Rinse and Retreat

Not a very logical title, but I tried.

As I mentioned in my last post, I headed back to Ruah for another silent retreat at the Villa de Matel. I wanted another long stay, but every span of time I had open to go was unavailable at the convent, so I settled on a quick weekend trip instead. For the most part, my trips to the Villa occur during the summer as well as during the work week; I may have attended a time or two back in the 90s on a weekend, but that’s certainly too far back for me to remember, so suffice it to say that I’ve not been there on a weekend in quite a long time, and possibly ever. It was an interesting experience, to say the least, and definitely different from what I am accustomed to.

I always love the sight of the Villa coming into view after turning into the drive – not a great video representation of it, but I forgot my Sony and had to use my phone.

Friday wasn’t too bad, although there was one group of about 10 people attending that was holed up in the Bethany room for most of the day. That meant I didn’t have access to that space, which was OK since it’s not a room I usually spend a lot of time in. Apparently, the center was also preparing for some big shenanigans happening during the coming week, so there was quite a bit of activity and lots of people bustling about all day, which was odd for me, but not particularly disruptive. More people at the center had its upsides, too – when there’s only a handful of guests staying at Ruah, meals are served in the nun’s dining room, buffet-style, and guests have to grab a plate in there, get their food, and walk over to the retreatant’s dining room to eat. Under these circumstances, the food will certainly fill you up and provide you with nutrients, but that’s about all I can say about it. Unless you just love cottage cheese and prunes, then you’ll really be in business.

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Nothing nearly this exciting, NOPE

But, if there are groups attending or just more than a handful of guests staying at the center, the kitchen will prepare separate meals for them and serve them right in the retreatants’ dining area. Usually in this case, the food is more substantial – rice and broccoli casserole instead of cottage cheese, grilled chicken instead of cold cuts, that sort of thing – and you don’t have to disturb the nuns in their dining area and pick at their leftovers (when getting food in the nuns’ dining room, it is expected that guests will wait 10-15 minutes after serving time to allow them time to get served and seated). So in that regard, Friday’s dinner was quite nice, and because the group was in meetings until late into the evening, the entire retreat center was kept “open” until about 10:00 PM, which is unusual. When there are just a few retreatants staying, the women who run the center pretty much shut things down when they leave around 6 PM. Nothing is locked up, but all the lights are turned off and the doors are shut to the common areas. You can still wander around the second floor and spend time in any of the rooms as late as you want; there’s nothing stopping you from going into, say, the Offertory at 2 AM, but it’s a big, old building to wander around in, and the hallways are quite dim, so it still feels a bit creepy and a little unwelcoming even though you know you’re doing nothing wrong. Because of that, I normally turn in early when I’m there – shortly after sundown – but this time, everything was open and lit up quite late, which was pretty nice (keeping things lit isn’t generally a popular thing at Ruah; pretty much every light switch has a sign over it reminding you to shut it off if you’re the last one leaving ANY room).

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Not quite this bad, but close

Saturday morning, however, was another situation entirely. I woke up at 7, and wandered down to the guests’ dining room for the 8-7 breakfast hour around 8:15 (you have one hour for all meals, by the way, and if you miss that hour, you’re screwed until the next mealtime). As previously mentioned, waiting about 15 minutes to go down and get served is kind of the norm there, so even though I knew there were others dining I figured I’d just let the group get their food and get settled, since they probably had more meetings to get to and they all knew each other, before I went down. Well. I opened the door to the dining area, and holy cow – it was PACKED with people. And, almost all of the breakfast was gone! There was still food, but what was left I couldn’t eat because of the wheat – toast, doughnuts, croissants – and fortunately there was a scrap of scrambled eggs and one piece of crusty bacon left that I could snag, otherwise I would have gotten nothing. Then, I had to worm my way into a spot at a table full of people I didn’t know, because there were so few seats left, which was awkward. Thank goodness the dining area is also considered a silent space, so no one was talking, or I really would have felt like a twerp.

