In November of 2016, I turned 60. To celebrate my 60th birthday, I went on a silent retreat at Mt. Angel Abbey, outside of Portland.
I had never been on a silent retreat before, but it was something I had longed to do since visiting the Benedictine Sisters of Cullman, Alabama.
Throughout that week, I rose in silence and went to bed in silence. The only voices I heard were those during the Liturgy of the Hours.
I was at the Abbey during the election and did not know the results for several days. I didn’t have access to any social media, or any news. I wore a sign declaring that I was on a Retreat of Silence. No one spoke to me.
There was no mention of politics from the pulpit.
We don’t do silence enough.
We don’t pray enough.
And by we, I mean me.
I don’t pray enough.
I am not silent enough.
I wanted to go back to the Abbey this week but the schedule for it just didn’t work out this year. However, I’ve been thinking about how I want to approach this impending week.
Everyone who knows me intimately knows that this week can be particularly triggering for me. I used to dread November, especially my birthday week. But, thankfully, several veterans and family members have helped me to turn around what was throughout my childhood and into my adult life, a very dark time for me.
I was thinking this morning about November of 2012, when Mama was dying of the lung cancer that was the result of a life-long addiction to cigarettes. Mama had a couple of brothers who had died in November. “I hope I make it through November,” she said, obviously worried that she would be another Mayes member with a November death date.
She lasted through Thanksgiving and Christmas and died on December 26th. I’m convinced she willed herself to live through one more Christmas, which she loved because she loved giving and getting presents.
Because I have come to understand post traumatic stress disorder and respect its power over us, I have found ways to protect my mental health during weeks like this one.
Several of my Gold Star family friends are gathering in DC this week for the 40th anniversary of the Wall. There will be a reading of the names. I was in attendance for the last reading of the names. I read my dad’s name along with his brother and my daughter Shelby.
Typically, I would go and enjoy being with the veterans and my Gold Star family friends, but I knew that it would be an unhealthy time for me to be in DC during an election year. I hate missing the anniversary events but because of the way so many Vietnam veterans have rallied around Trump, and willingly joined into the MAGA cult, I knew I could not go.
I am a news junkie by profession but I will not be looking at news or listening to news this week. We don’t have cable TV so that won’t be tempting. But I have already taken to turning off NPR and my regular sources of online news. I won’t be reading it. I won’t be looking at Social Media. I won’t be connecting online until Friday morning.
Some years ago, I made it a goal to pursue and earn my Master’s degree by the time I was 65. The pandemic delayed some of those studies, threatening to derail my goal. But at 4:45 a.m. PST I will join my friend Ellen Wade and other graduates from the University of West Scotland for our virtual graduation ceremony. I will eek out that degree during the last 24 hours of my 65th year.
This week will be a week of celebration for that and many reasons.
On Thursday, Tim and I will join friends Jane and Jerry Kirkpatrick as Bend High School grants ninety-two-year-old Jerry the high school diploma he missed out on because of his military service. I am thrilled to be a part of this celebration, in part because my dad never did get his high school diploma. Like Jerry, he, too, spent his youth serving his country.
Right after Jerry’s ceremony, Tim and I will make our way over the mountain to attend one of our favorite radio talk shows , Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me!, which seems like a fitting theme for the whole week.
We have voted already. If you haven’t, I pray you do. People like Jerry and my father served to protect your right to do that.
Instead of spending my time worrying about what the outcome of this week’s election will be, I will be spending a lot more time in silence and contemplative prayer. My time at the Abbey taught me that whatever happens, the only way to move forward is with resolute hopefulness and in a spirt of prayer.
And my time among the Scots taught me to celebrate life, to cling to good friends and loving family, enjoy a fine beverage, listen to lively music, read a good book, and as often as possible go for a walk. It will do your heart good.
Is it any wonder they end every conversation with “Cheers!”
Do not dread your life away, friends.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of After the Flag has been Folded (Wm Morrow) and many other books.