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Silent Retreat
By Ian Woollen

The airport crowds and shops and restaurants and gate-change hustle nearly overwhelmed both of them after a week in the woods. He had three hours to kill before his flight. She had two. He managed to get through security without incident and bought a coffee and stood off in a corner. Like one of the stranded birds that had somehow found their way inside the airport terminal and perched forlornly on the high steel rafters.

A voice on the PA system announced, “This is a smoke free facility. Please do not smoke in the restrooms.”

She perched on the edge of a bench in the adjacent gate area. Knitting diligently, still in her zazen uniform, black sweatpants and a gray hoodie. Pausing to sip tea.  

He spotted her first and stifled an impulse to march over and start comparing notes on the retreat. Did you ever actually feel your back breathing? But, whoa, what’s the protocol here? He didn’t want to spoil anything for her. No stated guideline on what happens if a retreat participant runs into another one at the airport afterwards.

A voice on the PA system said, “We will begin boarding Flight 34 to Chicago in a few minutes. Please have your boarding passes ready.” 

They had just shared a week of intense, communal intimacy, under strict no-talking guidelines. Six days of silent retreat at a zendo in southern Indiana. No phones or devices allowed. Marketed as a recovery program for social-media addiction by Abbot Dan, author of a recent book on Zen and cyberspace. It sounded like a good idea. Sounded? That was a relative term now. The sounds of silence, so to speak. The proverbial pin dropping. And the faint coughing from the attic through the night. Dormitory toilet running during the meditation periods. Grackles and squirrels and stray cats all vociferously stating their opinion: you two-leggeds are so complicated.

A voice on the PA said: “Passengers are allowed one carry-on item that must fit in the overhead compartment.” 

For her, the appeal was disappearing into the boonies. For him, likewise, total anonymity. The moratorium on Twitter and Facebook and SnapChat and Instagram was surprisingly easy. She flew out from Denver. He flew up from Houston. They were joined by two graduate students covered in tattoos from Dubuque. And a thirty-something couple who drove from Chattanooga, and four nuns from nearby Louisville. All the participants knew about each other was the basic info printed in the welcome packet. The facilitator turned out to be a young monk named Seigen. The headliner, Abbot Dan, was sick with the flu and never once appeared from his attic lair in the old farmhouse that called itself a retreat center.  

A voice on the airport PA system said, “Would the passenger with a purple baby stroller return to security immediately.”

He knew her name was Karen. She knew him as Jim. The retreat participants wore official nametags for the first couple days and then abandoned them. But not the constant bowing. He bowed emphatically to her now and smiled. She returned the gesture. Gassho. He knew she was a knitter, obviously. She knew he meticulously sprinkled flax seed on his yogurt at breakfast.

She glanced up again and caught his gaze and her face conveyed the shared dilemma. Karen not-said, “I’m afraid of breaking the spell.”

Jim nodded and not-said, “Yeah, like holding onto one of those soap bubbles.”

Seigen’s “illusion-of-consciousness” bubbles. The young monk had added a group awareness exercise into the daily schedule, interspersing it with the sitting periods. The most popular one being the bubble exercise. Big soap bubbles, created with a wand and dipped in a sudsy bucket. Seigen waved the wand back and forth over his head in the back meadow. The participants were instructed to gently catch the bubbles and cradle them for as long as possible before the “illusion” burst. Laughter was encouraged.

Karen’s mellifluous giggle and Jim’s more rollicking snort. Yes, they knew the sound of each other’s laughter too. And their respective sigh noises. Despite the spoken word being forbidden, all the participants exhibited a compulsion to communicate with primal sounds. Grunts and chuckles and murmurs and coos. The nuns especially pushing the coos, which sometimes could be more of a cluck, as when the younger nun got busted for using the office computer to check her email. 

A hearty voice on a passing luggage trolley, carrying an elderly man in a leg cast: “Make way, folks. Watch out. Step aside, please.”

Jim issued a sympathetic grunt. Karen murmured and sipped her tea.

Jim pointed to an empty seat in the row across from her. Karen nodded and he picked up his backpack and hauled it over to the empty seat and bowed and plopped down and stretched his legs. They glanced at each other again and smiled openly. Bridgework and fillings and missing caps be damned. Both swiveled their necks and stared around at the other passengers and waiting flight crews, as if challenging the world to guess the truth. Karen and Jim jointly holding another kind of transparent bubble: the tingly, protective sense of a secret. To everyone else in the gate area, they looked like random strangers. But they knew otherwise.

Her not-said: “I’ve attended a lot of workshops and retreats, but this one takes the cake.”

His not-said: “The sick, unseen abbot upstairs in the attic was like something out of Charlotte Bronte.”

