Beating The Retreat

As our plane touched down late at night in early January, bringing us back to our life in the sand, I sensed my own wings retracting. Married to a military man who has spent at least a quarter of our marriage away, family time has always been precious. Now that we live in the desert, with my husband often travelling overseas, family time is even more highly prized. It’s not just that I love being with my husband, it’s that, out here, being with him makes so many aspects of my life easier and more enjoyable. Without him, life can quickly shrink to the size of the compound.

Queuing among the abayas, trying to keep our 4 year old off the baggage carousel, January and February stretched ahead of me like a dark tunnel. My husband was due to be away for 5 weeks out of the 8: 6 weekends and the whole of half term alone. Not that I was counting! There were some lovely social things coming up on the compound but as my husband repacked his bag to leave, I grumpily told him I wouldn’t be going to any of them. I would stay cocooned inside when everyone else was out enjoying themselves. If I was going to be left alone, I’d be alone.

On that first day at home, I didn’t want to see anyone. I couldn’t face putting on my ‘happy face’, wishing people New Year and hearing about other people’s Christmases. I unplugged the phone, then later dragged my tired children round Carrefour to restock our empty cupboards. What a miserable way for the children to spend their last day of the holidays- with a grim faced mother determined to find fault with life.

As I scrolled through Instagram one evening that week, I saw lots of people had spent time thinking about their word for 2019. I had never come across this idea before. Through praying and reflecting, people had been led to a word for the year stretching ahead of them. They were posting them: ‘Light’, ‘Hope’, ‘Renewal.’

I told my husband my word was ‘Retreat’. I don’t think I prayed very long before I decided this but it sounded biblical- isn’t that what monks and nuns do?- and it matched my mood. So that would be my word. I definitely wouldn’t join in with anything social. Heaven was backing me up. My husband couldn’t argue with that. Not that he tried. He was wise enough to let me work through this on my own.

Once my husband flew our nest for the UK, an open invitation went out for families to go on a local desert safari together. I couldn’t get a driver and I decided I didn’t want to force my way into anyone else’s car (despite kind offers) so we didn’t go. We went back to Carrefour instead. The children were miserable, I was miserable. ‘Retreat’ seemed right.

But as I was withdrawing, I realized I had company. A faceless figure, smart, efficient, with a briefcase of treats, showed up in my hallway one day, even though the front door was locked. He had cosy Netflix box sets that said ‘Lose yourself in fantasy worlds’, he had a superking duvet that whispered ‘Go back to bed, you’re tired ‘ and an array of other tempting presents.

This individual and I go back a long way. We met in my teens but I didn’t actually see him then. He came without me noticing. This January was the first time I saw him arriving so clearly.

Depression is different for different people. A friend used to call hers the black dog, an idea that doesn’t even vaguely resonate with me. Our Labrador, Simba, is a black dog and before we moved to the desert he was often the one who chased the faceless stranger away. As we stomped around muddy fields, with Simba tearing after rabbits like the lion cub he was named after, the man would leave me alone.

The problem with depression is when we don’t see it coming, or when it arrives so suddenly we can’t prepare for it and it knocks us off our feet. The only advantage of being well acquainted with it is knowing there are things we can do if we see its approach.

We can tell someone, our partner or friend, our doctor. We can fill out the GPs questionnaire and promise to stay in touch with them to see if medication or counselling is needed this time. We can exercise. We can soldier on with life lines that will feel like the last thing we want to do: prayer groups, church. And if we’re very wise, we might even start or finish by praying about it.

So I told my husband. I hit the gym. I made my prayer group an immovable fixture in my diary. And I prayed. The faceless stranger started to fade. And as I looked around me, I realized the door I thought I had locked had actually been open all along. My anger and determination to withdraw had unlocked it. ‘Retreat’ wasn’t God’s word for me. I have no recollection where that word came from. No Bible verse to point to.

