08/08/2014 03:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017


Earlier this year, I spent 24 hours at an Episcopal retreat center in the heart of Sonoma County for my church's annual Women's retreat. Every year, I hold a vague intention to attend, until ballet driving, work deadlines and lethargy overcome me and I stay home. After 16 years of missing it, I finally signed up and paid my deposit this year. Driving north from Oakland under threatening grey skies, I arrived just before Saturday lunch, and the four hours of unstructured time on the agenda that followed.

Here's how I spent my free afternoon: sitting in my spare, comfortable room reading Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, uninterrupted, for two hours. Then a nap. Then I pulled on my rain jacket to find one of the many hiking trails that criss-cross the property. It sits on a ridge in Healdsburg, overlooking the vineyards of Dry Creek Valley, next to an organic dairy.


It is a sign of either the duration of our drought or the fact that I've been in California for a long time, that the rainy, foggy, drippy weather was perfectly fine by me. When I moved here from the East Coast, I missed that muffled sound of Yankee winter, the low blue light and the crack of cold air. If I were to move back now, I'd miss neon green moss dripping with moisture, gnarled Sleepy Hollow trees and soft, persistent fog. It wasn't raining, but within five minutes my glasses were coated with mist.

And with each step I took down a path that cut its way through a field covered with exuberant green shoots of grass, I felt lighter, less closed in on myself. I may get out and hike with the dog in a city park full of redwoods most days, but even there I can still hear the planes overhead, the sirens on the highway, trucks grinding their gears as they climb uphill to reach Skyline Drive. I think it's quiet on my weekday trail, but only in comparison to a busy street corner.

Usually, the city noise that filters through suits me fine. I find it reassuring. I'm not very good at being silent and reflective (my childhood nickname: Aunt Blabby.) You'd be surprised how much I find to talk to Achilles about during our walks. It is so much easier to yakkety yak, than to sit quietly with the shy thoughts that skitter away at the slightest interruption.

But up in Sonoma, out on the trail, the loudest sound I heard was the rain when the wind shook it from the pines. Between the quiet, the rest, the reading and the walking, I had an unusual sensation that my chest had expanded and my head was lighter, like I could think more clearly. And suddenly, one of those shy thoughts was right inside my head, saying: You pray for the wrong things, kid.

Because I pray all the time. Not in a down-on-your-knees, renting-of-garments kind of way, but more like a thread in my internal monologue, prayers for help and prayers of gratitude, trying to keep them in equal measure. What was the right thing to pray for? Who knew? It was time to eat in the big retreat dining room again so I couldn't stick around to ask. Maybe I didn't want to.

On Sunday morning, toward the end of the retreat, we paired off with a prayer buddy and were invited to share our thoughts, whatever they were, after the weekend of reflection. In 0.003 seconds I was surprised to find myself sobbing into the arms of one of our church's grandmotherly matriarchs, confessing that most of my prayers were pleas to God that my children be more this way or more that way, to protect them from this and from that. The weight of guilt, that I don't spend more time just being grateful for who they are right now, thankful for their well-being instead of worried it will be taken away from us, kept pressing the tears out of me.

The grandmother looked at the quivering wreck in her arms and said, "Nancy. What you need to pray for is sturdiness. You need it, to withstand what parenting asks of you." Coming from her, it seemed like the most obvious thing in the word; how had I missed it during the past sixteen years of being a mom? When it was her turn to speak, she said that her prayers now are all of gratitude. "Because I'm old, and I never could have imagined what a wonderful life I'd lead."

So I'm trying hard to remember three things. To take a few moments every single day to be still, really silent, and listen. To pray for sturdiness in myself, not change in everyone else. And to remember that some day, this imperfect life with all its dings and dents and problems will be the same one that I look back at in wonder and gratitude.