For many years, my Christmas present to myself has been an end-of-year retreat at the Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester.
It began in the 1980s, when I lived in Boston and traveled by train for a retreat which at that time ended on Jan. 1. It now begins on Dec. 27 and ends on Dec. 30, providing a time and space to gather together in silence with others to celebrate the Christmas season and experience the hope of a new year.
The first time I ever stayed at a retreat house was in 1974, when two friends and I traveled from New York to the Middletown, Connecticut Cenacle. A talkative person, it took a few days to appreciate the value of silence and by that time, the retreat was over.
But I returned several times after that to talk with Cenacle Sisters, curious about what I sensed was something special in that place.
The peace I found there puzzled me. I lived alone and could pray anytime; why did I need a retreat house?
I finally realized that, at home, the silence was filled with thoughts of things I should or could be doing, like cleaning my apartment or watching TV. A retreat is a time to leave my everyday routine, in order to listen and appreciate God’s constant presence in my life.
Instead of Christmas presents or New Year’s resolutions, I pray with gratitude for the gifts of family, friends and the joy I find in outdoor activities — walking along the shore or through the woods at Halibut Point or Ravenswood Park, and participating in downhill skiing Elderhostel (aka Road Scholar) ski programs. I also thank God for the less-than-joyful times when I become aware of how much I take for granted.
For almost 20 years, I’ve participated in two or three weeks of Elderhostel ski programs in New England and Canada but recently, I rediscovered the joy of skiing locally at Bradford, only 30 miles away. The senior rate for morning skiing (8:30 a.m. to 1p.m.) is $13 and for me, mornings are the best time for everything — whether it’s making tracks in freshly groomed slopes or watching the sunrise from my kitchen window as I enjoy my first cup of tea each morning.
The weather was as perfect as the snow conditions on one recent Monday — temperature in the 30s, no wind and only a handful of skiers on the slopes when I arrived. It was like having my own private ski area, with friendly lift operators outside and a family atmosphere inside the lodge.
Riding up the chairlift, I felt invigorated by the fresh air and as I headed down the slope, appreciated the lack of effort shaped skis provide; all you have to do is think about a turn and the skis seem to know exactly what to do.
After an accident and hip replacement in 2009, I didn’t ski again until 2011 and, since my skis were over 10 years old by then, rented skis on Elderhostel programs rather than buying new ones, so I could ski on newer models each year. When I decided to ski at Bradford this year, I rented skis and poles for the entire season from the Sportstop in Wenham. where I purchased new ski boots last year. And just last week, I returned from a great week at Mt. Snow in Vermont with ski buddies I’ve known and loved for 20 years.
On Tuesday morning, we left the chair at the summit and were awed by the sight of the top of Mt. Monadnock poking through the cloud cover. A few minutes later, skiing down freshly groomed trails, I was convinced that heaven for skiers will be like that, with effortless tracking and magnificent views.
It was back to earth on Wednesday and Thursday with rain, high winds and ice and some of us opted for playing cards or shooting pool at The Mountaineer Inn. By the time I left on Friday, I had skied only two days, but learned several card games and a few trick shots at the pool table.
Life is good – on and off the slopes.
Eileen Ford is a Rockport resident and a regular Times columnist.