Their tingly, shared-secret peace lasted about three minutes. It allowed them to focus exclusively on each other’s features; eyes narrowing into a brazenly close examination of their faces. Karen’s long nose and ski-jump chin. Jim’s pink dome forehead and thick eyebrows. The openness of the gaze slowly morphed into more of dare. The tingle became an itch. Like a staring contest in grade school. Who is going to look away first? Who is going to blurt out, “Oh, what the heck, let’s go have a beer.”

And both of them knew where that could end up. The flirty, pinball repartee. Snappy, wise, funny, soulful back-and-forth rap. Enlivening in a way, sure, but ultimately enervating, scripted by some studio hack to maneuver them upstairs to a room at the Hilton.

Jim resolved the impasse by making a walking gesture with his fore and index fingers. Inviting her to take a stroll. A prescribed part of their daily practice during the retreat. In addition to the ten minutes of kinhin between sitting periods, they engaged in a half hour of walking meditation before supper. A broad, mowed path curved through the meadow. Narrowing as it entered the forest, arriving finally at a lake. Karen and Jim often walking slowly together, admiring the birds and sugar maples and Queen Anne’s lace. And the ripples from rocks chucked in the water.

A nearby passenger wearing earbuds spoke into the bottom end of a device, “Tell the people at HR we need somebody yesterday.”

Karen handed her tea to Jim to hold while she stuffed her knitting gear into her purse and slung it up on one shoulder. Jim hoisted his backpack and off they went. A walking meditation through the Indianapolis airport. A little silly at first. A lot surreal, in contrast to the pastoral setting of the retreat. However, as always occurs if given the time, beauty made its presence known with broad swashes of sun streaking the concourse, with bodies flowing ethereally through shadow and light.

A waitress in a busy bar with an Indy racecar hanging off the ceiling called to a departing customer, who had evidently left a large tip: “Thank you, sir. You don’t know what this means to me.”

Without missing a beat, Karen dropped her foam teacup in a trash receptacle and reached over and put both hands on Jim’s shoulders and deftly moved into position behind him. He knew exactly what she was up to. Another of Seigen’s awareness exercises. The body camera. Jim closed his eyes and Karen guided him forward. After a bit, she paused and Jim felt a gentle squeeze on his shoulders and he opened his eyes and saw three people sitting cross-legged on the floor, a young mother and two children, playing cards.

The mother asked, “Do you have any kings?”

A child replied, “They left a long time ago.”

Karen and Jim traded positions and he put his hands up on her shoulders and just before she closed her eyes, they stepped onto a long, moving walkway. She heard a loud acceleration whoosh of a nearby jet engine. He scooted a half step over to the right side and several people hurried past them, hauling bags on rollers. He squeezed her shoulders and she glimpsed a man tossing luggage from a truck bed into the belly of a plane.

A voice on the PA said, “Attention. The moving walkway is coming to an end.”

Jim realized, a moment too late, that Karen would need to open her eyes so she wouldn’t stumble blindly off the edge of the travolator onto the stationary floor. He squeezed her shoulders and her eyes popped open and she managed the transition fine, but caught the tip of her sandal and fell forward a little and he reached down and grabbed a hand to steady her.

A voice on the PA said, “Do not let a stranger ask you to carry a package onboard.”

And now they were walking side by side, holding hands, fingers wrapped up together. Eyes wide open to the fact that it felt existentially okay, like school children on a field trip, buddying-up, per the instructions of the homeroom teacher while they negotiate a rush-hour street.

Karen not-said, “I hope you don’t mind swinging our arms just a bit.”

Jim not-said, “And away we go.”

They merged with the crowd and flowed down a long hallway and rounded a corner into Concourse B. And, hey, look it’s…it’s…someone we both know but who looks different in jeans and a flannel shirt and in a different context and because he’s not wearing his robes. It’s …it’s Seigen, staring down at his phone and texting rapidly with his thumbs. 

A security guard spoke into a walkie-talkie, affixed to a shoulder strap: “I think the bomb squad is out to lunch.”

Jim and Karen both clucked to get Seigen’s attention. 

The head-shaved monk looked up at Karen and Jim. He smiled at their handclasp and bowed and abruptly broke the spell. He cleared his throat and said, “Well, looks like we’re all just walking each other home.”

 “Pardon?” Karen blurted.

“We’re all just walking each other home,” Seigen repeated “A line from a teacher’s book. I can’t remember who exactly.”

“I could Google it,” Karen offered. Her speaking voice reedy and oboe-like, just as Jim had expected it would be. 

“Sorry, gotta run. A plane to catch,” Seigen said.

“Wait,” Jim said, “Please, a moment— ”

“We only ever have a moment,” Seigen said.