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Yep, I’m in there somewhere

As soon as I was done with breakfast, I started worrying about lunch (probably because I was still hungry). I figured I was going to have to be one of ‘those people’ who gets in line for food at a buffet line ten minutes before it opens if I wanted to be sure to get something to eat. If I didn’t have to avoid wheat, I wouldn’t have worried about it, but my options in that regard have always been limited at Ruah – the bottom line is, you are staying at the center and essentially eating for free (they work on a donation basis, so if you only had five dollars to donate at the end of your stay, that is all you have to pay), so you take what you can get and make the most of it. I wouldn’t dream of complaining about the quality or quantity of what is basically free food being given to me out of the goodness of other people’s hearts (well, not to them at least, clearly I am OK with doing it here) so I generally just deal with it the best I can. I also usually sneak all sorts of snacks into my room just in case, even though that is against the rules, but because my stay was so short this time I didn’t think I’d need to bring too much, so by Saturday morning I’d already snacked up most of what I’d brought.

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I was low on my usual provisions

So, I made my decision to keep an eye on the time and join the lunch-rush, even though I think it’s a tacky thing to do, and tried to get on with my day. But – everywhere I went, there were PEOPLE. And not just one or two people, but GROUPS of people, who knew each other, and who were whispering to each other and chatting even though they weren’t supposed to. I actually don’t care too much about people whispering or chatting, even though the rules are to stay silent – it’s the awkwardness of walking into a space and taking a seat to journal, meditate, or pray, and finding yourself crashing a whisper party instead. You can go ahead and enter, and try to do your thing all the while knowing that you’re intruding on other people’s conversation, or you can leave and try to find somewhere else to go, which is what I kept trying to do. It kinda sucked.

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The chapel when I visit Ruah during the work week

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The chapel when I visit Ruah on a weekend (artist’s rendition)

So, I ended up spending most of my day outside. I’d had this vision of going to Ruah in November, and having it be nice and chilly with the convent decorated for the Christmas holidays. But not this year – it was a balmy 82 degrees outside on Friday, and just a touch cooler on Saturday, and it turns out they do that thing rational people do where they refuse to decorate for Christmas before Thanksgiving is over (whatever). Even though the weather was not the winter wonderland I’d hoped it would be, it was certainly comfortable enough to take full advantage of the outside spaces of Ruah – something I do not generally do because I almost always visit in the summer months, when the Texas heat is ridiculous. Sure, I was out wandering around in November in a tank top, but at least I wasn’t sweating like a heifer and dying of heat exhaustion. So, that was nice enough. Sadly, I only spent a few minutes in what has always been my favorite space – my beloved oratory, where I spent hours at a time back in July. Every time I tried to go in there, there were at least four other people there (and it’s a pretty small space) and  one of them had even stolen MY floor space and floor pillows! The nerve.

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The oratory when I visit Ruah during the week

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The oratory when I visit Ruah on the weekend

I thought I’d grabbed my Sony video camera on my way out the door from home on Friday, but when I opened the camera bag Saturday morning I realized I’d accidentally grabbed my Canon SL1 DSLR. My plan was to do video walkabouts with the vidcam instead of taking more photos, because at this point I have literally thousands of shots of the place and really do not need more. But, I managed to screw that up by snatching the wrong camera. My SL1 will shoot video, but the LCD screen is hard as hell to see out-of-doors, and I’d neglected to bring the spare battery and the one in the camera was at death’s door anyway. So, no good  video this time. But that didn’t stop me from using my phone – I just used it improperly and forgot to hold the phone in landscape mode when I was shooting, as I always do. Still, I did not let that deter me from making a few videos; I just used Filmora’s split screen feature to put several videos at once into a skinny format that would work with my screw up. You’re welcome.

I also added weird music because why not

I actually ended up walking A LOT Saturday. More than I did anything else. When I first started visiting Ruah in the 90s, they didn’t have any of these trails cutting through the 70 acres on which the convent is set. The grounds were still lovely, and there were plenty of places to wander out under the trees and perhaps sit in one of the many tree swings they have on the property (something else I didn’t get to do this time, because someone’s ass was in EVERY SINGLE SWING I tried to find), but all of the places where there are walking trails now were just thickets and brush back then. I didn’t even realize it all belonged to them, until I went back in my early 40s and they’d started to carve them out. It appears they are finally done with all of the path-clearing they intend to do, and are now working on planting various fruit trees and sprucing up the fairly new labyrinth area. In spite of my testiness at having MY space invaded by OUTSIDERS (as if I own the whole place), it was nice to spend so much time getting familiar with all the new outdoor spaces I usually ignore.

