When I was in college I used to watch Regis and Kelly Live each morning. One day during the host chat they happened to be discussing when a person really becomes an adult. Regis undoubtedly said something like: “When they stop asking for money!” But it’s Kelly’s answer that stayed with me. There was nothing profound about it – it was just an age, a number: “I think around 26.”
At the time I was probably 18, 19, or 20, and while legally an adult, I felt far from it. So I easily accepted Kelly’s notion that you’re not quite an adult until 26. It at least meant I had nothing to worry about and had a few years more to get it together and begin to “feel” like an adult.
Well 26 crept up on me. In mid-February of this year I realized just how quickly my birthday was coming (the middle of March) and remembered Kelly’s words. No, I still didn’t “feel” like an adult. And yes, I knew nothing magical would happen when the clock struck midnight.
Over the past few years I had started to surrender to the reality that I will never quite have it all together as I idealize, and that in fact those hopes are the furthest thing from loving myself. But my awareness of this shift of thinking and my coming birthday gave the opportunity to mark this “coming of age” as a threshold – if not as an era where I finally “feel” like an adult, as a time when I recognize that I am an adult, whether I feel it or not.
I decided to usher in this threshold of new significance with a personal retreat of silence and solitude. In last week’s post, Christine Valters Paintner described her love for thresholds as an image during times of silence and solitude, with the idea that crossing over them “brings you to a liminal space where time takes on a different quality.”
“Liminal” can be defined as “an intermediate state or phase,” and so a liminal space becomes the space in-between – two worlds, two eras, two ways of being. It is a void in time, ripe with potential for self-discovery and Divine encounter.
And so, my retreat became a liminal space. I left my home a week before my birthday no longer 25, and yet not quite 26. I spent 7 days in a small studio apartment on a peninsula surrounded by a lake in the Northeast corner of Oklahoma. Since I was on a lake, most of the peninsula’s inhabitants were away for the winter, making my environment eerily quiet. I brought all of the food and supplies I would need for the week and settled in.
The first thing I did upon arrival was cover all of the clocks. The only awareness of time I would have during that week would be informed by the sun and the rhythms of my body. I had realized in the weeks leading up to my retreat just how much those numbers we call “time” left me with a feeling of constant lack, and yet at the same time I was addicted to it. And so for an entire week, I pulled the plug, quite literally.
The second thing I did was hide away any temptation to read and absorb. The introverted part of me that dreams of a week away on my own to read was more than devastated when I found out that ideally on a silent retreat you don’t read or write. You give up words entirely.
Since it was my first retreat, and since it was a bit long after all, I decided I would let myself off of the hook a little and allow myself to read and journal after sunset. But I only read a few select books that I wanted to shape my time away (The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brené Brown; Invitation to Silence and Solitude, by Ruth Haley Barton; and The Pilgrimage, by Paulo Coelho, in case you’re curious).
The one thing I did allow myself to do during the day that involved paper? Draw. I sketched out dreams to uncover their meanings. I translated feelings to ink drawings and discovered parts of me that I might’ve never been able to articulate in words. And the truth? Some pretty weird stuff came out that I’m infinitely proud of. Think Salvador Dalí: he didn’t need to use words to communicate the dark uncharted corners of the soul. Sometimes words just don’t suffice.
When I consulted Christine about planning my retreat, she also suggested that I mark the rhythms of the day with spiritual practices. I decided to practice a combination of Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina (a how-to here), and with that slight semblance of structure, I set off into the unknown.
My mornings were spent lingering for hours over a single cup of coffee, allowing my mind to vacillate between wandering and stillness as I stared at the bare trees outside my window. Later I would go on long, slow walks along the shore (I believe the official term would be dawdling). I gathered nature’s curiosities to bring back to my make-shift altar and would pause, watching my companions – the birds and the squirrels – in ways I never had before. At one point as I sat amongst the birds I even tried to teach myself to whistle, in hopes of having some sort of conversation.
Without an agenda for myself or for my mind, I allowed myself to just be. I wasn’t 25, and I wasn’t 26. I wasn’t a daughter or a wife. I wasn’t a sister, and I wasn’t a friend. I wasn’t a writer, a blogger, or a designer. In the silence and the solitude, I just was.
Through simply being, I realized how much time had passed since I’d been without something I was working toward. And in a way, I still was attempting to work toward something, because I was hoping for something: answers, guidance, peace, sweet relief.
However, nothing seemingly monumental happened on my personal retreat. There was no flash of light or booming voice from above. As in the story of Elijah in the wilderness, God was not in the more seemingly powerful wind, earthquake, or fire.
Instead in the stillness, the Divine whispered: “Be here.”
In the morning when you rise: be here; on your slow and curious walks: wander here; in the excruciating void of the afternoon: stay here; in the evening when the day is done: rest here.
I did not receive any grand revelation, as I had hoped. There was no encounter that moved me to tears. And when I turned 26 the day after my return, I didn’t necessarily “feel” like an adult. But at the end of each full day on retreat, I sifted through the Divine whispers and was given these words: acceptance, awareness, acknowledgement, self-compassion, and presence.
Words seemingly abstract, but significantly profound. Words to set a firm foundation for this new era, and yet concepts that cannot be mastered (as we hope in youth), but must be practiced daily. Words, as a (birthday) gift to one very real “adult.”
I’m 26 now. And I still don’t always “feel” like an adult. But I know being an adult isn’t simply a feeling. As a novice, I won’t claim to be an expert. But while on retreat, somewhere in the liminal space between 25 and 26, I learned more of the practices of acceptance, awareness, acknowledgement, self-compassion, and presence.
I’m starting to think that being an adult is a practice too.
What would you spend your time doing on a silent retreat? What would be the hardest thing not to do?and When you hear from God or are moved by the Spirit, is it a whisper in moments of stillness, or so loud it can’t be ignored?