The Agony of Retreat

I did go on a brief retreat this week, and while there was no agony involved, once I thought up the title it amused me so much I had to use it anyway. Moving on.

The chapel at the Villa de Matel – never was able to get a decent photo of it before

There’s an old convent in Houston called Villa de Matel that has a retreat center on the property; it is in one of the older parts of the city and the grounds are quite lovely. There’s about 70 acres of land overall, with beautiful walking trails surrounded by magnolia trees and high branches dripping with Spanish moss. Unfortunately, on this trip Houston was experiencing another round of Biblical-level flooding and rains, so I was unable to take photos of the trails as they were basically swamps. In fact, I was only scheduled to spend one night at the convent’s retreat center – which is called Ruah (Hebrew for ‘spirit’) – but all the roads leading to my neighborhood were rendered impassible by flooding overnight, so I stayed on another day and waited for the water to go down. Actually, I could have stayed longer as I felt I was getting a lot out of being there, but I hadn’t packed for an extended trip and hadn’t taken care of some odds and ends at the house that needed to be dealt with before the end of the week, so I reluctantly drove back after the second night.

Photo May 31, 11 08 55 AM
The chapel exterior

The first day’s weather was OK for awhile until the storms blew in, so I did manage to get some shots of the convent’s buildings and grounds that were concrete-adjacent, which I could walk  on without sinking into the muck that all the grass and walking trails had become from the previous round of thunderstorms, so that was nice. But I’m not much of an architectural or outdoors photographer, and I actually like a lot of the photos I snapped with my phone better than the ones I took using my 7D. The one directly above was taken with my iPhone, but the shot of the chapel was taken using the Canon.

Photo May 31, 12 00 54 PM
The oratory in the Ruah center wing of the main building – this was where I spent most of my time this trip. I find each time I go I am drawn to certain areas, and it’s always different. I sat on the floor in here for hours writing and scribbing in a journal. There was only one time someone else even came into the room while I was there.

I’ve also taken photos at the convent before, and although it’s changed a bit since the last time I was there, it hadn’t changed all that much, and I got bored rather quickly since I was just re-taking photos I’d already snapped previously. Although the last time I took photos there I did not have either a decent phone OR camera, so I did want to get some better-quality shots even if they were duplicates of earlier ones. It just wasn’t all that thrilling to do.

Photo May 31, 11 15 38 AM
View from the second-floor covered balcony, across from the back entrance to the chapel. This was a wonderful place to sit and watch/listen to the rain – the chapel roof is metal and gave the rain a musical quality.

To stay at the Ruah center, you are assigned a spiritual advisor with whom you are required to meet at least once. When I first started coming here back in the 90’s, that wasn’t a requirement, but for whatever reason they changed the rules eventually. The other times I visited (this was my fourth visit overall), I met with the advisor since I was obligated to do so, but I did not get much out of it. This time, however, I had a lot on my mind in relation to my recent job upset, so I got a lot of use out of that spiritual advising time. My first day, my advisor met with me for two hours. When she found out I was staying an extra day to avoid driving in the floodwaters, she met with me again for another hour. Then on day three even though I was leaving, she met with me again for another thirty minutes. Each time we met, she recommended Bible verses, prayers, reflections, and questions to ask myself during my silent time (the retreat center is silent, and guests are asked not to speak at all while they are there). Even though I’m not all that religious, I’m not offended or put off by religion and I do believe in God, so I was OK with her guidance and took it all to heart, and it was all very helpful.

Photo May 31, 11 15 22 AM
The covered balcony referenced in the caption for the previous shot

The way I  discovered Ruah in the first place was when in my twenties and very broke I mentioned to a friend how frustrating it was to never be able to get away for a little vacation, and she mentioned it to me as a place I could go without having to spend much at all. At the end of your stay, you simply put however much you are called to pay into an envelope and leave it in a mailbox by the front door, and that’s it. When I was in my 20’s, that was sometimes as little as $35, but there was no pressure or obligation to spend more. I got a small room to stay in, three meals a day, and an entire two floors of the convent to spend my time doing whatever I wished as well as the freedom to walk all the beautiful grounds. They still operate under the same system, so even though I pay more than $50 now because I can, it is still a wonderful way to get away. There’s no stress or hurry or worry and everything is geared towards reflection, meditation, and peace. I’m not sure why I stayed away for five years (perhaps the insanity of the job I’ve had for the last four), but I intend to get back there sooner this time around. And the fact that I actually got to meet with an advisor every single day for no extra fee – as I said, it is in fact a requirement – was pretty amazing. The whole place is a secret gem hidden in the heart of the city, and whenever I mention it to people they are unfamiliar with it – such a shame since it’s such a wonderful place to stay.

