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by Betsy Gitelman

This was not what I expected.

I looked at the calendar, at the week at the end of the summer when my kids would be staying with their father. Still some summer left, but no one to travel with and not much money to spend. Lots of work to do on my novel. Finding a place for a writer's retreat seemed the perfect plan.

I'd scoured the internet for suitable places nearby and narrowed my choices to three. A seaside retreat in Martha's Vineyard sounded tempting, but the mechanics of getting my car over there (or being without) and preparing my own meals started to give me a headache. Staying in an ancient farmhouse in the Catskills near a lake was inviting, the warning that there were no refunds upon discovering just how rugged a facility it was only adding to the charm. But, again, it was the meals. Online photos of the facility's kitchen conjured the reality that I'd have to fetch food, stock the refrigerator, prepare the meals, and clean up after them. It was--gosh, Yiddish is so succinct sometimes--feh.

The winner turned out to be Wisdom House in Litchfield, Connecticut. At an alluringly low price, it included three meals a day. After a minimal application process, I was deemed a writer of sufficient qualifications to obtain a room. The bonuses were that the facility had a pool and a labyrinth.

A labyrinth. You won't meet a person who is less into anything than I am. Traditional religion, holistic health, crystals, spiritualism--whatever. They just don't move me. I can't stop my day for any of it. I suppose I have my moments when I ponder our place in the universe. And I have questions but I don't look to God or any other higher being for the answers. I wish I could. I mostly believe in the two big S-es: Psychiatry and Cynicism.

But a labyrinth seemed innocuous enough, even a bit intriguing. I didn't know much about them except that labyrinths, unlike mazes, are flat, and as you walk along the path, you might meditate. On the Wisdom House web page, they suggested that walking the labyrinth was useful for unleashing writer's block. A friend had walked a labyrinth once and found it healing, but, then, his wife does Reiki spiritual healing, so he might have been slightly more open to the experience.

The web page gave the impression that Wisdom House offered two types of retreats: non-denominational spiritual and meditative retreats; and retreats for artists and writers to work or simply renew their spirits. Either way, they'll take care of the meals. Labyrinth walks included.

There was just one thing either I didn't see on the web page or perhaps they didn't display prominently enough. Just one thing I didn't quite get. And I suppose when someone mentioned they'd heard of the place and told me that it was a former convent, the optimist in me heard the word "former" much more loudly than it heard the word "convent."

When I drove up, knowing it had been a convent, I was not terribly surprised to see something that looked like a chapel. (You'll have to forgive me for not getting some of the words right because I'm Jewish, though I think I've done a pretty good job with a lot of the vocabulary. It's a big Christian world out there and I don't always have words like "shrine" at my fingertips when I'm thinking "little statue-thingy.") My initial thought was there was no reason for the religious statues to be removed, even though it was a former convent, and I understood the place was supposed to be non-denominational.

I rang the bell and was greeted by the registrar. She started to give me the tour and she informed me that I was the only person staying in the facility until the next day, meaning I could not use the pool because safety rules required at least two people at the pool. Not what I expected. And what? I am the only person in the entire facility? (No wonder I'd been accepted with my non-existent credentials.) One reason I'd chosen this retreat was so that I would not be so entirely alone as if I'd stayed home or gone to a hotel. I could meet other writers and artists, perhaps share ideas. Instead, I am to stay alone in a 500-person facility, like something out of The Shining. All work and no play...Not what I expected.

We continue on the tour and it quickly becomes apparent that the word "former" has less significance than "convent." Sister Rosemarie will be giving the labyrinth seminar on Wednesday. Your room is in Cloister 22. Oy. I thank the registrar and find my way upstairs to my meager cloister, a word whose meaning I might not have known except, well, there it is. Two twin beds, cinder block walls, wooden crucifix, a framed prayer, and barely room to turn around.

I want to get right to work, so I grab my laptop and head back downstairs. I check out my surroundings more thoroughly. The registrar had pointed out a self-service bookstore and I wander in, hoping to buy a card so I can write a letter to my children. The rotating stand is filled with rows of cards covered with images of Jesus, crucifixes, and other Christian symbols and messages of prayer. The few secular cards sport messages: Happy Birthday! Get Well Soon! I finally find and purchase a half-mangled blank-inside card with a Picasso on the cover: an image of a being with three pendulous breasts and horse legs. My sons--ages 12, 10, and 4--will love it.

I go outside to take a look at the labyrinth. It's circular, about 25 feet in diameter, and the rocks and bricks that make up its outline and maze-like interior pattern are flush with the ground. The whole thing doesn't mean anything to me yet so I don't enter into it, but it's a pretty spot so I sit on the ground and pull out my laptop to write for a bit. It turns out to be not an ideal spot for writing--the grass is soggy--so I head back inside and find the sun porch where I will spend most of my writing time for the rest of the week.

It is there that I first discover the books. When I packed for the trip, I wondered whether I should bring my own books, thinking that a facility for writers and artists must have its own library. Surely the writers who came before me would have left the many books that they finished reading for the visitors who would follow. But, just in case, I brought the book I was reading and several more.

The things I learn. I had no idea there were so many books about God. About Jesus. About Spirituality. In the entire facility, I find one complete work of fiction: Andrew Greeley's, Thy Brother's Wife. And I find several volumes of the Reader's Digest Condensed Works of Fiction, not one title I've heard of except, perhaps, Airport, which I'm guessing is the basis for the disaster movie from the '70s. I decide Wisdom House is not a contemporary literature sort of place. The titles are more along these lines: Functional Asceticism, Christ is Alive!, Maturing in Christ, Why Catholic?, Liturgy and Spirituality, The Word of God in the World of Today. Further searches when I explore the vast building's long hallways reveal several thousand books of this ilk.

As for me, the reading material I've brought includes Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, which I'd started at home. That night, I feel sinful, sitting in the plush chair in the lounging area just outside my room in the cloister, reading this novel. Since the facility is a former convent, is reading smut blasphemy or just irony? Although Philip Roth, as a writer, has grown beyond Portnoy's Complaint, the evidence his Pulitzer Prize winning American Pastoral, you'd never know it by Sabbath's Theater. There is enough talk about penises and masturbation to, um, make a nun blush. And worse. I'm alone in a convent--Sister Rosemarie sleeps in the building next door--I've bypassed the religious material that Wisdom House has made available to me in favor of finishing a book about a suicidal Jewish puppeteer descending into insanity. The main character has just made a pass at his best friend's wife while fondling a pair of the best friend's daughter's underwear. And worse. Does the National Book Award icon on the cover bless the book, exorcise its dybbuk?

(Another book I've brought is something called Bad Jews, indiscriminately grabbed from a pile of books given to me by a friend. Seriously.)

I am so overloaded with Christian symbols, I have to figure out what I could have missed. The next morning, I find and study the Wisdom House literature and see that, in my mind, I have read the word "interfaith" to mean "non-denominational." They are not the same thing.

Two days into my retreat (the other guest arrives, enabling us to swim--she is also good company when I need it), I've gotten lots of writing done. It is finally time for the labyrinth walk. Like Dorothy with her red shoes, I've been free to do the labyrinth walk the whole time I've been there, but I haven't a clue what I'm supposed to do or what I'm supposed to get out of it. So I wait for the seminar. Sister Rosemarie doesn't tell us much. I only discover, again, that the thing is much more religious than I expected. The word "God" is used about, well, infinitely more than I expected because I never expected to hear it used at all and there it is, over and over. Searching for God. Getting closer to God. Finding a path to God.

The twenty or so other labyrinth walkers have traveled here to walk the labyrinth searching for peace or for answers. One zealous woman jots down notes whenever Sister Rosemarie says anything that sounds remotely profound. Unlike me, it is not arbitrary that the others are here. They've come for the labyrinth. They're putting their faith in the labyrinth. They believe in something. They want this to work for them.

After we watch a brief video about the making of the labyrinth, Sister Rosemarie leads us down to the labyrinth's grassy field. She explains that walking a labyrinth with a group is different from walking a labyrinth alone. With a crowd of people, we need to be patient and take our turn, just like in life. She also explains that some of us might not feel anything. I figure I am a prime candidate for that.

She sends us through, one at a time, with about ten seconds separating one person from the next. The labyrinth is outlined in brick and stone set into the ground and she instructs us to walk the grassy area between the stones, to the center, then walk back out. There is only one path, as it turns out. There is no choice, no opportunity for confusion; just follow the path, walk to the center, meditate there if you wish, turn around, and come out the way you came in. The one piece of advice she gives us is to take a deep breath, go in peace, and try to find your spiritual center.

She taps me to go, following the two teens from the drug rehab facility across the street. Those girls are not genuinely interested in the experience and speed along, tailgating the woman who went first. I have plenty of room in front of me.

I try to think about what Sister Rosemarie said, about the spiritual center. All I can think is how I simply do not have one, how I don't even know the meaning of the word "center." When I took dancing lessons, the instructor used to say, "Keep your weight over your center," and I never had any clue what he meant. Still, I think I looked okay on the dance floor.

