Living In Harmony with Cancer

In January, accompanied my husband to a three-day cancer retreat at Harmony Hill. In constant pain, Bud was not really excited about the idea but he went willingly, if mostly for my sake. As it happens, the event was life-changing for both of us, but most of all for him. Like hundreds before us, our daily lives have been transformed and immeasurably enriched by our connection to The Hill. A nonprofit retreat center in Union, Washington, Harmony Hill is a magical place with a powerful mission. Perched on a sloping hillside above the Hood Canal, the 11-acre site boasts spectacular mountain and water views, healing gardens, meditation labyrinths, and winding woodland trails. Handsome kitchen gardens provide fresh produce, herbs and flowers, and inspire the fabulous, wholesome food Harmony Hill is famed for. Dedicated to improving the quality of life for people affected by cancer, the staff provides an exceptional level of support and a wealth of proven resources. Skilled facilitators, gentle yoga, playful art projects and relaxing foot massages enhance programs designed to inspire renewal of body and spirit. Offered without charge, these free retreats are freeing indeed, helping participants release pain, frustration, anger, grief and loss safely and to lasting good effect. Though seemingly simple, the programs are remarkably effective, both for those experiencing cancer directly and for caregivers, family and friends. Many retreat participants comment that The Hill feels like a sacred space, perhaps not surprising when you consider the thousands of hours of intentional healing thoughts, meditation and prayer poured out there over the years.

Happily, you don’t have to have cancer to enjoy the overflowing serenity of Harmony Hill. Indeed, its enriching and modestly priced health and wellness-oriented programs support the free cancer programs provided throughout the year. Labyrinth meditation retreats are especially popular, since Harmony Hill boasts both indoor and outdoor versions, including the only wheelchair accessible labyrinth in the Northwest. Guest teachers (including myself) periodically offer programs on yoga and movement, sustainable gardening, cooking with whole foods, and similarly appealing topics. Families, clubs, or interest groups (knitters, quilters, readers, walkers) can create their own retreats as well. Despite a small and aging campus and a tiny budget, Harmony Hill has hosted more than 1,200 cancer retreat participants over some 20 years. Not long ago, fewer than 100 people could be served annually. To increase that number (now in the hundreds), the Harmony Hill board and staff made huge efforts. In 2005, a beautiful new building, Creekside, added cozy bedrooms and a delightfully intimate meeting room that’s perfect for families or small groups. In 2006, the splendid Great Hall conference, wedding and recital facility was added, with room for up to 170 people. Today, Harmony Hill offers 32 beds and can seat up to 120 for special dining events. Like so many retreat participants, Bud and I return often to Harmony Hill for day-long programs. “Tools For The Journey: Living With Cancer” combines practical resource guidance with deeply moving group sessions for sharing feelings, hopes, experiences and successful coping strategies. “Thriving Beyond Cancer” is a series of programs covering many facets of the cancer experience, from spiritual well-being and daily nurturing practices to caregiving. This year, cancer caregiver programs were introduced for professionals concerned about burnout, as well as amateurs like me. Bud and I both found hope and healing there, as have hundreds of people whose lives were similarly blown apart by cancer. At Harmony Hill, we learned that, just as mosaic makes a broken plate bigger and more durable, so can cancer expand your sense of joyful living. In thanks, Bud participated in a short Harmony Hill video (viewable, he is thrilled to say, on YouTube) and I’ve been helping to make the lovely gardens more sustainable. Surrounded by gardens, laced with labyrinths, Harmony Hill is a beautiful, comfortable place for a family reunion, a staff retreat or a book club getaway. Time spent there seems all the richer for knowing that your business makes the cancer retreats possible. I warmly encourage anyone experiencing cancer to explore Harmony Hill’s healing programs. Even if it sounds like too much trouble, I assure you, the experience is priceless. Ann Lovejoy is the author of many books, including The Handbook of Northwest Gardening: Natural; Sustainable; Organic (Sasquatch Books, 2003, 402 pages, $27.95).

For more information about Harmony Hill Retreat Center, visit www.harmonyhill.org or call 360-898-2363. To register for Ann Lovejoy’s garden and meditative knitting retreats at Harmony Hill, see the Web site. Ann’s entire retreat fees benefit Harmony Hill programs.