I had made it up. I recalled the Mother Abess in ‘The Sound of Music’ telling Maria that a convent must never be used as an excuse to withdraw from the world. The wise lady explains that the walls of the abbey were not meant to shut out problems. ‘You have to face them,’ she counsels. ‘You have to live the life you were born to live.

That said, there is a biblical model for retreating. Jesus began his public ministry by retreating into the desert for 40 days. During his ministry, he often retreated to quiet places away from the noise and crowds in order to pray. But when Jesus retreated he seemed to do so in order to recharge physically, spiritually and emotionally so he could go back out into the community. It wasn’t a way of escaping the world but a way of being equipped to serve the world.

I decided to pray again to God for my word for the year, straining to hear beyond my own inner voice. I was at the gym listening to Phil Wickham’s ‘When My Heart is Torn Asunder’ when it came to me. I was struck by the line ‘You have turned mourning to dancing.’ It’s a line taken from a psalm written by King David, a song of praise to his father. A word appeared in my mind: ‘Dance.’

When I got home I looked up the psalm and read the verse below:

The second and third lines of psalm 30 say: “Lord my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me. You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead; you spared me from going down to the pit.” (Psalm‬ ‭30:2-3‬) Just reading those words made my heart skip as I caught a wave of David’s joy. I texted my husband to apologize for the argument born out of my state of mind that morning. I explained that I wanted to retreat to protect myself but that I now knew that was unwise. Instead, I would try and dance my way through January and February.

I thought back to our Christmas holiday, the end of which had marked the start of my low mood. During our travels, we visited Kandy, where the guide book had said we must visit a cultural show. The big draw was the promise of coal-walking and fire-eating acts. We sat for an hour in a darkened, dusty hall one afternoon, watching various different performances, our ankles gnawed by mozzies, without seeing the merest ember or spark. As the curtain came down, staff started ushering people out of the back door.

Downcast and disappointed, I suggested we sneak through the front entrance to avoid the crowd filtering through the back. As we made our way out, I asked the manager why we hadn’t been treated to the fiery stunts we’d hoped to see. ‘Go outside,’ she smiled, pointing the way the crowd was headed, the way we had been told to go, the way I wanted to ignore.

As we emerged into the sunshine as directed, there was a carnival of dancers whipping up the audience now gathered in a throng at the bottom of the stage steps around a pit of red-hot coals. We watched in awe and wonder as these great showman treated us to an array of spectacles, transforming our disappointment into unexpected joy.

My new theme tune to the year, this encouragement to dance, hasn’t changed my circumstances or made them easier. Jack’s absence this time was particularly hard in some ways. Our youngest was waking me every night for a fortnight to start with, sobbing even when he was with me because he’s scared of the dark. We both became exhausted. I cried over friends one morning at the gym with tiredness. I certainly didn’t feel like dancing. But my mindset was different.

One of the social events I had previously decided not to go to was a ladies Navy dinner being held whilst Jack was away last weekend. I had deleted the original email but a reminder pinged into my inbox. I emailed late to see if I could still go. And there was space. I signed up.

People said I was going stag. I think hen was nearer the truth, chicken even. As the night approached, Netflix and my PJs called to me but I ignored them and got out my party dress and glittery shoes, before going to meet my lovely friend and her husband, who let me play gooseberry, escorting me there, sitting with me at dinner.

My husband’s never been a huge fan of dancing so I don’t often dance for long at mess nights. But I was alone, without him, without a dance partner. When the tables were cleared away and the music came on, I got up to dance. And I danced all night!

I was reminded that I am never alone, even on a dance floor without a partner. It’s when we forget that truth- that there is one who will never leave us- that we make ourselves vulnerable to the dark corners of the dance floor. We need to remember that we have an eternal dance partner, this year and in all the years to come, one who already knows the steps, one who will uphold us with his righteous right hand, if we will only allow him to lead us.

When my heart

Is torn asunder

And my world

Just falls apart

Lord You put

Me back together

And lift me up

To where You are

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