Early this evening I returned from two nights and three days at St. Francis of the Woods Center for Spiritual Renewal in Oklahoma.  As I had anticipated in my last post, the experience was at least as meaningful as I had expected it to be.  The five hour drive provided transition time, time to unwind, time for my mind to race through whatever it needed to process so that I could fully experience the time there engaging in each moment as it came. 

It takes time to disengage and let go of all the pressures and responsibilities of Caregiving and work, if you have other work in addition to Caregiving.  A three day Retreat allows time that needed time.  Knowing that Mary Ann was in capable hands during the time I would be gone was important to allowing the freedom to let go. 

For those who know our household, it is hardly necessary to add that the trip down included a stop at Braum’s for a two scoop hot fudge Sundae with lots of salted pecans, topped with whipped cream and a cherry.  Let’s be straight about this renewal business.  Ice cream (or whatever your favorite treat is) goes a long way toward nourishing the rest and renewal muscles. 

The retreat content was as described in my last post.  There was no agenda.  I needed time to be free to initiate activity as I felt the need.  When Caregiving, of necessity, Mary Ann’s needs take priority.  By contrast, on this Retreat, I decide what to do and when to do it. 

I walked outdoors for hours.  I walked slowly, savoring the sounds and sights and sensations as they came.  I engaged fully each moment.  I felt the warmth of the sun and the feel of the breeze early the first evening.  I watched and listened intently for birds especially.  I watched an Oklahoma storm develop and pass over.  During nine years living in Oklahoma City, both Mary Ann and I came to love watching those storms develop.  

When the storm started producing lightning, I had enough sense to head back to the cabin.  I knew that Mary Ann would be pretty irritated if I was struck by lightning and she was left to fend for herself.  In fact, if I were hit by lightning and did not survive, she might very well have me cremated and spread my ashes in a fabric store to languish there for an eternity.  Given the option, I would prefer fire and brimstone.  Needless to say, I moved to safety very quickly. 

The next day was chilly, but bright.  I walked again.  On occasion I stopped to sit on the camping stool tied to my backpack to read or just sit and look and listen.  I suppose I accumulated eight or so hours out in that beauty that day.  Today I walked again for a couple more hours, this time walking faster, covering the same territory as the last two days, looking for surprises. 

In the course of my time outside, as I looked up at a nest high in a tree with my binoculars, I was startled by two eyes staring back at me as a Long-Eared Owl sat on her nest.  I was examined by a couple of nearby wild turkeys to see if I was a threat.  Apparently they concluded that I was not.  I was checked out by five circling Turkey Vultures trying to determine if I would be a fitting afternoon snack.  In fact this morning three circled overhead and one got so close that I could actually hear his wings flapping.  After seeing a White-tail Deer run off in the woods, a buck that was still out of sight tried to intimidate me with his loud and threatening snorting.  There is more, but that is for another post for those who love to walk in nature. 

I have to say that while there was utter solitude most of the time I was on the Retreat, I never felt lonely, I never really felt alone.  In those settings I feel a fullness, a wholeness that is sometimes hard to feel when I am in more populated settings. 

When I was at the farthest point on my wanderings, sitting in a cluster of trees, turkeys nearby, I took out my cell phone and called Mary Ann.  She wasn’t home at that moment, but I left a message with a few words about where I was and what I was doing, letting her know that I was thinking of her and that I love her. 

There is something that has come to be so for me about solitude, meditation and the power of renewal imbedded in them.  If the experience draws me away from relationship, isolates me, separates me from those I love, it is not, in my eyes, an authentic experience.  While as full time Caregivers, we need time for breaks, moments of escape, that is not the purpose of a Renewal Retreat.  If my goal on the Retreat were just escape, it would make of what I do as a Caregiver bondage instead of a meaningful calling.  If escape is the primary purpose of the Retreat, it will not renew, but do the opposite, magnify the frustrations and make the return home a time of dread. 

The purpose of a Renewal Retreat is to find yourself to be whole, fulfilled, grounded and full of life, life that cannot be stolen from you by challenging circumstances.  The images and sounds and smells and feelings, the experiences can become a well from which draughts of refreshment can be drawn in a moment’s reflection even during a busy and even frustrating day of Caregiving. 

The motivation for a Renewal Retreat is not simply self-serving.  It is pretty tough to have a meaningful relationship with someone you claim to love whether they are in need of care or not, if you feel unfulfilled and empty.   Then relationships come to be about filling our unfulfilled needs.  Relationships come to be about getting instead of giving because we have nothing to give.  Ultimately, no one else can make us whole, give our lives meaning, fill our needs.  A Renewal Retreat as I experience it gives me a sense of fulness and meaning that helps me discover again who I am, so that I can respond to Mary Ann’s needs without losing myself.  I can be a better  Caregiver and a better husband — never even close to perfect, just better.

Just as a Post Sript, the retreat ended with a lunch that is provided weekly for the staff and those who are a part of the leadership at St. Francis.   Gratefully, guest retreatants are welcome to join them for lunch.  A more delightful crew would be hard to find.  I especially enjoyed the reflective time after lunch, processing spiritual renewal and learning from one another.   Renewed in solitude and in community — what a treat!

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