The chapel foyer – an oddly framed shot but the space was quite small and the light was non-existent, so I had to make the best of it

Some of the things I was able to reflect on while there involved my perception of what it means to have, or leave, a job. I have a very deeply-rooted middle-class belief that you take whatever job comes along and never turn  one down, and no matter what, you never quit – at least not until you have something else lined up. Well, I really screwed the pooch on all that this time, and it’s been really stressing me out to have nothing lined up to do next. And I’ve never believed that a job was a “real” job unless it involved an organization and a hierarchy and an accounting department that cuts you a check twice a month, yet leaving all that behind and striking out on  my own is exactly what I’m considering doing now – and it terrifies me, fills me with anxiety and dread, and makes me feel terribly guilty. So yeah, I had plenty to fill my journal with this trip!

Photo May 31, 11 39 13 AM

We also touched on how addicted to drama I am, and how I disregarded so many warning signs when taking that stupid job in the first place, and how I can be a better judge of such things in the future. Listening to the warning signs when they are being given to me, instead of ignoring them to fulfill that familial belief that you never, ever, say no to a  job, like, EVER; and recognizing when I am getting ensnared into other people’s drama and getting myself hooked on it are going to be two big tasks for me moving forward. Not going back into any sort of structured or organized educational environment will certainly help with this, but leaving it behind has been difficult, as I went from knowing everything that was going on behind the scenes at my workplace to being completely shut out within 24 hours, and I’ve literally been having drama/conflict withdrawals as a result – mostly because I’ve been worried what people are saying about me, as if that matters anymore. Sad, but true!

Photo May 31, 11 05 47 AM
Entrance to the main Villa de Matel building. Most of the second and third floors are dedicated to the Ruah center. The windows on the third floor are all dorm rooms.

I was encouraged to take myself back to my childhood (of course, aren’t we always advised to do that) and try to reconnect with what I wanted to “do” when I was little, before all the expectations of others kicked in, and that was a tough one for me. I had to sit on it for quite awhile, but then it hit me in one big rush of remembering: when I was in fifth grade, I decided I wanted to be a writer. It wasn’t something that I talked about much, and the way I  was raised, girls weren’t encouraged to do much aside from get married and have babies, so it was a small little desire tucked away in a corner of my mind, but it never totally left me, and through my quiet high school existence, it was one of the few ways I actually distinguished myself – occasionally we would be asked to write something creative for an English or History class and I would impress the teacher with my talent, once they figured out just who the hell I was since I was so quiet I doubt they even recognized my name at the top of the paper. Even in college (where I was not any more visible to my professors) my English profs would single me out and encourage me to change my major (which I eventually did, to English Lit. with a minor in Creative Writing).

Photo May 31, 11 17 04 AM
So right about now is when the pictures start to get weird. But you know with me I’m always gonna do a least a little bit of over-processing. This was actually the stairwell from the pipe organ loft in the chapel; right around the corner is a stained-glass window and the walls are painted light blue to enhance the effect. In reality it’s more pretty than creepy, but I went with creepy when editing.

As some of you know, I dabbled in poetry for about 15 years but always found it very difficult to write, even if in the end I wrote some great stuff, and I abandoned it when I discovered photography, which is a HELL of a lot more fun for me to do. I made some attempts at writing fiction and even took some classes, but I am not a plotter and although I wrote some lovely vignettes, nothing in my stories ever actually happened. And writing fiction wasn’t any more enjoyable to me than writing poetry, so I eventually switched to teaching English and everything that led from there you probably already know.

The pipe organ in the chapel; it was a very small balcony area so I couldn’t get a decent angle to take a good shot. Really not a good photo, so I processed the hell out of it to try and make up for that. 

I have some idea of what this might mean to me and where it might take me, but I don’t want to reveal that info right now. Mostly because I might change my mind tomorrow, but also because if I share my ideas it will make me feel pressured to make progress on them, and I’m not in the mood for that yet. For now, I’m just clearing out the muddle in my  mind and making space for a new future. But radically re-thinking what work is to me is definitely rattling around; it just needs more space to move and I still have a lot of cobwebs to clear.

This was the roof of the heritage building; obviously I edited the hell out of this. The sky in reality was cloudy by the time, but not that interesting sort of cloudy that makes a photo look textured and cool – mostly the sky looked solid white and really boring. But I liked the placement of the sun and how it appeared to be glowing over a roof  which I thought had a UFO-like quality. 

I worked on a lot of the disappointment, betrayal, and heartache I experienced over the past month, too, and I did have a lot of guilt I needed to let go of. I haven’t reached full closure on either of these issues yet, but I got a good start on them. A few things I realized were that all my worry and bother over the fact that my final act might have ruined the good reputation I built up there over four years was a waste of time, because in the end, while a good rep is nice to have and all, it certainly isn’t worth my sanity, sense of peace, and self-respect. If walking away gave me back all that, it’s still a better trade than staying at a place that was determined to devalue me, disrespect me, and take advantage of me until I was either burnt out or used up entirely; a place that was too busy using its employees to serve itself to ever give me the level of respect I deserved.