“Off to another sesshin?” Karen asked.

“A funeral, actually. A college friend. She finally succumbed to breast cancer, lived with it for ten years.”

“Go in peace,” Jim said.

“So what do you need?” Seigen asked, and reached up and stroked the raw spot on his shaved head where his razor had nicked his scalp.

“I don’t know that I need anything. It’s just that—”

“We want to thank you,” Karen said.

“Yes, exactly. We’re very grateful,” Jim said, “You jumped into the breach at the retreat and made it look easy.” 

Seigen bowed and replied, “Couldn’t have done it without you two.”

And suddenly they all moved closer together into a tight, three-way embrace. Karen and Jim looped their free arms up around Seigen’s back. “Away we go,” Karen said. 

And just as suddenly, Seigen was gone and Karen and Jim sighed and unclasped their hands.

A voice on the PA said, “Flight 167 to Denver will begin boarding in five minutes.”

“Holy cow, that’s me,” Karen said.

“Well, no, technically that’s not you,” Jim said, “That’s your flight. I mean, you are you. Remember the bit about identity and phones. We’ve both been in this limbo space for a week now regarding the identity thing. I mean, it’s murky. I was about to give you one of my business cards and then I thought, why would I do that? Why would I assume that this little rectangle of paper with a name and a job title on it has any bearing to my identity?” Jim said.

His voice rasped a bit in the throat, just as Karen imagined it would.

“What do you do for a living?’ she asked.

“I inspect elevators in office buildings. Perfect job for someone with a touch of bipolar disorder. Up and down. Up and down.”

Karen squinted at his high forehead and smiled and said, “After a week of zazen, it can be hard to make the transition back to real life.”

“Whatever that is,” Jim grumbled.

Karen teased, “I sort of liked it better when we were silent.”

Jim reached for her hand again. “Yes, I’m going to walk you silently back to your gate and that will be that.”

“We’re all just walking each other home,” Karen repeated.

Broad swashes of sun streaking the concourse, with bodies flowing ethereally through shadow and light.

When they reached Karen’s gate, Jim dropped her hand and bowed and she bowed too. 

Jim turned to go and Karen said, “Wait—” 

She reached into her purse for her wallet and opened it and extracted her business card. Jim held the card up and peered at it closely.

“You’re a vet tech?” he asked.

Karen shrugged. “I’m the scheduling person. Also my job is to talk to the pet owners and keep them occupied with conversation about their animals. The doc feels that it’s a more efficient use of his time, if I do the chitchat thing about Fluffy’s new dogbone.”

“So, was it hard to be away from Fluffy all week?” Jim said.

“A relief actually,” Karen said and pointed to the number printed next to “In Case of Emergency.” 

“That’s my cell,” she said. “I’m also the after-hours contact person.”

“I can contact you in an emergency?” Jim asked.

“No plumbing emergencies. I’m not good at plumbing,” she said.

He bowed again and Karen leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. 

And then she was gone too. Or, Jim was gone, or something happened such that he was walking alone down a hallway toward the American Airlines ticket counter. He stood in line for a mini-eternity. When it was finally his turn to approach the ticket-agent, he put his elbows on the counter and said, “I want to go anywhere but Houston.”

“Excuse me, you what?’ the uniformed ticket agent said. He scratched his ear and coughed. A veteran at this job who thought he had seen it all, but maybe he was wrong.

“I’m booked on a flight to Houston that leaves in an hour and I don’t want to go. I want to change my ticket to somewhere else.”

“And where would that be?” the ticket agent asked, puzzled.

“Anywhere. You pick,” Jim said.

“I don’t understand.”

“Choose a flight that has some open seats on it. Maybe I can stretch out and get some sleep,” Jim said.

“Are you feeling all right, mister?” the ticket agent asked.

“How so?”

“Physically and or… mentally?”

Jim turned his neck to the left and to the right. As if a gentle squeeze on his shoulders had opened his eyes to what he was doing. He said, “Okay, forget it. I’ll do the right thing. I’ll get on my flight and go find my car in the economy lot and drive home and turn on the TV and make a sandwich and fall asleep on the couch and wake up tomorrow and hope that everything works out.”

The veteran ticket agent nodded slowly and said, “That’s basically my plan too.” 

Above them, on the steel rafters, a couple of stranded mourning doves fluttered and cooed and settled their ruffled feathers.
Ian Woollen lives in Bloomington, Indiana, close to where this story could have happened. His day job is psychotherapy. Short stories have appeared recently in Fiction Southeast, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Moon City Review. His latest novel, MUIR WOODS OR BUST (Coffeetown Press, 2017) won an INDIES Prize (for Humor/Satire).