Sunday, March 30, 2014

Getting Away, But Not Very Far

I decided late one week that I needed some time away, all by myself.  My husband was on a business trip in Asia, and I was by myself in Washington.  Even though I had the apartment to myself, it was cluttered and filled with reminders of the many things I needed to do over the weekend—clean, hang art, write thank you notes, take in my dry cleaning—and the idea of being there was stressful.  On top of that, I had a pretty tough week emotionally.  I lost my father to prostate cancer late last year, and the pain of his loss ebbs and flows. There are good days, and there are bad days, good weeks, and bad weeks.  This was a bad week.

And among all of this, I have been working on a book project for over a year.  I used to write a page or two a night, and then it became four pages on a good weekend, and over time, it became even more occasional.  Every weekend, I felt smothered by duties, not being able to write because I had too many other things to do, and writing felt like a luxury—and then I encountered severe writer’s block from the loss of my father.  I felt emotionally and creatively drained, an empty vessel. 

So it was late in the week that I determined that I needed to get away—to meditate, deal with my grief, and write.  In my head, I imagined a desk by a big picture window that looked out onto a bay.  I checked AirBNB. Nothing fit what I was looking for.  I checked beds and breakfasts.  There was nothing in the price range I wanted or within an easy drive.  But because Google knows everything, I typed in “writer’s retreat,” and among the options was The Hermitage, a one-person retreat at the Franciscan Monastery in northeast Washington, DC.

I will be honest—I had never realized that there was a Franciscan Monastery within DC’s borders—and I have been in this area for about 25 years. But there it was—a Washington Post article that described a one-person studio, designed by Catholic University architecture students, on the wooded grounds of a monastery.  It is intended to allow people to get away from the bustle of daily life, get in touch with God, meditate, reflect, and be by yourself. In short, it was exactly what I needed.  But the article cautioned that it has been fully booked since it opened over a year ago.

I gave it a shot anyway.  And within 45 minutes, I had a reply from a Friar at the monastery, saying that it was free, and sending me the paperwork.  $75 and two signed documents later, I was booked for Saturday evening. It was my own little miracle.

The monastery sends you a helpful guide of what to expect. There is no internet or television, they caution, which is to enrich your experience.  No meals, but you can cook your own food—so bring supplies with you.  It’s a hermitage, they wrote—so when you are packing, think about what a hermit would bring.
It sounded like a challenge.

I admit that I did a mediocre job of packing.  In my head, I pictured Buddha sitting under a tree, with nothing but the clothes on his body. But when I started packing, it ended up being a couple pairs of yoga pants, loose tops, a computer, two books, my diary, a watercolor set (I’ve been finding this really therapeutic recently) and acid-free paper… and a bag of groceries.  I made the decision to eat vegetarian—something about eating meat at a spiritual retreat just seems wrong—and packed kale, roasted tomato soup, pineapple, blackberries, a mango, grapefruit juice, some Australian cheese, an onion, a fresh baguette, and just for kicks, some vegan cinnamon rolls from Sticky Fingers bakery. I also heavily debated whether to bring alcohol.  There’s a clause that says basically not to do anything in the house that is un-Christian, and I wasn’t sure if that counted.  In the end, I decided that since monks have made alcohol (champagne, Trappist ale, etc.), I would bring a little something…a small bottle of daiginjyo sake.

On the day of my stay, it was cool and rainy.  After picking up my keys from the front gate, I drove up the service driveway, which curved around the back of the monastery grounds, past a little red brick chapel, and parked my car.  The Hermitage is just off the road, and all of its windows face away from the monastery, effectively giving you the impression that you are in the middle of the woods.  It is a rectangular building, small and modern. The screen door was a beautiful design, with rectangular cutouts that felt Scandinavian.  Inside, everything was modern and natural at the same time—raw and compressed woods, concrete, brushed metal, bleached wood, ceramic, tile.  It was like the best part of the outdoors was inside, and there were many options for being even further with nature.  A window over the desk, the picture window I had sought, opened. A back door opens onto the deck. If you don’t want to open the door, you can open one of four square screened windows. And the whole place was filled with natural light—even the bed was framed by two windows. I promptly opened several, inhaling the fresh air and letting in the inimitable sound of light rain on leaves.

Walking in, the bathroom, done in bright white tile, was on the right.  It had a large shower with an ADA accessible wooden seat, and windows letting in lots of light.  A woven-felt basket was stuffed with plush white towels. There was even a hairdryer and a container of ear plugs, in case you want to shut out every last sound.

 The main room had a poured concrete floor with a flat green rug that evoked grass.  There was a compressed wood desk with a bound journal for reflection (your keepsake from your stay), and a couple of key books—the Bible, a guide to the Hermitage, and a soft binder with delivery menus for pizza and sandwiches, which I thought was hilarious.  So much for that image of Buddha under a tree. (For the record, I know I should be making Christian references, being that it’s a Catholic space, but it is a place for all faiths.)

Did I mention the window above the desk? There was a window above the desk, and it was awesome.

The bed was to the right.  It was a twin bed with plush covers, and the head and base board clearly looked like it had a story. Some of the wooden slats were printed with stenciled words; they had clearly been reclaimed from somewhere.  It was another way that the outdoors was brought inside.  There was a fairly large closet and a rocking chair with its own lamp near the back windows. The back windows essentially formed a wall of glass—there many ways in which you could open windows to control air flow, and a door onto the back porch.  On the wooden porch was a traditional red rocking chair.

The kitchen, directly behind the desk, has a large refrigerator, a stove, a microwave, and a washer/dryer combo (I didn’t know these existed—I feel like I’m in the future or really out of touch). There are Crate and Barrel mugs, plates, cups, etc., several kinds of tea, a teapot, and coffee in a container in the refrigerator, to keep it fresh. There’s also a toaster and a coffee grinder. Basically—everything you need, and nothing you don’t.

What’s amazing is that—I made a cup of Earl Grey (on the stove rather than in the microwave, because why not), sat down at my computer, and for the first time in a really long time, felt compelled to write. Looking out of the picture window (above which hangs a cross) at the browns and greens and the white-gray sky, the window screen dotted with rainwater, I could feel the normal pressures melt away.  It was my time. No one else’s time. Mine.

I spent the day writing.  I broke through my writer’s block and wrote eight pages of my book, most of this blog post, and part of a speech I’m giving next week.  I reflected. I built up the courage to look at some photos of my father.  I nibbled on baguette, slices of onion, and sharp cheddar. I read a few chapters of a book on loss that my friend lent me to help me cope—and a little Thich Nhat Hanh. I briefly entertained the idea of going for a run on the grounds, but it was so biting cold and rainy that I flaked out. I was perfectly productive, but without feeling rushed or stressed.

I went to bed at 11 and woke refreshed at 9.  I wrote a bit more, enjoyed a warm shower, and cleaned up a bit before leaving at 11:30. (They say cleanliness is close to godliness, so I figured I should probably tidy up.)

What struck me most about the space is that it was so thoughtful.  Yes, there are buildings around, but when you’re sitting at the desk, you can’t see any of them, not even the charming chapel a few yards away. Laying on the bed, you can’t see the back of the monastery buildings. Everything is perfectly positioned so that you feel like you are entirely in nature. I never heard another soul.  It was just me, the woods, and the rain, in a beautiful space. 

And when I left, it felt like I had been given a real gift.

Bring This: Toiletries (including shampoo, soap, etc.), food, spices, olive oil, hot chocolate (major fail on my part).

Leave That: Hair dryer, anything you want to bake (there’s no oven), bubble bath (there’s a shower, not a tub), wine bottle opener, anything you normally cook with (unless it’s unusual), salt and pepper, coffee/tea, linens (including towels).

Other things I wanted to know but was afraid to ask: Yes, there are plugs. No fireplace.  And you can control the temperature, so you can be as hot, cold, or just right as you want.

Stay here: The Hermitage at the Franciscan Monastery. 1400 Quincy St. NE, Washington, DC. 


  1. Beautiful. My mind is still feeling the vividness of the pictures you painted with these words of watercolor. - Erik

  2. Thank you for enlightening me today. I think I could use an evening there!