Photo Jun 01, 10 03 26 AM
A bit of a detour here – my great-grandmother lived across the street from the convent, so I drove by and snapped a photo of her old house. This was taken from my car, while those two ladies looked at me like I was crazy. Funny story – I posted this on Facebook and both my mother and aunt, who both practically grew up in this house, insisted it was not the right house. I had to go to Google earth and show them that photo before they would believe me! 

And I’ve felt guilt, also, for leaving my students behind without saying goodbye, but while reflecting on that I heard an answer in my heart quite clearly: sometimes you just have to put yourself first. PERIOD. Teachers, in particular, as well as individuals working in any service-oriented industry, fall prey to this philosophy quite often; this idea that we simply cannot walk away from our OBLIGATIONS because people DEPEND on us and the world will just end, and we will be horrible people who are fully responsible for it, if we do. But everyone has times in their lives when they must stop sacrificing all their happiness for others and simply save themselves. And this was one of those times for me. And if my actions made some of my former students angry or upset, then so be it. It sucks, but I HAD to do it to save myself.

This quote popped up on a little placard in the corner of one of the Ruah center rooms my second day there; I swear it wasn’t there on my first day, so I convinced myself it was put up specifially for me. It wasn’t, of course, but the quote still spoke to me, so I put it in the sky of my UFO-roof photo. I rather like it!

Now, the fact that my action upset some of my former bosses? I have zero regrets about that. Because the fact of the matter was, they’d all come together to create a situation that benefitted themselves, but put me in a real bind, and they had no problems with it whatsoever, and they ignored me when I tried to tell them that what they were doing wasn’t right or fair. So knowing how upset they were when I left indicated to me that I’d finally taken this huge problem they’d dumped in my lap and managed to dump it back on them, where it belonged. They were the ones taking advantage of their titles to pursue other interests on a weekly basis during school time without having to relinquish their status or power, so let them be the ones to figure out how they were going to pull it off. The only way for me to put that problem back on them was if I left immediately – otherwise, they were going to spend that last school week breathing down my neck, forcing me to set everything up for them nice and neat so once I was gone they wouldn’t have to figure anything out for themselves. And that, at least, they did not force me to do. But only because I didn’t stick around long enough for them to try.

25 thoughts on “The Agony of Retreat

  1. What a beautiful place! Glad you were able to do some soul searching and find a little peace about the job situation. xo Rachel

  2. What a great post. I often find reading quite difficult to focus on, but your writing flowed and had me following along without thought. You really are as you obviously know, a wonderful story teller. I am unsure where this place is , have I missed the details? But from the photos, it looks amazingly peaceful. It’s so nice to have abodes such as this for seeking a place of quiet reflection.

    ‘Processed the hell out of it’- what a phenomenal juxtaposition !

  3. Hi Cynthia. Wow. Just. Wow. This was such a great post because I saw myself in your words and your experiences. I, too, was brought up the same way to take any job. And now, I’m working in Retail Hell until I can go back to my REAL job–but I don’t think that day will ever come due to ageism.
    My dad used to go on retreats often. He was a NYC Police officer and I’m sure he was conflicted on many occasions. He was also a very Catholic and spiritual man.
    It seems like you got an awful lot of food for the soul on this retreat. The convent setting is so serene and beautiful. (I had two aunts who were Ursuline nuns and I LOVED visiting their summer convent at Blue Point, NY–it was just calming).
    Like you, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. But in order to be successful, I truly think one needs to “know” the right people. The proof of that is the incredible amount of bland and bad writers out there–the ones who write without a soul or heart. I think networking is also important and, I, for one, just find people to be dishonest and phoney when networking.
    I’m rooting for you gf. And I believe Ms. Karma will be around to assist you with all her goodness.
    PS. I love the title of your post! XOXOXO!!!

    • I feel like I won’t go back into the traditional working environment unless I must – in looking back I can see where I’ve never really fit in properly and something has always gone off for me there; a conflict with someone, disagreeing with rules or policies, not knowing when to keep my mouth shut, mis-reading situations, etc. I hope I can make things work online but it’s such a new world to comprehend right now.

      And I wonder how many people even remember the poor Agony of Defeat skiier from Wide World of Sports? I think I want to go find a video of him, the poor guy…

  4. Sounds like you spent some quality time on yourself. The retreat is amazing. My husband and I have our own retreat (we call it camping, lol). And your photos are beautiful, the pipe organ in particular. It looks like a futuristic metal building with the shot taken from the sidewalk looking up. As I read your article, there were so many thoughts running through my head that I’d love to comment on but I would wind up making it as long as your post. So I just want to say (and hopefully give a little encouragement) that you shouldn’t be afraid to strike out on your own. I am the type of person that doesn’t like or adapt well to change, but my husband is opposite. And I thought he was insane when he told me he was going to uproot our little family from a place that I loved living, and a job that was perfectly suited for me (my whole life was perfect…at that time) and take us back to a place I didn’t want to be, mortgage our home, and buy a business that neither of us knew a bleeping thing about. But yet, here we are, some 22 years later and still “doing it”. You make it what you have to make it. We’re not rich, we never will be, but I don’t think that was ever the intent (though it would be nice). We are comfortable and we have been doing something we both grew to enjoy tremendously. I said all that to get to this…it’s been an adventure, for sure, but the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction was worth leaving my comfort zone. At this point in my life, I don’t know if I could work for anyone else or even want to. Yes, it’s scary as hell when you are outside of those 4 walls we call our daily life but it can be more rewarding than you can imagine. It’s all what you’re willing to put into it. Best of luck to you girl.

    • Wow, thanks for this post Cindy! Very helpful. I am feeling much more positive today, since coming up with this new idea of mine that I am not sharing yet ;). I know I am on the right track because this is the first day I feel too busy to ‘work on’ my emotions around my previous job. Good sign!

      • That’s wonderful news. When the clouds of uncertainty have lifted you will be fine. Don’t let them settle on you. You have so much to offer.

  5. I’m in such “admiration” . You are so honest and candid in your persona . I really envy your
    ability to recognize and take advantage of this sort of offering. If only the world was populated
    with the likes of you ! Your narrative was so compelling. I was feeling sort of virtually on “retreat” myself. I visited a few convents in France and Spain and marveled at their design and
    their “cloisters” feature. So powerful, peaceful . One needn’t wonder at their exception and
    longevity . As you noted, already your mind is ahead of the negative “past”. The rain will surely
    end and a new day is coming your way FOR SURE .

  6. I have my degree in Comparative Literature (if that adds any weight to what I’m about to say) and I think you are a **fantastic writer.** Of course I love your wig videos. And your photography is a delight. But your writing is also what makes your blog a must-read for me every. single. time. you post something. Not all stories have to have big things happening. Some are delightful toying with language or descriptions. You don’t have to write long novels to be a writer. Give yourself some credit, you are a really, great writer!

  7. Okay I wanna go and be calm, what a beautiful place and shots of it. I also dig the UFO photo and the saying is also great. Everything happens for a reason.

  8. It’s been a while since I posted on here (aside from a note on the Ryan-wig, just now), but I want to chime in with appreciation for your writerly voice. I know exactly how I tripped over this blog–found some of your old wig review posts, and somehow reverse-engineered my way here. Where I found not only fun hair critique, but also some of the most natural and comfortable conversation about anything from airplanes to backyard de/reconstruction to how to stand up for yourself in a variety of situations.

    “I’m just clearing out the muddle in my mind and making space for a new future” makes a lot of sense, and is encouraging to me. If you can do it, I could try it, too. It’s time for a little spring-cleaning-of-the-mind. (I don’t have a retreat, but I do have a sewing room and can start playing around there and let my mind wander as needed.)

    Just wanted to add my appreciation for your words, as others have. I love to see a new post hit my email box; there’s always food for thought in there.

    • Thanks, Julie! I am trying to just sit and look out the window for 10 minutes each morning! Amazing how hard that it is to do nowadays with the computer always calling me…

  9. This is a very deep post. I enjoyed hearing about your processing of what has gone on and your search within the retreat, as well as the gorgeous photos. I am not surprised about you wanting to be a writer because you are the person who led me to the book about ordering a book of poetry haha. I had the same problem with plots. What I have found is that by writing nonfiction I was able to work on this problem and improve–because writing nonfiction uses automatic constraints. That freedom in fiction to write “anything” makes it hard to plot, I think. But there is nothing wrong with writing “only” poetry!!! As you know, I think the world of poetry ;).

    • Also, I wanted to mention that the covered bridge is a gorgeous example of a liminal space, I think. I wrote about it last week and am posting another photo tomorrow. My photos, as you know, suck compared with yours, but they help me look for #liminality.

      • Oh it is, isn’t it? A wide-open space that contains more “space.” I had a hard time visualizing what you meant at first, but I was also reading on my phone and couldn’;t see the photos much at all. LOL. Technology limitations!

    • I do too, and keep thinking I’m going to get back to writing it or at LEAST send off that ms I put together years ago. Still haven;t quite gotten either thing done, though.

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