Retreat is an interesting word with nuanced meanings. It is a verb as in “a movement away from a place or an enemy because of danger or defeat.” It is also a noun: “a quiet, private place that you go to in order to get away from your usual life.” Both definitions are from the Oxford English dictionary.
I like the latter definition, for it suggests a movement from one place to another, in search of tranquillity. It is a much-needed word for today’s hyper-restive, high-strung world. To take regular breaks and “do nothing” but retreat into a space for reflection is not a luxury or a waste of time. Taking time to be with oneself or with nature nourishes us, teaches us to be mindful of things beyond our immediate concerns. It is the gateway to good mental health.
To honour this life-affirming idea of retreat, I like to share a few poems on that theme, poems that quietly inspire us to step back from the buzz of daily life often enough and slow down, and reflect, and find our universe again. I hope these poems speak to you.
Excerpts from “How to be a Poet” by Wendell Berry
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensional life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places:
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
~ From The Peace of Wild Things.
“The Art of Disappearing” by Naomi Shihab Nye
When they say Don’t I know you?
When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
Someone is telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
If they say We should get together
It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.
When someone recognizes you in a
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.
Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.
~ From Words under the Words: Selected Poems
“When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
~ From Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver