It’s been raining in Paris today. When I read the screen as I type those words it makes me feel like I’m talking about the Asian Monsoons. Rain in Paris spells winter, so I suppose it’s not far off. But the downfall is not quite as strong as the Eastern rains, I dare say. Not quite as strong, but emotive all the same. When the winter rains arrive in Paris, the smell of decaying leaves always seems to mix in the air with the scent of fresh baguette and ground coffee and the perfume of some elegant woman walking by. To me, that’s the smell of Paris by winter.
It’s turned off cold here in Paris. The streets glisten with rainbows and shining shadows. Windows are marked by the traces of nature’s tears and Parisians find themselves once again on the path toward chilly winds and grey skies. Before moving to Paris, winter to me meant knee-high snow banks and temperatures descending down around -30C with the windshield. A little rain and clouds is a mild reminder that I am not longer in the Great White American North.
I recently spent a week in the Alpes, however. A week in silence on top of the mountain across from Mont Blanc at a spiritual retreat. I turned 35-years-old this past September and the weight of that symbolic age accompanied by the facts of my life as compared to how I had imagined it as a younger version of myself seem to have sent me quite on my way toward low-grade melancholy. Hence the retreat.
A friend of mine made the suggestion when I unloaded my pent-up stress of crossing the invisible line toward 40. He said if there was one place on earth where he would like to spend a week, it would be in Les Houches at the Catholic retreat known as La Flatière. (My family is Anglican and I converted to Catholicism for my marriage.) He explained that I would spend 22 hours of the day in silence surrounded by my own thoughts, the 2 remaining in conversation with a priest or nun.
“What the hell,” I remember thinking to myself. “I really do need to recenter my life around myself, so… what have I got to lose.”
Having now come out the other end of this mysterious retreat, dare I say that I am changed? I must be. I so enjoyed the silence, the thought, the time, the conferences, the dinner looking perfect strangers in the face and knowing they did not expect me to make conversation. I am changed. I’m closer to my own spirituality than I have ever been before, or at least since I was a young girl. I’m firmer about what I want and what I need out of life. I’m more secure in what matters and what can be left by the wayside.
A week in solitude and silence is not an easy feat, but one that brought me back to the years that I spend in boarding school: the single twin bed, the communal showers, the dining hall…
La Flatière is set in a paradise. I arrived on a partly clouded Tuesday morning and woke up on Wednesday to find the whole compound covered in a blanket of white. I took pictures out of my little window each morning. And pictures of the chalets, the wood décor, the magnificent surroundings.
On my second to last day at the retreat, I texted a picture of the view to the friend who recommended this retreat to me: “If you had any uncertainty about whether God exists,” I wrote, “one look that this will erase all doubt.”
A series of photos from me to you: