Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Eight months and one day: retreat!

As I have discussed previously, I was Bar Mitzvahed on July 29, 1978. My "training" consisted of a cassette tape, given to me by Rabbi Stern, which I memorized. Whether that diminished the significance of the event, I cannot say. Until a year ago, it was the only way I knew of getting to the bimah.

I wore a rust-colored corduroy suit (in July!), with a pair of chocolate brown Nikes. That last detail my mother reminded me of a couple of days ago. As if I'd forgotten.

Beginning last year, I have learned that there are many ways to arrive at Bar Mitzvah. The way we have chosen -- the Temple Emanu-El way -- includes a full slate of classes and meetings.

Among those classes was the enigmatically-named "Rabbi Torah" class. It met once a month for several months, followed by a weekend retreat to wrap the whole thing up.

There are retreat people; and there are people like me, who loathe retreats with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. Who are thrown so far out of whack by retreats that they cannot, despite their 40-plus years on earth, figure out a graceful way to bow out of the retreat without creating enough of a scene that for the rest of the weekend people are either giving him a very wide berth or constantly needling him with little jokes about his "Friday night meltdown."

Several years ago, while accumulating student loans in the name of dual Masters' degrees, I went on my first retreat. We were only a few weeks into a Masters in Teaching program at Seattle University. The retreat was intended -- as all retreats are intended -- to provide a common experience that would help create a close-knit cohort.

I was wary going in, even before I realized that they expected us to dance and sing. Once they put that on the table, I became openly hostile. When I realized that we were forbidden from leaving the premises, I started to take on the personality of a caged animal, one forced to imitate Native American ritual dances and sing along to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

For the retreat's culminating project, we were encouraged to take a solo walk through the woods for inspiration. Upon our return, we would sit in a large circle, then go around and one by one share our experiences through a poem, a song, an interpretive dance, an art project. When the conch shell came to me, I delivered a scathing prose poem that posed the question, What brand of evil makes someone force another to leave their "comfort zone?"

So it was not with an entirely open mind that I entered our "Rabbi Torah" retreat at the Marconi Center, in the wilds of western Marin County. I shared my misgivings with the always-a-good-sport Sandra Bullock on the way up. "Oh, you'll be fine," she said, because most people would be fine. Sadly, I am not most people.

By then, I'd decided that I was no fan of the Rabbi, which didn't matter, he himself being his biggest fan. I'd already had it with his strict rules, his childlike insistance of sitting on the floor during class, his overly long explanations (many of which depended on personal anecdote). Even his skinny jeans and running shoes bothered me, looking somehow inappropriate on the body of a 60-something man.

Still, I told myself to stay positive. I fooled myself into thinking that all the beer and snack food we brought would be consumed during a late night hangout session, or that we could sneak away to do a little bit of exploring during the weekend. Weirdly, at no point did I think we'd be forced to dance and sing, which shows how few retreats I've been on.

I made it through settling into our spartan room, through the first session and the introduction of Martin Buber, the great Jewish thinker whose work would frame our weekend. Dinner arrived, and I thought, "This isn't so bad. Maybe we can wrap it up quickly and then have the rest of the night to hang out."

I am such a bad and naive Jew. It was Friday night: shabbat.

Months prior, the class had been divided into three groups. Each group would have the responsiblity to present a service during the weekend. Services were scheduled for Friday night, Saturday morning and Saturday evening, just before sundown. Being a bad Jew, I'd never been to Friday night services. I didn't know they lasted two-and-a-half hours.

This time, at least, they did; and I was struck by the feeling I had once before, while compiled even more student loans as a Masters' student in Creative Writing. As part of our theses, we had to teach a class on an author of our choosing. One girl was so smitten with her author that she managed to drone on well past the end of class. I sat there, getting angrier by the minute, missing minute after minute of my short story workshop, I thought, "She used to be a classmate; one of us. Now she is that really boring teacher whose class doesn't end until she says it does."

Strike me with lightning, but that's how I felt on Friday night of our retreat. 24 hours later, when the rabbi gushed about how great it was to spend a proper sabbath, I thought, "This is how we take a break from our working week?"

Relax. I know the problem is me, not him. We all have our crosses to bear.

The service ended at around 9:30. Everyone seemed exhausted, except for one person. You got it; the great and scholarly rabbi was as revved up as he'd been the moment we arrived.

