

I had been looking forward to this weekend since midsummer:  it was time for my mindful knitting retreat.  We picked up the kids just before dismissal and rode together to Copper Beech Institute.  It's part of a large monastery and retreat center, though unconnected theologically.  If you recall, I went to a Zentangle retreat there in February which was a marvelous experience.  

We arrived not long before sunset and they helped me get settled into my room.  Unlike last time when we were all a bit edgy about the separation and newness of the experience, this time they left rather quickly--to catch a showing of the new Peanuts movie (which they enjoyed.)  Indeed, they had a hold weekend planned--Peanuts, lots of restaurants and take out food, Minecraft, kung fu, ice skating, public free skate, origami.  

I had a big weekend planned, too:  a mindful knitting retreat.  I was more focused on the knitting, hoping to expand my skills beyond rectangles to a simple mitten pattern!  And so with my Icelandic Lopi wool yarn and my double-pointed needles, I was ready to learn.

Our Friday evening gathering included the usual housekeeping issues (no cellphone usage in public spaces, how to return used linens on Sunday via the laundry chute, even a discussion of the omnipresent Catholic iconography as full of compassion and sensitivity and in no way connected to the beliefs of the mindfulness institute.)  We did a mindfulness meditation, letting go of attachment, judgment, criticism, expectations, wishes especially with regard to our knitting.  And then we knit a swatch, silently, checking our bodies and breath, letting go of a product or a goal or an end, just knitting to knit.  We felt the yarn, saw the colors, heard the needles, even sniffed the wool--almost all the senses taking in the knitting (I would taste the fibrous stuff as I threaded a needle later in the weekend.  Eh.)

And then we pulled it all out!

I was glad that I had knitted my green Block Island blanket last week, so that my skills were in practice.  I can cast on, knit, purl, knit two together, bind off, and follow simple patterns as needed, not much more.  But I made the mistake (albeit intentional) of admitting I was a crocheter.  "Oh, we'll cure you of that," one said.  Ah, the superiority of knitters over crocheters.  But I expected it and am used to it (in "real" yarn stores, the clerks barely want to help crocheters choose yarn.)  Still, on the last day, another congratulated me, "You're a knitter now."  So much for judgment and attachment.

The evening was spent on our own and I journaled and doodled in my sketch book.  It's so quiet in the monastery, so much solitude and peace.  It's odd after living in a small house with three other people and four furry beasties; even during the day when I'm all by myself, it's not the same--there are chores and phone calls and errands, either to do or ignore.  At the retreat, there was nothing.  

I resolved to wake up early to see the sunrise and set my alarm.

My walk in the woods at 6:30 a.m. was a continuation of the quiet and solitude of the monastery.  I was the only one out.  I found the labyrinth easily enough, though I was convinced I was lost on the alternate wood path just as I spotted it.

Bigger then I realized, more remote, and surrounded by trees, the labyrinth was built in 2007, I think. If you can get to it, via the longer paved path with a short jog through the grass, it is even possibly wheelchair accessible, paved with small gravel as it is and wide and flat.

The sun was just rising, first creating muted pastels and then producing brilliant reds and oranges and yellows.  I watched the sunrise and took pictures from outside the labyrinth at first and then walked the path.  It was a wonderful, focusing, rejuvenating walk.  It wasn't even until I had circled the center  stone circle for awhile that I noticed someone had been there before me:  a novena candle was lit.

I walked back just in time for the breathing mediation with the director of the institute.  As much as I had focused on the knitting of the retreat in my anticipation of it, I got so much out of the meditation; I imagine that my daily practice has been kickstarted.

Then it was breakfast and our morning lesson.  There was so much to learn:  how to split stitches between three needles; how to insure the stitches are not twisted and facing down/away from you so that the project grows down/away from you; what to do if you drop a stitch or a whole needle of stitches (DON'T PANIC!  with non-slippery yarn, the stitches don't really move so you can recover it); how to change color; how to use waste yarn to save space for the thumb; how to easily count stitches on the purl side; how to gather the tops of mitten and thumb together; how to wave in; how to close holes.  I worked on it for hours.  I think I counted 7.5 hours overall for the one mitten.  But I was so excited, so proud, elated, grateful, joyful.  I had learned a new skill.

We broke up a lot of the knitting with stretches, centering breaths, water.  One of the breaths was the alternate-nostril breathing, when I realized that my cold wasn't completely gone!  There was also a cupped-hand/slapping exercise to get the blood flowing, plus one where we twisted back and forth swinging our arms.  There were self-hugs to open up our shoulders, eye exercises because of all the intense focusing, and a variety of yoga poses I didn't know.

I've realized that yoga just makes me sad.  Really, deeply sad.  I even shed a few tears during the morning practice.  My poor body has been so unloved by me and family and friends who criticize it or much more subtly make suggestions for its improvement, not accepting me how I am; it--I?--has been through so much from birth defects and other anomalies (lordosis, scoliosis, low muscle tone, leg differetital), hernia repairs, c-section, herniated discs, tailbone dysfunction, and now emergency abdominal surgery; and it just can't do what so many can do, especially all those stretchy middle-aged white women dedicated to yoga who are pretzeling themselves while I lie prone and alone (yes, lots of self-pity and envy in there, too.)  I always leave yoga feeling sad and down about myself, which is entirely opposite the point so I vowed to skip other yoga sessions entirely.  

So hat evening, instead of yet more yoga, I decided to take another walk to the labyrinth.  It's not everyday you have a labyrinth in the backyard.  As I made my way there, I saw three women from another retreat standing off the path and pointing up, then they waved to me.  I stopped in my tracks in time to see a Great Horned Owl fly from where they were standing, over my head, and in a tree nearby.  And when it took, another one followed.  Two giant, silent, fast, beautiful owls with their little tufty "ears."  Such a gift. So amazing.  I had never seen owls in flight naturally (beyond birds-of-prey exhibitions.)   I was too caught up in seeing them to take a picture; they were too fast for that anyway.

And then I watched the sunset at the labyrinth, the day ending quietly, not in a huge splash of color.  As I walked, I sang Sarah Dan Jones's "When I Breathe in" mediation and Emma's Revolution's "Peace Salaam, Shalom," which I think go well together.  I like to sing.  A few others joined me around the labyrinth later, quiet togetherness.  At first, I thought I'd mind, but I think I actually welcomed the company, even though all we did was nod.  

After dinner, there was a concert.  Girl-with-guitar Kate Callahan came and played many of her lovely folk ballads and songs for us, accompanying herself on guitar.  She also plays a quartz crystal singing bowl, with which she vocalizes and chants.  An incredible sounds!  She did some circle singing with us, which she had studied with renowned singer Bobby McFerrin.  She had one group start a rhythm, the other group do another, and she overlaid it with a tune and lyrics--about our retreat and concert!  Such a gift.

After the concert, as many of us stayed up to knit, as we talked of the music, I offered to teach them the two songs I had sung at the labyrinth.  And I did!  I sang a cappella, alone, in front of other adults; and then most of them were too shy to sing along.  But a few did, boldly.  Singing, I realized (as I've realized before), has so much to do with confidence.  I mustered just enough to sing aloud; I don't think I could do it regularly.

By the end of the evening, I had completed the body of one mitten and closed off the top!  If all went well, I would make the thumb the next morning and perhaps cast on the next mitten to do at home.

So many clouds that I didn't bother to get up for sunrise.  I slept in, read more in Voyager (my current Outlander novel), and then got up to dress, pack up, and clean up my room.

We spent the morning knitting in silence, first complete silence and then with some sacred music.  We could quietly ask questions, as I had to in order to complete my thumb.  We checked in with our breaths and our bodies (especially to combat hunched postures common to knitters.)  

And I finished one whole mitten!!!!!  

In fact, we all finished at least one.

We celebrated over lunch together, commended the friendly and supportive community we had created in just a few days, pledged to continue our mindfulness practice and knitting upon reentry into the "real" world.  I was grateful to the teacher for her knowledge and assistance and patience, to the participants for their companionship and support, the Copper Beech staff and volunteers for creating a nurturing and sustaining event, to my family for letting me go, and for the privilege of being able to attend a retreat and to have knitting as a hobby.  

Then Mama and the kids picked me up.  They met a few of the staff and then helped me fetch my things.  We all walked to the labyrinth together, the kids talking the long path "off road" through the woods.  We walked relatively quietly, joyfully, through the labyrinth.  The kids walked ahead while Mama and I walked holding hands (see, nice wide labyrinth; couldn't do that on Block Island.)   At the center, we placed a little heart that I had purchased at the gift shop.

And then we were off, retreat over.  Back to life, back to reality, as the song goes.  I hope I carry a little bit of the peace and acceptance into the whirlwind of the holidays.  Perhaps this was just the right way to kick off the holiday season.

For next year, I promise everyone mittens!

*That's "pearls of wisdom" and a knitting pun on purl.  The retreat's title and pun, not mine!

Poems read during some of our mindfulness moments:

Allow by Danna Faulds

There is no controlling life.
Try corralling a lightning bolt,
containing a tornado.  Dam a
stream and it will create a new
channel.  Resist, and the tide
will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry
you to higher ground.  The only
safety lies in letting it all in –
the wild and the weak; fear,
fantasies, failures and success.
When loss rips off the doors of
the heart, or sadness veils your
vision with despair, practice
becomes simply bearing the truth.
In the choice to let go of your
known way of being, the whole
world is revealed to your new eyes.
Surrender by Edmund Leland
I surrender because control creates false security and is an insatiable master. 
I surrender not to give up, but to open up.
Not to let go, but to receive
Not to drop something and have less, but to unclench these hands and make way for more spaciousness that holding on or controlling could never allow.
Sweet conscious choice to surrender.
This is how I choose to live
This is how I choose to love
This is how I choose to dance my life.


Last Days by Mary Oliver

Things are
  changing; things are starting to
    spin, snap, fly off into
      the blue sleeve of the long
        afternoon. Oh and ooh
come whistling out of the perished mouth
  of the grass, as things
turn soft, boil back
  into substance and hue. As everything, 
    forgetting its own enchantment, whispers:
      I too love oblivion why not it is full
        of second chances. Now,
hiss the bring curls of the leaves. Now!
  booms the muscle of the wind. 


Love after Love by Derek Walcott

The time will come 
when, with elation, 
you will greet yourself arriving 
at your own door, 
in your own mirror, 
and each will smile at the other's welcome
and say, sit here. Eat. 
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread.
Give back your heart 

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you 

all your life, whom you ignored 
for another, who knows you by heart. 
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, 

the photographs, the desperate notes, 
peel your own image from the mirror. 
Sit. Feast on your life. 

Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
     purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful experince Jamie! Maybe you can teach me how to knit a mitten? I can relate to the feelings you had about yoga. Although I can "do" yoga I cant do what you just did. I cant go anywhere without a family member or friend. Im too scared. Yes even at my age I am scared. When reading this I felt envy and self pity because I am so fearful. I know I would have loved this! Maybe next time.....