Not having a center discourages me but I try to take pleasure in other things. In the otherwise silent field, the breeze makes a particularly ethereal sound. I try to appreciate that. Nice moment. Then I find myself distracted by the people around me. Some people seem to think it's a race. Forget the girls from rehab, who just want to get through the thing, back to their facility, and in front of the TV, the smoke from their freshly lit cigarettes snaking in front of them. Some of the other people are practically jogging. They bunch up, so there is the sense that they are part of a human traffic jam, a byway paved with all of the road's stupidity, including people who don't know enough not to drive up on the curb.

Then, I know I shouldn't be looking--it's like paying attention to who's praying--but there are the expressions on people's faces. There's the serene look that says, yes, I've got it. That one makes me want to punch the person in the face. It's not so much the serenity...It's the smugness and the serenity. Nothing brings out violence more than smug serenity. But most of the people just look like something out of Night of the Living Dead. And that's what finally starts to give me some pleasure.

When the labyrinth is full, when all of us are walking like zombies (I try to ignore the serene ones and the joggers) at evenly spaced out points along concentric circuits of the labyrinth, I have what I guess you could call a moment. And at that moment, I sense we are all in motion as a giant piece of sculpture, like music, like we are voices in a round, yet we are also cogs in a machine, like something out of Metropolis. Despite my skepticism, I find I'm enjoying this moment of true beauty. We are coordinated and in sync, swinging like looping momentum-filled balls, stopping of our own volition at the center.

When I am past the center and on my way out, I look back, and see a chorus of four bodies standing still in the center. They are silent, their eyes are closed, and they are facing toward the sun, covered in its gold. I want to laugh at the beauty because I can almost hear the music emitted from them.

I look again at the path in front of me and follow it back to the beginning. When I emerge from the labyrinth, I watch from the sidelines. The poetry of the motion from the zombies in the labyrinth still seems beautiful, even when I am not a part of it.

Then I spot one zombie who seems out of sync. She is tailgating terribly, and she does not seem sufficiently zoned out. She does not seem to have gotten the point of the exercise. The zealous woman is out of the labyrinth, sitting on a bench, frantically writing. There is a new serene woman whose look of bliss has me ready to pounce on her. She has attained some secret in that 8-minute circuitous walk, one that goes beyond enjoying human beings as cogs.

Sister Rosemarie directs people to where the shrine is located, if they are so inclined, if they want to...uh...do what people do at shrines.

We go back to the seminar room to share, at our option, what we experienced in the labyrinth. Out-of-sync Tailgating Zombie Woman startles me by raising her hand first and almost immediately breaking down and crying. She explains how she got lost (again startling me--it's like getting lost on a one-lane highway with no exits) but then found her way out. I mean, it's flat--there's no way to get stuck like in a hedge-row maze. I suppose at some point she's switched to speaking metaphorically, but there's real panic in her voice. The experience related to some recent life experience and it gave her optimism that she would find her way out of her troubles. Wow.

Other people share similar experiences, filled with words like "finding the path" which just prove to me that if you believe in something enough it will provide for you. But the sad thing is the zealous girl. She raises her hand and also immediately starts crying. She explains that whenever she did things like pull a tarot card (ooh boy), she always pulled a blank card. That she never found the answers. And she came to the labyrinth, looking for an answer, and she got to the center and got another blank card. (Did she think it was a giant Ouija board?) And, she explains crying, there is sadness in that and comfort in that.

Sister Rosemarie nods and says there is comfort in that because while there is comfort in finding the answers, there is joy in the journey to finding the answers. Zealous Girl wipes her eyes and nods, pulls out her notebook and frantically starts writing. Joy in the journey. I am profoundly skeptical that this girl will ever find joy in the journey.

Because walking the labyrinth in a group is so different from walking it alone, I am anxious to try it solo. The next day, I awake to heavy rains which make the grassy labyrinth walk unappealing, but, by early evening, the skies have cleared to a mist. The other retreating resident left and I am once again alone.

I walk down the hill to the labyrinth. The skies have not cleared quite as much as the toxic optimist in me had hoped. I enter the labyrinth, noticing a pleasant scent of wet wildflowers, but otherwise thinking mainly about the people from the group walk who somehow got meaning from the thing. I try to clear my mind of concrete thoughts as instructed, without success.

I get to the center, unmoved this time by the harmony of the absent group. There is only me. I look out past the strategically cleared trees to the strategic mountain view for inspiration and am hit with an epiphany. I suddenly realize that I am a 41-year-old, single, mother of three, who is standing in the middle of a labyrinth. In the rain. And, I'll be spending the night in a convent. Completely alone.

This was not what I expected.

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