October 20, 2019

A Greek Retreat

On September 17, I locked my front door and bags in hand, headed to the Charlottetown Airport where I met my writing coach Kathleen Hamilton for a flight to Toronto. Later that afternoon, we boarded an overnight flight to Athens, and from there, took another short flight to the island of Skiathos. The next morning, we walked on to the ferry that brought us to our destination: the island of Alonissos.

This was not a vacation. For me, vacations are simply time off from everyday routine in order to relax and recharge.

No, this was a retreat – a writing retreat – a purposeful getaway that would involve inner work, healing, and of course, writing.

Months before my departure, I began to stew. After all, this is what anxious people do.
– It’s a long time to be away from home.
– It’s a long flight.
– I hate plane turbulence.
– Maybe the plane will crash.
– I might get sick on the ferry to Alonissos.
– I may not enjoy myself.
– I may have an anxiety attack.
– I’ll have to sleep alone at night.
– Kathleen and I may not be good travel partners.
– I need to check if there are poisonous snakes in Greece.

Now that I see it in front of me, this list looks rather silly. However, that seems to be my tendency: worry in advance so by the time I depart, I’ve bored myself with being anxious and simply surrender to the process, come what may.

The good news is that there were no significant upheavals during my trip. No plane issues, sickness or anxiety. Although I missed home, I managed just fine sleeping alone, and Kathleen was great to travel with. On the second day in Alonissos, I glimpsed the tail end of a snake as it scuttled away into the brush, but happily, both of us emerged unscathed.

The scenery was stunning, the people were helpful, and there was no problem getting by in English.

Out of respect, however, I did learn to say a few Greek words even though my accent resulted in a few amused (but appreciative) smiles.

My time away wasn’t “all work and no play.” Kathleen worked in a couple of surprises: an amazing day at a luxurious spa and a day-long sailing excursion in the National Marine Park of Alonissos and Northern Sporades.

Right from the beginning, Kathleen was very clear about a couple of things: I did not have to do anything I didn’t wish to, and I was to be honest about my needs and wants. This was a welcome relief. I was given free rein to use my voice without someone questioning or arguing with me.

For example, the morning after an intense working session, Kathleen gave me the option of spending the day alone.

I took her up on that offer and spent the day relaxing, integrating some of what we’d worked on the day before, and satisfying my material side by shopping. I even chose to have supper alone, and Kathleen was fine with that.

For the retreat itself, Kathleen structured our time so that we started working together each day at 12:00 p.m. This gave us mornings to ourselves to do whatever we wanted, in my case, have breakfast, do laundry in my bathroom sink, read, stroll and stare at the blue and turquoise Aegean Sea.

Although I’m certain that Kathleen had a plan for how things would unfold during the retreat, I suspect that I was responsible for some course deviations. Whether that’s the case or not, I’m grateful that she was flexible and seemed to take her cues from me.

My time on retreat in Greece was transformational, and I was gifted with numerous takeaways. I’d like to share a few of the significant ones. None of these are necessarily exclusive to me so think how they might apply to you.

It’s important to have space to simply be. On the first day of the retreat, Kathleen and I talked about having some meditative space before we began our work. After some discussion, we decided that we would open each session by being together in silence for ten minutes.

Sometimes we stretched out, other times we sat. Some days I stared at the sea and sky while others I closed my eyes and listened to the wind and waves.

Either way, I felt my tensions drain away and freed up space for creative energy. I’ve even carried this meditation time into my daily writing practice.

A creative endeavour is like embarking on a journey. One of the things Kathleen has taught me is that writing memoir is a journey of self-discovery that reveals itself slowly, layer by layer, and it’s only when I dig deeper into truth that readers will feel and understand my actions and responses.

Not lying, this process can be agonizing because it means revisiting painful memories and stirring up deep-seated emotions. However, as Natalie Goldberg says in Writing Down the Bones: “Caress the divine details, touch them tenderly. Let your whole body touch the river you are writing about, so if you call it yellow or stupid or slow, all of you is feeling it.” And if I may add, hopefully the reader as well.

We all have a story we tell ourselves about ourselves, and Kathleen has taught me that writing my story gives me the opportunity to make sense of it and even reframe it. By putting structure to a jumble of memories, I can reflect on who I am, the meaning and purpose of my life, and perhaps help others relate my story to theirs. If writing a memoir is not your thing, consider a journal.

Progress means facing the inner critic. To go deeper into my truth requires a conversation with the inner critic, the inner voice that judges, criticizes and demeans,the one that tries to manage my experience by telling me when I’m doing something right or wrong.

In reality, the inner critic is a collection of voices – each serving a particular purpose – that ignored or avoided, stifles my progress. To prevent this, I must create space to recognize, acknowledge and appreciate the gift the inner critic offers.

Through a process she developed, Kathleen introduced me to many of my inner critic’s voices and helped me to appreciate what they offer to my personal growth. There was Helena, the beauty; Hazel, the feminist; Liza, the chameleon; Pearl, the caretaker; and Olive, the protector. Yes, I named them, and as I continue to explore, I’m meeting and naming more.

I learned that feelings like guilt, shame, unworthiness and fear are signs that the inner critic is alive and well. However, Kathleen taught me that “Any inner tormentor can become a mentor.”

To do this, she guided me through a process where first, I let the inner critic know I heard her and that I was listening. Next, Kathleen prompted me to ask the inner critic what her role was in service to me. This step usually ended up being an extended conversation – assisted by Kathleen – and one that has to be experienced in order to really understand. At the end of each conversation, Kathleen gave me the opportunity to offer a deep and heartfelt thank you to the inner critic for her role in my life.

Ultimately, each session brought me into deeper dialogue with the voices of my inner critic, leading me to feel increasingly balanced and in touch with my divine nature. I also learned that given the attention she needs, the inner critic becomes a protector and healer rather than soul destroyer.

Could I have done all this work without going to Greece or taking myself out of my daily routine? Well, there’s something about Greece – its ancientness perhaps – that brings the muse alive. That said, I could likely be inspired in any number of settings. One thing I’m certain of, though, is that I would not have been able to go to the depths I did while still semi-immersed in day-to-day life.

Kathleen speaks often of the luxury and spaciousness of being on retreat. I get it now. I appreciated the opportunity to get away from the regular demands of everyday life – work, planning, cooking, cleaning, laundry, organizing, meeting other people’s needs – and focus on myself and what I wanted. I realize now how important it is to rest, regroup, reassess and refocus.

I know how much I benefited from being on retreat and how different I feel which is why I encourage you to take some time away for yourself, even if all you can manage is a day or two.

Time away, unplugged, in a different space, with a great facilitator, can be magical, and one thing I know for sure, we all need a little bit of magic.