When I left my seven-day retreat – seven days with no access to phones or computers, no music, no books, nothing to do but look myself straight in the eye and see what, if anything, I might find – I didn’t go home; not right away. Part of the commitment I made when I signed up for the retreat was to spend the two days following my departure somewhere quiet, all by myself. The hope was that I’d be able to use this time to figure out how to take what I’d learned into my *real* life: the earsplittingly loud, endlessly busy one filled with responsibilities and distractions and triggers and proposals that need to be written and homework that needs to be finished and meals that need to be cooked.
So I booked two nights in an Airbnb in a town called Occidental. I’d never been before; never even heard of it. I found it because I did a quick search for inexpensive places to stay in Napa, and picked one that sat next to a little pond, and had a hammock strung up between two apple trees that I thought looked like a place I might like to nap.
I expected to feel frantic during those first couple of days on the “outside,” as it were – panicked by the number of emails I’d missed; desperate to find out what had happened to everything from my kids to the news cycle while I’d been gone. But on the morning of my last day at the retreat I was handed back my phone…and I didn’t want it, to the point where I felt full-on physical revulsion.
I turned the phone on, and the notifications poured in. Messages that had to be returned; book edits that had to be approved; appointments that had to be confirmed. And then I heard a voice in my mind so clearly that I wondered whether I’d said the words out loud.
It can wait.
All of it can wait.
Bohemian Highway, Occidental
On the first evening of my stay in Occidental, I drove into town with no plans in particular. There was a tiny street fair set up along the main road, and I stopped at a jewelry stand run by a man who sold handmade silver rings for a price that couldn’t have been much more than what they cost to create. I decided that one of those rings would be the thing that I’d buy; the thing that I’d take home with me to help me remember what I’d so recently found.
I didn’t need a *thing,* I knew; but you never know what might help. And the idea of buying a piece of jewelry to remind me of the past week was exciting. So that’s what I decided to do.
I waffled back and forth between a ring with an opal and one with hematite, wanting to pick out the perfect piece. I felt like it was important, somehow, that I get it right, this first decision I’d be making “after,” even though it was a such a silly, small decision to make. I loved the opal, but I ended up choosing the other ring for its meaning. Hematite, Google told me, is a stone even stronger than iron.
I wandered off, out of the street fair, and into a store that was all hanging dreamcatchers, leather-bound journals, and crystal jewelry. The moment I stepped through the door, the woman behind the counter stopped me. There’s a hunter’s moon tonight, she said. I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but I feel like I need to.
I know it sounds odd, but at the time it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. We ended up chatting for awhile, and she read me the meaning of that night’s moon:
When I left the store it was getting dark; the street fair was starting to shutter. And I did a strange thing: I walked back to the farmer’s market, hematite ring in hand, and asked the man who’d made it whether it’d be okay if I changed my mind. I’d decided I wanted the opal instead. I didn’t look up the meaning of an opal; it didn’t matter. I thought it was beautiful, and it mattered to me.
The man told me he’d thought of me after I’d left and wondered whether I’d chosen the ring I really wanted. He was happy, he said, that I’d come back.
Late that night, I saw a shooting star. I’d never seen one before, not ever.
In the morning, I woke up to what I’d thought was the sun flooding in through my window, but what turned out to be the moon, still hanging – bright orange and huge – in the sky. I walked by the pond, and watched frogs leaping out of my path into the water. I slept under the apple trees.
One night I went into town for dinner and realized upon arriving that I’d forgotten my wallet, but when I turned to leave the owner of the restaurant insisted I sit. She sent me bruschetta, a pizza pie, and a glass of local wine. She waved off the bill, and told me to send her a check when I got home. We hugged good-bye.
A sign I saw along the way
After considerable introspection, I now know that one of the biggest reasons why I thought that getting married wasn’t just “one of many meaningful ways to live one’s life,” but actually essential to my identity and sense of self was this: Lifelong partnership provides you with the chance to be seen. That’s not a flattering realization; I wish it wasn’t so. But experiences have always seemed more visceral, more there, when I have someone next to me, experiencing them, too. My partner’s brain contains a recording of the very same events as my own. And in their memory, when they think back on that moment, or that event…I am there, too.
I am, therefore, real.
I think I chose to do what I do – write about my life for a living – out of a similar desire: I want to feel like the things that happen to me actually happened.
On the morning of the last day of the retreat, I sat by a creek with a woman I’d become friendly with, and told her about this realization – about how much of my life has been spent searching for ways to feel real, and how much writing about my life has been in service of that. She asked me whether I’d write about the past week.
The answer seemed obvious: Sure, because that’s just what I do…right? But even as I opened my mouth to say that, I realized that I wouldn’t. Because I didn’t have to.
I’d been there. I’d seen it myself. And that was enough.
It’s been a few weeks now that I’ve been back home, and I’ve forgotten a lot of what I learned at the retreat. Life gets busy, and attention lapses, and you fall back into patterns that you’ve had for so long you can’t even recognize yourself in the mirror without them. It happens; I’m not being too hard on myself about it.
But I haven’t forgotten it all.
I lost my opal ring at the beach a couple of weeks ago. I was digging moats in the sand with my kids, and at one point I looked down and realized that it was gone. We hunted around for awhile, but we’d been running all over the beach, jumping in the water, building sandcastles and digging tunnels. I found myself getting upset – the ring had felt like a symbol, something to hang on to when I forgot which direction I was going in – but then it occurred to me: I lost that ring while playing at the beach with my children.
I liked the ring a lot.
It was just a ring.
Even so, I thought I’d try to find the jewelry maker online and see if I could order another – I did really like it – but I didn’t know the name of the company, or anything about them. So I reached out to the woman who’d stopped me to tell me about the harvest moon; I sent her a DM on Instagram through the shop’s handle. She reached out to friends who’d been at the market that night; she reached back out to me. And so it happened that I found the man who made my ring – not a company, just a person – and he said of course he’d make me another.
The package arrived last night. In it was a new opal ring – a perfect replica of the one I’d lost in the sand. And there, swaddled in the cotton next to the opal: a gift. It was the ring I’d owned for just a few minutes, while walking alone through a town where I knew not a soul. The ring with the stone that’s stronger than iron.
Did you know that there’s no word in our language for “the opposite of loneliness”? It’s true; there’s no direct antonym. Because loneliness doesn’t just suggest physical solitude – there’s a melancholy to it that’s hard to put into words. And so it’s harder, still, to speak to its absence.
In searching for the best way to describe how I felt during that week, and the weekend in Occidental that followed – and how I still feel, so often that I surprise myself – I find myself looking for that word: The one that means the opposite of loneliness. The word that doesn’t exist.
So I am forced to find my own word – and I think, maybe, this is what it comes down to: There, in that sweet little town, just me and some strangers and a pair of apple trees that held me while I slept, I did not feel lonely.
I felt alone.
Simply, quietly alone.
It was just what I’d been looking for.