Seeking an Enlightened Escape From the Blues at Bon Secours
"Time to get a grip," I mutter aloud while hightailing it down Interstate 70 toward Marriottsville, home of the Bon Secours Spiritual Center. Formed in the early 1970s as a Catholic institute, the center's 313 woodsy acres serve, according to its brochure, as "Holy Ground" for people of all faiths and hues who need a place of respite. What's more, it offers holistic services like yoga, acupuncture, and Reiki massage. Hoping to cure whatever ails me, I've signed up for all three, and an overnight stay.
My intention is to relax, relate, release--but my mind is racing? What's wrong, really? For starters, I've sensed a shift in how my daughter perceives me. As a tyke, she expressed admiration for things like my tattoos and varied taste in music--John Coltrane to Nas to Puddle of Mudd. Now a teenager, my kid seems to regard whatever outré sensibilities her mother still possesses as a family matter best kept at home. "Mom, don't!" she screeched at me on a drive to the mall a few weeks back, as I bobbed my head and howled along with Nappy Roots' "Awnaw" on the radio. "Somebody might see!"
Pubescent angst, I thought, and shrugged it off. Then, a few days later, I read Michael Anft's blast at City Paper and the alternative press in general in his Media Circus column (May 8). Anft, also 41, advised his editors (and mine) to "mak[e] your staff younger," to avoid having a paper that "is creaking with stodginess."
Huh? Is he saying I'm all washed up? A has-been who never was? D-d-d-dull?
The idea of a future without words, without the freedom to do what comes naturally--howling and all--starts to creep through my mind like some chemical form of kudzu. I'm not going down like that, I say to myself, slipping Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies into the tape deck: "They don't know . . . what I know . . . do you know? . . . I don't know . . ."
Just past 1 p.m., I hang a sharp right at the entrance to Bon Secours and drive uphill on a long, narrow road that crests into what almost looks like a scene from The Lord of the Rings: several large, stone-faced buildings swallowed by verdant woods and huge grassy fields dotted with mammoth willow, oak, and maple trees. There are delicate flowering bushes and white marble statues of, presumably, the Virgin Mary. Besides her, there's nary a soul in sight.
Inside the three-story main building--laid out in the shape of a cross with private guest rooms on the top floor--I pass a suite of lamplit offices and a vast, dim chapel with rows of wooden pews. I'm hustling, late for my yoga session.
Not a problem, instructor Sandra Mican says. It's gratifying to see that Sandra is not one of those buff, body-sculptor types seen on infomercials and videotapes. She's mature, with a few strands of gray laced in with light brown hair. Her smile is warm and welcoming; her stretch pants, like mine, look a bit worn. "Let's go pick a good spot," she says, ushering me back outdoors and past a Japanese Zen garden replete with landscaped flower beds and a footbridge that crosses over a pond full of exotic fish.
We spread blankets atop a grassy knoll and practice our breathing before doing a series of poses. "Intention is the difference between exercise and transformation," Sandra offers, quoting some sage yogi. Together, we become intent on helping me to lighten up.
On all fours, we do "cat-cow" exercises, alternately arching and hunching our backs. We do the "Surya Namaskar" pose, standing with legs wide, arms extended, and torsos balanced. "This one is in tribute to the ancestors. It's like a warrior pose," Sandra says, giving me incentive to stay in position with minimal wobbling--knee creaks notwithstanding.
At the end of our hourlong session, I lay on my back with a chamomile-scented eye cover as Sandra reads a poem. I don't hear the words so much as the timbre of her voice, like a bass flute accented by the birds chirping overhead. As she speaks, my limbered limbs enjoy the caress of a soft midafternoon breeze. My mind, for the first time in ages, goes into languid mode.
2:30 p.m.: I check in to my room, which is simply furnished and has no television or telephone. There is nothing to distract guests from the décor, mostly religious artwork of a feminine persuasion, including a white and gold ceramic lamp with a base in the shape of an Oriental goddess.
I write in my journal about the yoga session, then head outside, passing several large conference rooms where groups of people are engrossed in workshops and seminars (group retreats for businesses and ecumenical institutions are the nonprofit center's bread and butter) en route to the labyrinth, a round, mazelike structure inlaid with 18-inch-wide bricks, with only one entrance and exit.
With a normal stride, you could walk across the labyrinth's diameter in a few seconds, but a slow, contemplative stroll through the entire structure takes about 15 minutes. This is, a nearby sign reads, a place of healing. The idea is that as you meander toward the center of the labyrinth you are walking life's sacred path, which leads closer to the Divine. Inside, people have claimed to find inspiration and gain insight into pressing problems. As I wind my way around, I ask the Higher Power for a flash of insight on aging gracefully yet powerfully.
I get nada. No small, still voice offering compassion and divine guidance; nothing even approaching an epiphany. Only the sound of rustling leaves and--maybe a spiritual distraction--my growling stomach.
6:30 p.m.: In the dining hall, a dinner of boiled ham, boiled potatoes, and boiled carrots. Maybe this was in the fine print on the brochure, I think, making my way to the chapel. Some form of gastrointestinal penance.
In the cavernous and empty chapel, the quiet bounces off the walls. Seated in a rear pew, I try and pray, but the reporter in me gets distracted by all the details--the inlaid stone; the stained glass in soft, muted colors that stand out because, unlike so many churches, there are no saintly figures etched in the glass.
Though prayer was unsuccessful, after a while I do feel a shift in consciousness. I've been exposed to various spiritual traditions and churches, from Catholic to Baptist to Pentecostal. They always felt like private yet communal spaces, a place where testy folks found peace and passive folks (especially in holiness churches) got worked up by the spirit. The thing I like best about church--and there aren't many--is that it seems to promise a fresh start, no matter how old you are or how far you've strayed from your faith. "Blessed assurance . . ." I try and recall the lyrics to a hymn I haven't sung since I was in kneesocks.
9:30 a.m.: Needles. Don't like them. Not when I'm sick and in desperate need of an antibiotic rush, and certainly not when, save for a little mental anguish, I'm feeling perfectly well. But acupuncture needles are nothing like hypodermics. For one thing, doctors don't usually let you hold hypodermics before they stick you.
"Here, see how it feels," says Judith Goedeke, a licensed acupuncturist who teaches at the Tai Sophia Institute, an accredited acupuncture school in Laurel. The wispy, flexible needles are about an inch long with a coiled copper base. Like Sandra, Judith is also a mature woman with a soothing vibe who greets her clients with "Namaste," a Sanskrit term meaning "the divine in me honors the divine in you."
Going into this session, all I know about acupuncture is that it's based on ancient Chinese medicine and is recognized by the National Institutes of Health as a popular treatment for various afflictions, including headaches, digestive and menstrual disorders, addictions, and stress; which one dictates the layout and number of needles--which, I'm told, activate the body's natural flow of energy and capacity for healing.
The needles don't hurt, but I cry anyway--hot, stinging tears plop down my face for 10 solid minutes. Judith gently urges me to go with it, says she's here if I need to talk, but I can't figure this reaction. There are no latent images of a little girl who wanted a pony; no residual childhood gunk. My psyche might need a boost, but it doesn't need to be dusted and waxed.
Days later, I'm still at a loss to explain what took place during that acupuncture session. What I can say is that without knowing how it works, the treatment facilitated some kind of deep, long-overdue, and welcome release. Kind of like taking a spiritual leak, I suppose. Alleluia.
2 p.m.: After wandering the center's luscious grounds and nature trails for a few hours and taking in a holistic lunch (salad and yogurt), I wrap up my visit with a Reiki massage, courtesy of Dolores Morotti, otherwise known as Dolly.
With a beautiful mane of white hair, Dolly reeks with an air of serious but calm authority. She tells me up front that she's not one for talking while she works. And, in case I'm wondering, she tells me bluntly, "This isn't about trying to fix anything." And with that, Dolly's small office, filled with lotions, seashells, and flute music, transforms into a haven, an oasis, nirvana. I swear.
Reiki massage posits that the practitioner channels healing energy through his or her hands into areas of the body where the life force seems weakened. Dolly doesn't do any of that rat-tat-tat chopping-movement stuff that's often associated with deep-tissue massage. This was a flowing massage, long pressured strokes, top to bottom, for one hour straight.
Dolly's slender, cool hands never let up. While she works on my back, I get the image of dolphins swimming in circular motions; on my legs and thighs, her hands do what those expensive roller-massage contraptions never could. Cradling and massaging my head, they reassure me that the old gray matter is still up to snuff.
Loose-limbed and listening to strains of a harp joined to flute, I pray. For myself, my daughter, Michael Anft, my utterly redeemable ex-husband--you name it. I'm feeling light and generous, and thank Dolly profusely. And cry again. But this time, the tears roll down into a smile.
"You know, you are a beautiful, classy lady," Dolly offers, sounding like someone who has chased away the blues a time or two. "You'll be fine."
For more information about the Bon Secours Spiritual Center, call (410) 442-1320 or visit www.bonsecours.org/bssc.
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