From the brochure, the retreat sounded romantic. It spoke of returning to the heart and of pleasant activities like yoga, sacred space and walking meditation. Mmm, sounds so peaceful. I signed up.
The morning I arrived, I was greeted by a Hope Springs breakfast in the main farmhouse kitchen; it was a meal that might still live on in the hearts and minds of retreaters today. One glance at the spread, which included something for every eater ever known to humankind -- carnivores, vegetarians, vegans, raw foodies, and macrobiotics -- and it was like glimpsing world peace. Suzanne Stevens, Hope Springs owner, had e-mailed retreaters ahead of time after reading our dietary restrictions and asked us what our favorite dishes were. Little name cards accompanied each dish -- "Brenda's gluten-free bread," "Heather's rosemary-free potatoes," etc.
I decided the United Nations could learn a thing or two by sharing a meal in this woman's kitchen and was excited when I met Suzanne later that night. An earthy, silver-haired woman with an authentic connection to Native American culture -- she could get away with placing teepees across her land and be taken seriously -- she explained that she'd originally started Hope Springs to provide a "womb space" for men and women.
When I asked Suzanne what made the food at Hope Springs so remarkable she said, "I won't hire people who don't like what they do. It shows up in the food."
"It's about love," she said, matter-of-factly.
The meals Suzanne and her staff served throughout the retreat became our respite and anchor in the coming days of what turned out to be intense shamanic ritual. There was the lively burst of Hope Springs Beet and Orange Salad with its ornery sting of Spanish onion that managed to remind me I was still alive as we danced with the spirits of our dead ancestors by the fire until 1 a.m. Or the earthy, creamy Whipped Sweet Potatoes and Patchwork Coleslaw with its warm curry and honey that comforted my belly as I underwent the ancient Tibetan Ritual of Chd, the offering of the physical body as a sacrifice to the hungry ghost realm, clearing years of karma and stripping the ego of identity.
Amid the high ritual, which proved transformative, it was the moments sharing meals around the kitchen table that felt the most real to me. After all, there could be no forays into the invisible world when we were stuffing our mouths with homemade Vegetarian Tacos and Amish-grown tomatoes. It was then that we would laugh. People told stories of past retreats, the time the Port-O-Let caught on fire when everyone was meditating in the valley: Two brave souls thought it was a tent and raced up the rocky hill to rescue the person inside. It generally took a half hour to walk up that hill, but somehow, miraculously, these souls flew and reached it in two minutes that night.
Or we talked about how Hope Springs made their Mushroom Burger, the one with the Jarlsberg Swiss cheese and the sweet earth of parsley. Or how we all felt about mulberries and if they grew on trees or bushes. It's funny that these are the moments I remember most vividly. But like a grueling koan from the earth herself, perhaps this was the lesson all along.
CONTACT HEATHER SMITH: firstname.lastname@example.org