"Awakening to the Divine" retreat. They first hosted this in 2011 for college students. The 2012 one was broadened to include "young adults," but apparently the scale has shifted: the retreatants this year were between 20-40. There were 21 women and five men.
Location: I was retreating at Pearlstone Retreat Center in Reisterstown, Md., outside of Baltimore. This is a really lovely, hilly, wooded property with lots of places to duck away and take walks. There is a central housing unit that has has single, double and six-bed dormitory style rooms. All of the activities took place in the central lodge, or outside. Kayam, an educational farm, is connected to this facility, so every day I tried to spend some time hanging out with the goats and chickens.
Food: Luckily for me, Pearlstone has a strictly kosher kitchen under the supervision of the Star-K supervising agency of Baltimore. They are so strict that they don't allow in any outside water bottles into the lodge building. Small amounts of food can be kept and consumed in your bedroom. I was a basket case about this part of the retreat: I follow a strict food plan that eliminates gluten and sugar, and requires that I separately weigh everything that I put in my mouth. That means foods like casseroles don't work so well for me. Most of the time, I handle this by bringing my own food, but Pearlstone's strict kosher standards meant I couldn't do that.
I had to contact the dining coordinator and tell him all about my restrictions. I called, emailed, and even sent him a copy of my food plan. He assured me everything would be ok, but didn't actually provide answers to specific questions I asked, like, "When you serve pasta with cheese at lunch, what protein could I get at that meal?" Ultimately, I had to just jump in and know that I did my best to get my dietary needs met, and that I would have to turn the results over to God. I knew I wouldn't eat compulsively, which is the reason I am so guarded with my food in the first place. To my delight, everything worked out beautifully and deliciously! They had separate foods for me that I could weigh at any meal like chickpeas, tofu, hard boiled eggs and plain tuna fish. We had three scheduled meals a day. Every night I eat one protein and one fruit serving as a snack, so I always grabbed a hard boiled egg and fruit for later before I exited the dining hall after dinner.
Every meal had a large garden salad and fresh fruit. They even got us gluten-free and sugar-free challah for shabbat [our Sabbath observance]. Typical entrees included hearty bean soups, stir-frys or acorn squashes stuffed with quinoa and tofu. We had fish twice. No meal except Shabbat dinner had meat, and when there was meat or fish there were always vegetarian entrees. They made delicious veggie side dishes like eggplant salads and ratatouille, and one lunch was falaffel, homemade hummus (to die for!) and Israeli salad.
Everyone was surprised at how awesome the food was. Pearlstone puts a lot of emphasis on fresh, healthy meals. They try to use seasonal produce when available. Furthermore, there is always hot coffee, a tea station, and a basket of fresh fruit in the lobby. I loved that the dining hall is green: they provide compostable to-go containers if you request them, but otherwise we ate on real dishes.
Accommodations: I was expecting to share a room with one other woman. As it turns out, I had four other roommates. I have to say, I'm glad I didn't know that ahead of time; if I had, I probably wouldn't have gone, and thus would've cheated myself out of an awesome experience. When I realized I had four other roommates, I initially freaked out: I'm 35 and used to doing things my way, turning out the lights when I want to, etc. I took a deep breath and realized that this would be a good opportunity to stretch my comfort zone and prove I can be flexible when circumstances require it. It turns out my roommates were really cool, nice women; if anything, I inconvenienced them more than they bothered me, because I was usually last to sleep and first to wake up.
Sharing a bathroom was probably the hardest part of the accommodations. There were 9 women sharing one primary bathroom; you could duck into others on the floor if they were empty, but each small bathroom -- containing one sink, toilet, and shower -- was basically shared between one or two rooms. I have big issues around bathroom cleanliness to begin with; if nothing else in my house is clean, the toilet is. People were slovenly in the bathroom, leading me to tape a little note to the mirror kindly asking people to clean up after themselves to make the experience of sharing a bathroom as pleasant as possible. That made an immediate difference.
This is going to sound ridiculous, but I was inordinately proud of myself for handling the shared space issue so well. Before I left for the retreat, someone told me, "I'm very set in my ways; I wouldn't be willing to share a room." I decided I didn't want to be that way, personally. I didn't like sharing a room, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it if I wanted to. That said, if I go to another retreat at Pearlstone, which I hope to do, I would spring for a private room if I had an option to do so. It would be much easier to maintain silence in solitude at night. Having my own room would be essential for my Sabbath observance in a group setting, but on the Pardes retreat, everyone agreed to be Shabbat-observant in public spaces and in dwelling quarters.
In forthcoming posts, I am going to write more about how we spent our time on retreat.