For another hour we learned from the teachings of Martin Buber. Then, at 10:30, the rabbi said, "Okay, now the children can go. Parents, we're going to start..." and I stopped listening. Apparently, what I was doing was sitting there, shaking my head from side to side, because the rabbi saw me and said, "No? You don't want to do this?"

"Look," I said in what I hoped wasn't a nine-year-old's whine. "I worked today. I drove up here. We've been sitting here since before dinner. I think we put in a long enough day."

When you write it down like that, it looks perfectly rational.

"If you don't want to be here, then you can go," the rabbi said, logically. By that point, my face was glowing red and I'd realized the gravity of my error. Better I should have simply drank a bottle of wine at dinner and dozed in the back of the room, or simply disappeared after the meal. Other parents chose that route and avoided notoriety. Not me. Not when there are windmills left to tilt at.

On the way out of the room, a half-hour later, the rabbi stopped me. "I don't want you to feel you're being forced to be here," he said.

"That's exactly how I feel," I responded.

Everything after that is gravy. My reputation was cemented, making me an object of scorn and ridicule. My beloved Sandra Bullock, who I know had no idea why I couldn't just get along, tried to placate me, telling me I didn't need to go to anything I didn't want to go to.

I got better at hiding my feelings. The rabbi took special notice of me and even hugged me during one exercise, which you can bet I loved. I stood in the forest and gazed out at Tomales Bay when I was told to stand in the forest and gaze at Tomales Bay. Even though my skin was crawling as if inhabited by a thousand cockroaches, I managed a frozen smile during the dinnertime sing-alongs.

On Sunday morning, I woke late. I'd already told Sandra Bullock that I was going to skip the morning session. She wasn't happy about it, I could tell, but she accepted my decision with an admirable stoicism.

Instead of learning more about Martin Buber, I went into the Marconi Center's main room, where I found a Sunday Chronicle and a TV. I watched football for awhile. Finally, at about noon, I decided to re-join my cohort, so I strolled through the lush Marconi Center grounds.

They were easy to find. I followed the shrill sound of the rabbi's voice. Those who were there will tell you that I was a malcontent all weekend long, but I tried; really. I'd been so shocked to find that I was the only one who felt this way that I'd become embarassed. In truth, I wasn't skipping that morning session so much as I was hiding from everyone.

But when I heard that voice, I knew I was around the bend. I couldn't stand it. I started to turn back, but figured, "Hey, it's almost over. I've got to go out strong."

They were standing outside one of the conference rooms, wrapping themselves in tefillin, the small scrolls worn by observent Jews during services. They were all having a great time. The rabbi was bouncing from group to group, shouting encouragement, his running shoes kicking up small puffs of dust on the ground.

I can't quite describe the feeling that voice gave me. In it was the culmination of the entire weekend -- and all retreats I'd gone on before. It was a voice forcing me to do things I didn't want to do; It was a voice telling me I had to stay here and was not permitted to leave. It was a voice telling me to be a good sport, to sing, to dance, to leave my "comfort zone." It hit me like the air horn of an 18-wheeler, almost knocking me back into the trees.

But I swallowed it and moved forward into the gale. I found my family and did what I hoped was a decent impersonation of someone for whom the slightest inconvenience isn't a traumatic, life-changing event. To what degree I succeeded you'll have to find out from the people who were there. Between you and me, I don't think I did such a great job.

Looking back, all of this could have been avoided had I trusted myself. I knew exactly how I was going to react: I hate retreats. They make me feel trapped. I should have explained this to Sandra Bullock and the Jawa, and insisted they go alone. No matter how angry they would have gotten, in the end, everyone would have been happier, except for that guy Mike, who thought my tantrums were hilarious.

But you know, at least this time they didn't get me to dance. No way.


Syl said...

I'm not fond of retreats either. It sounds awful. You should be proud that you survived it. Oh, and partner yoga is awful, too.

Butter Goats said...

I thought that said "Macaroni Center" every time I read it, til the last one. Also, he HUGGED you?! Man, I wish I could have seen that.

ted_dagnese said...

"the retreat" would make an excellent month/chapter. I like the idea of shadowing back to your own experiences - a great excuse for some historical fiction and killer 70's send ups.

Jean said...

Kudos to you for making it through what sounds like a hellish experience. You should have Shaq certified as a therapy dog. That way you could take him anywhere.