Oh, and I ALSO added filters to make the videos look old and shiny and shit like that. I couldn’t help myself.

But then it was time for LUNCH, and in spite of feeling like it was tacky, I decided to stake out a space by the dining area early to ensure I got a decent spot in line and had a crack at the wheat-less food I’d able to eat before it got gobbled up by everyone else. The guests’ dining area leads to a huge back porch, so I grabbed a rocking chair back there and waited for the time to arrive. Sure enough, about five minutes before noon a big gaggle from one of the groups came tromping up towards the back entrance, so I casually lifted myself from my seat and  blended into line. No sooner had we all gotten inside and filed in at the front of the buffet line when one of the cafeteria workers threw open the door from the kitchen and yelled at us, “You are TOO EARLY! Lunch does NOT start until NOON!” And then she slammed back out. See? I knew we were being rude, but I felt I had no choice. But when the cooks at a convent yell at you, you know you suck. Yikes.

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You’ll get your prunes when I’m damn good and ready to give them to you

Everyone else just sort of faded back a few steps, but were clearly not going to stop hovering around the buffet table, so I finally thought, screw this, I’m leaving, and stomped off.  I didn’t want to stand around with a bunch of people I didn’t know, who were all being a little rude to be honest, and wait to attack the buffet as if we were all contestants on Survivor and then be forced to squeeze myself into a seat next to them while they all tried to wave apologetically to their one friend who’d gotten edged out of her seat at their table by me, the evil interloper. Duking it out for food hadn’t exactly been on my agenda for the weekend, and neither had sharing all my quiet, private spaces with loads of other people, so I decided I was packing up and going home.

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Except, once I got back to my room I realized I was being pissy and spoiled, and decided I’d just wait for the rush to die down like I always did and see if anything was left that I could eat. If there wasn’t anything decent left, I’d just hop in my car and go grab something for lunch on my own. I couldn’t bring it back to the Villa to eat, because that was not allowed, but I could head out to the walking trails and have myself a nice little picnic, and toss whatever food I didn’t finish into the brush for the raccoons and the birds. Problem solved. I went back down around 12:30 and there was one scrawny, dry piece of baked chicken left, along with some white rice and some lima beans, so even though it wasn’t exactly tasty I wolfed it down anyway, then drove up to CVS for a bunch of comfort junk food to make up for  it. I figured whatever happened at dinner could be dealt with if I knew I had chocolate waiting for me back in my room, and I was right.

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Restocked!

As it turned out, both groups cleared out soon after lunch was over anyway, but I still found myself hanging out mostly outdoors.

One more weird outdoors video – y’all better watch this mess ’cause I worked hard on it, believe it or not!

There were a few guests like myself still in attendance, and to put it nicely, they didn’t seem very aware of the convent’s rules. Supper was at 6 o’clock (well, 6:15 if we were being polite, which I was) and since the groups were all cleared out, those of us left were back to getting our food out of the nuns’ dining area – so cottage cheese, prunes, and cold cuts all around! However, I couldn’t help but notice that several guests went back many times into the nuns’ area for refills of food, which isn’t exactly the polite way to handle a free buffet with limited offerings.

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I’ll have some more of that, and some more of that that that

The evening was quite lovely, with a pretty sunset and a nice breeze, but as soon as the sun dipped down behind the horizon line the tree roaches came out, and if you’ve never seen a Texas tree roach then you’ve never seen a roach AT ALL. Seriously, they are the size of a toddler’s sneaker, and they are awful. Since it’s still in the 80s here, temperature-wise, they have yet to meet their maker and disappear for the winter, so my sunset-gazing was cut short by the approach of a roach so big you could have saddled him and  ridden him around for a while, if you were so inclined, while I was sitting in a nice comfy chair on the second-floor balcony. Boo. The Ruah center was already dark and heading towards creepy by then, so I decided to go ahead and turn in – and that’s when I saw more evidence of the “I don’t think they understand the rules here” going on with the other guests.

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This photo was taken in the little serving area on the third floor, where the dorm rooms are. Now, obviously, this is NOT a Hilton hotel, and there’s no room service. In fact, there are pretty clear rules about what to do with dirty dishes (basically, wash them yourself, as the NUMEROUS signs posted around every sink and refrigerator instruct guests to do). It’s so clear, and is generally so not a problem, that I was completely thrown when I saw these dirty-ass coffee cups in the sink of the little kitchenette – when I first saw this, I didn’t have my phone with me to take a picture, and at that time there was also an open carton of milk sitting there, even though there’s a refrigerator below the counter. What the hell, people? I realize it may not sound like that big of a deal, and look, I always sneak food into my room when I’m not supposed to, which is against the rules too, so okay – but hell, I at least hide all my evidence, and I always clean up after myself. This was just – kinda ridiculous, especially considering where we all were. The convent offers all of these amenities to its guests, and literally asks NOTHING in return, so the least people can do is clean up after themselves.

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If that’s true anywhere, it’s gotta be here

Then I visited the shared bathroom, where more astounding sights greeted my eyes. Now, each wing of the dorm area has several bathrooms on it, most of them serving about 4-5 rooms at a time. They have a main door, and within the bathroom space are 2-3 individual stalls, and 2-3 tiny little showers (all of which have their own doors with locks). Problem #1 was that someone who was utilizing the same bathroom as I was would shut and lock the MAIN DOOR to the bathroom every single time she went in there (the center does keep the women and men in separate areas) so that, even though there was more than one toilet inside with separate doors, no one else could use the damn thing. When whoever she was went in there to shower, she again locked up the whole damn bathroom, then took an hour to get herself clean. Once she finally left, I made my way inside only to find that she’d taken the whole bathroom over:

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OK seriously – who does this? I know she washed her tush with that loofah, do I have to encounter it hanging over a doorknob when I go to pee? And her comb? AND her TOOTHBRUSH? I mean, the dirty mug at this point was no surprise, since I’d already encountered others in the kitchenette, but – wow. Nice job just throwing your towel on the floor there, too. Don’t forget to tip housekeeping! Except – oh wait, there isn’t a  housekeeping service here. Come on, people.

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But enough about loofas and toothbrushes. Let’s get back to more pictures of the Villa, shall we?

So, okay. Clearly there are people staying here this weekend who don’t know the rules. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people, and it could also mean that the center itself doesn’t do a good enough job enforcing or explaining the rules to the guests. However, I think they may start doing a better job, because Sunday morning when I went down for breakfast (15 minutes late, as is expected), no sooner had I sat down than the head cook of the Villa came storming out of the kitchen into the guests’ area, where the director of Ruah was eating at another table; although he did a good job of keeping his voice low (because trust me, I was totally trying to hear what he was saying), his body language gave away that he was quite upset, indeed. I definitely heard something along the lines of, “this sort of thing should not still be happening,” and I also heard one of the guests apologizing to a nun in the other dining area – something about coffee – so my guess is that once again not enough food had been prepared for everyone, and the guests were getting fed ahead of the nuns, which in case you hadn’t figured it out by now is a definite no-no.

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So am I just going to bitch about all this and be done? Well yeah, kinda. Except – I realized after I left that although I don’t feel I’d been a part of any of the problems this weekend, I certainly wasn’t part of the solution. Why didn’t I, for example, clean up the dirty kitchenette Saturday night when I saw it, instead of just taking pictures? And why didn’t I just go utilize any one of the other numerous bathroom facilities on the third floor instead of cluck-clucking about the ingrate who locked herself in the one nearest my room and refused to come out? And for that matter, once I realized the Villa was running short of food, couldn’t I have foregone eating any of my meals there and gone out for food instead? I mean, for all I know, there were people eating meals at the Villa who really couldn’t afford to pay much for them, so what would have been so wrong with me helping them all out and eating elsewhere? The answer is because I didn’t think to in the moment – I was too busy being nonplussed and amused by all the snafus, and taking pictures while writing this blog post in my head for entertainment. I certainly don’t want these sorts of problems to become such an ongoing thing that the convent decides to shut Ruah down, so to prevent that I need to be sure I do my part next time, even if that means doing other people’s parts when they remain unaware of the need to do them.

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Perhaps I need to read up

And next time, I definitely will not go on a weekend, and I will ask in advance if there are going to be a lot of groups around!

9 thoughts on “Rinse and Retreat

  1. You’re a girl of my own heart, when all else fails enjoy more chocolate! Everything seems so much better with chocolate.
    Honestly the weekend retreat sounds like you needed to retreat after been there 😦

  2. Pingback: Meditation Station | mareymercy.

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