This weekend, I have the pleasure (?) of attending a women’s retreat in the mountains with the ladies from my church. This concept of retreat has got me thinking about retreat in all its forms.
The etymology and definition of retreat.
According to the OED, the first use of “retreat” was in an Anglo-Norman and Old French text in 1330 and meant a “backhanded blow” (all info from OED.com, “retreat, n.”). An act of leaving or of escape. Falling back. Moved or drawn back. Moving backward. A fall in value, esp. stock or monetary. A place providing shelter or refuge, privacy or seclusion, meditation or rest. A lavatory. A hiding place. A den or lair. An establishment for the treatment of mental illness or addiction. A signal played to announce the end of day. Recovery of an inheritance.
It looks like the first Christian use, “a period of seclusion devoted to prayer, study, or meditation,” was 1740 in a letter from the Countess of Pomfret: “The sacred cells, and all the managery Of holy nuns in their retreats, I see.”
There’s a prevalent sense of retreat occurring after a disaster, or defeat. Retreat is what happens when all else fails. Retreat is for the weary.
My academic brain is now a-hum with literary questions: what characters in novels retreat, and do they do so successfully or not? One immediately thinks of Chopin’s The Awakening, in which a woman is on an extended beach vacation and, well, meets with a not-too-savory end (unless your idea of peace is drowning in the ocean). What other texts prominently feature retreat, and how is this concept different from travel (Kerouac’s On the Road), vacation (Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises), exploration (Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), relocation (Forster’s A Passage to India)? What happens to the human or literary character when she is unmoored, ripped from her normative embodied state and placed in unfamiliar situations? Well, transformation is the short and easy answer, but I don’t think it’s always that. Disaster sometimes; quite often, love; sometimes, malaise; sometimes, nothing much.
The cultural deployment of, exploitation of, and ramification of retreat.
This topic is much too large and overwhelming for me to tackle on my Blog Fridays. But a quick Google search brings up countless retreat books, most with the words “spiritual” on them, or with pictures of rustic cabins on their covers. “Every book can take you somewhere,” Random House insists.
The use of (dream of?) retreat in our daily lives.
See above Random House quote.
Retreat in academia.
This is something I have, sadly, not experienced. While I was able to take off two semesters of graduate school when my children were born using CU’s “Time Out” program, it was hardly retreat. The first semester I applied for a break, after my daughter was born, I was a new parent; and the second semester of “break,” after my son was born, I won a Digital Pedagogy Grant and opted to rescind my Time Out status so that I could teach online, and thus lock in the opportunity to teach solely online for two solid years. The semester of hardship in teaching and preparing my online courses with a newborn (I was literally back to work the day I came home from the hospital) was worth the payoff of being home with my kids for two solid years.
I applied for dissertation fellowships, of course, but the competition is fierce (especially in a year of increased budget cuts), and I was not among the lucky recipients.
My friend, Jenny (mentioned in the above post) reports that her school in Chicago offers a mandatory, automatic semester of sabbatical to all third-year students in the PhD program. Every three years, you get one semester of fully-funded time off. She spent her semester in Hawaii. Doesn’t that just sound too good to be true? And why aren’t more schools doing this?
I guess the moral of this story is that retreat is exceptionally difficult to achieve or maintain, yet the idea of retreat is pervasive in our society. Media is particularly and oxymoronically calling us spectators/consumers to unwind, unplug, destress, decompress. Open up that glossy new Target ad, and you’ll see a picture of perfect people reclining in their perfect backyard on their perfect new patio set. Retreat! But this zen-like state is not for the faint of heart—or for the financially-strapped graduate student—to easily obtain.