In the months before I left for retreat, suicide bombers blew up 200 marines in Beirut; death squads and right-wing mercenaries were on attack in Central America; and the United States invaded Grenada in “Operation Urgent Fury.” It was 1983, and I was 36 years old. To me the whole world felt like an urgent fury, driven by uncontrollable passions and full of conflict, not only in the world but also in my personal life—in my shouting matches with my mom and my stepmom; in my fraught relationships in my collective house; and in my turbulent love life.

I worked with several peace groups, and I joined a direct-action affinity group protesting cruise missiles. But with family and friends I shocked myself with my own bursts of violence. Just three years earlier, when my mother came to visit me, I had pulled her hair and slapped her face. The next year, when a boyfriend took up with a new woman, I went to the stoop of his building and smashed a glass brick he’d given me as a gift. “It’s a warning,” I informed him from a nearby phone booth. “If I see her walk out your door, I’ll knock her down!”

Through meditation and therapy, I was learning ways to contain that fury. And with casual acquaintances, I had a warm and generous persona. But just before leaving for retreat, after a housemate rebuked me for my slovenly housework, I began shouting at her and then seized a pitcher of orange juice and, with a swing, splattered the kitchen of our Berkeley commune.

On this three-month silent retreat, I urgently sought peace.

Several weeks past the official start of the retreat, I arrived at Insight Meditation Society in the evening, cold and exhausted after my flight from San Francisco and a chilly ride to Barre from the Boston airport. I hadn’t been in Western Massachusetts in eight years, not since my dad died in a dreary ward of the North Adams Hospital. I breathed in the leaf smells of autumn that still carried sense memories of antiseptic and sickness.

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