“You’ll never make it.” Jane repeated, pouring my third glass of wine. We were packing away what she called my final meal—heaping plates of ribs, two bottles of wine, and a sugary, flourless, gooey chocolate something that clung to my esophagus all the way down.
I was on my way to Silent School—six days of silent meditation at a retreat center beyond cellphone range. Five years ago I read a meditation book and after only three chapters gave up in exasperation—I didn’t have time to breathe. Now, approaching fifty, I thought finding a little time to breathe wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
“Six days. It might as well be six years. Or six lifetimes. You should have started with six minutes,” Jane scolded, assuring me I still had time to pull out.
At the gate of the retreat center we approached a large, tastefully lettered sign. “We believe in diversity.”
“That’s a weird sign,” I said.
“What’s so weird about that?” Jane asked.
“Well, what else would it say? At this Buddhist, vegetarian, silent meditation retreat we believe only in white people?”
“You will never make it.”
A bald woman who looked remarkably like E.T. approached our car. “I bet she’s going to say “phone home,” I said. “I can just tell.”
“You won’t make it two days.”
E.T. slowly bent down to peer into our widow with the kind of calm that characterizes a mass murderer, someone the neighbors describe as such a nice young person. “Welcome. I’m assigning you your yogi job.”
My yogi job? I leaned over to Jane and whispered, “Is that like teaching fire safety?”
“She’s not talking about Smokey Bear you idiot,” Jane hissed. “She’s talking about Yogi Bear.” She reconsidered. “No, that can’t be right.”
“Would you like to do your yogi job before breakfast or after?”
Ah, this was Buddhist-speak for K.P. “I’ll take after breakfast.”
Jane wasn’t permitted past the retreatant gate, so I waved good-bye while she mouthed to me “You Will Never Make It.” I proceeded alone to registration.
“Do you have any special dietary needs?”
“Yes. I eat strictly Atkins.” Okay, okay, I did this just for laughs. We weren’t negotiating for hostages here were we? There was no laughing. “Just kidding!”
On to the psychological evaluation.
“Do you see a therapist?
“Were you sexually abused as a child?”
Have you ever tried to commit suicide?
“No. Unless of course you count the time I won the Crisco eating contest I had with my brother when I was a kid.” Silence.
“Are you using drugs to control your mental illness?”
Now, I assume that was just a slip of the tongue. I'm assuming that with one look at my full head of hair and the smell of meat and chocolate and Pinot Noir still on my breath she didn’t mean that sentence in the active, diagnostic way it sounded.
“Is this your first time sitting Vespanna?”
Sitting Vespanna? Did she mean sitting with Vespanna, a famous visiting Buddhist from the Ukraine? Or did she mean my first time as a sitting Vespanna, like an endangered species of duck? Or perhaps she meant sitting in the house of Vespanna having something to do with the Age of Aquarius? Judging from the trench-like chasm collapsing between her eyes, I guessed she really meant “Please don’t tell me this is your first time sitting in silence for six straight days, you fool. Please just don’t tell me that.”
With a bright pink, thick-tipped marker she scraped “FIRST” on my questionnaire then underlined it twice before informing me that phone calls were not permitted during my stay, nor was journal writing, reading, listening to music or, improbably, sex.
Damn. I was really banking on the sex.
The first day sitting Vespanna my mind cut and ran. I hammered out the various ways I could breach airport security, noodled on how long it would take to die if you were buried alive, honed in on how to improve the tartness of my key lime pie, and was stumped by how to get a tiny little waist like the person sitting ramrod straight in front of me.
By day four the advantages of silence were obvious. Sitting. Breathing. No phoning home. Eating your garbanzo beans every night in peace. I felt free. This all collapsed, however, with the arrival of the Veritable Vegetables Man who delivered our roughage fresh daily. As an act of mercy, on day four he stashed among the greens a value-pack bag of candy which appeared like a holy reward that night at dinner. At the end of the buffet table laden with soft, beige food, wedged between the vat of stewed prunes and the industrial-sized bottle of Beano, an entire bowl of fun-size candy bars shimmered like Satan.
The skinny people wearing hemp eschewed refined sugar. The people wearing sweatsuits with enough lycra to keep the knees from bagging turned the offering down on principle, committed as they were to carob. That left the remainder of us—the depraved. Our inner children leapt out from our inner playpens and we grabbed that candy by the frantic fistful.
Honestly, I tried not to laugh at our unveiled desperation. I slammed my head into my plate to fake a Buddhist bow of thankfulness. But in no time I blew. I howled with laughter, soymilk spewing out my nose. Then Erika, a German woman sitting across from me, cracked. We both stumbled out of the dining room and onto the meditation path, our hysterical hoots cracking through the silent, sacred night air.
“It’s not so successful, the food, is it?” Erika shrieked as we doubled over in front of the Happy Buddha shrine ripping the paper off our miniature KitKats. “The breathing, it is fine,” she said. “But laughing so hard you don’t breathe? That is so much better, yes?”
“Yes,” I agreed. That and handfuls of chocolate. So much better.
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >