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John Henley photo; model: Michael Nguyen
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Isaac Harrell photo
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Jay Paul photo
The most wonderful time of the year is upon us, but let's be honest — there's also a fair amount of stress. As you shop, cook and party till the end of the year, it may be healthy to take an occasional break from this season of celebration. With that in mind, we've got a different kind of holiday to-do list — suggestions for calming the mind, finding some peace and quiet, or actually having fun while knocking an item or two off your real holiday to-do list. You can thank us later.
Mists and Rapids
If you want to get out of your headspace and into outdoor space, one way to do it is go downtown — to the river.
Nathan Burrell, trails manager for the city's eight-mile-long James River Parks System, knows its 500 acres well, and one of his favorite spots is the 14th Street Pipeline Trail. It follows along the backside of Brown's Island to 14th Street and runs underneath a train trestle.
"It's a beautiful stretch of the river and demonstrates the complexity of the environment. You're at the bottom of the fall line, with a mix of Class IV rapids and the saltwater tidal wedge. It's a rich environment for wildlife."
On the other side of the James, away from industrial structures and at the end of Texas Avenue, there's Texas Beach. "It's totally immersed in wilderness," explains Burrell. "There's a feeling of leaving the city. Even in winter, with the trees clear, there's the bends of the river keeping the taller buildings hidden. You're there with the river, the rocks and birds." 646-8911 or jamesriverpark.org .
General manager Suzanne Mong says that the most rocking treatment at the Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa at Short Pump Town Center employs actual desert stones coated in essential oils and placed along the client's back.
"The heat from the stones penetrates and warms your muscle tissue and alleviates the tension," she says.
The procedure takes place in a heated bed and combines the stones with a traditional Swedish massage using long strokes. It's particularly effective for poor circulation or relief from arthritis pain, Mong says. And it just feels really good. The 50-minute version is $130, and 80 minutes costs $195. 360-1239 or reddoorspas.com .
Hanging With Art
For a slice of quiet amid cultured surroundings, the small third-floor lounge of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is calming and splendid. Four chairs and a small table overlook the Boulevard, while behind you, a quartet of Tibetan and Nepalese poet-mystics and deities on pedestals gaze upon you from their vitrine. There's free Wi-Fi here, too. 340-1400 or www.vmfa.museum .
(Isaac Harrell photo)
When asked about coming to the Mary Mother of the Church Abbey in Goochland County for some peace of mind, Brother Nicholas Walker exclaims, "Wow! You thought you could get that here?"
Joking aside, Walker, a Benedictine monk who's the interim retreat director and gift-shop manager for the abbey, observes, "Peace isn't always 100 percent calm and relaxed. You can find peace and sit and read something spiritual, but for every person, it's different."
Since this is a Catholic center, the person in retreat may spend time in front of the tabernacle in quiet contemplation, but the point is to escape the world's demands.
"Most of the people come here with an established retreat," Walker adds. "But what an individual is usually looking for is a solitary experience. He may want a priest to talk to, but you're looking to get away from the stresses and strains of daily life."
The center has 40 beds, thus it's asked that you call ahead if you're interested in an individual retreat.
Generally, the suggested donation here is $50 a day for a bed, and meals are extra; a large retreat with 10 or more, $75 a day, includes meals. And the monastic retreat is in high demand. The center's weekends are booked through November, though weekday retreat times are available. 784-3508, ext. 131, or richmondmonks.org .
Make It, Then Give It
The Visual Arts Center of Richmond offers an alternative to fighting through rivers of traffic in search of a gift with its Dec. 11 Holiday Open House, from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. There is "The Present Factory," where making gifts by hand is fun and free. In the past, this has included letterpress holiday cards, jewelry and people-shaped tree ornaments made from paper. The Visual Arts Center also offers several classes around this time, such as Dec. 18's Winter Wax Workshop ($80), during which you can make one-of-a-kind gifts, including accordion books, encaustic jewelry, crafts and ornaments made of beeswax. 353-0094 or visarts.org .
(photo courtesy of the Visual Arts Center)
Into the Woods
The poetry of nature comes alive at Henrico County's Three Lakes Park & Nature Center when assistant site manager Bekky Monroe leads walkers along the trails, and at appropriate points they stop to read some verse. Her "Whose Woods We Are" tour, for ages 30 and older (interested younger parties can give Monroe a call at the number below) is held on Nov. 12, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Walkers will share their favorite works about nature, like the lines of Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Monroe says this is something she's trying out and may offer later on a weekend. Last year, during the heavy snow, she took out a group of Scouts. "Usually they're rambunctious," she says. "But the woods and the snow quieted them, and we could see the footprints of animals. It was kind of mystical."
The cost is $6. 262-5055 or www.co.henrico.va.us/departments/rec .
Music for the Soul
At the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, facing Monroe Park, on Thursdays at 8 a.m., music minister Patrick Carlin plays piano in the vast, stained-glass space, providing a gentle soundtrack for your thoughts.
The 111-year-old Italian Renaissance Revival church was built through the generosity of Virginia financier Thomas Fortune Ryan, and here is one of region's most impressive ecclesiastical interiors, surmounted by a 96-foot dome.
One may also come for quiet reflection every day from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. 359-5651 or richmondcathedral.org .
Reading and Reflection
The Library of Virginia is always restful and invigorating. Simply walk into the swooping entrance lobby, and the power of knowledge is palpable. But the library is also a quiet place for reflection, and the Virginia Authors room on the second floor is one of the more accessible spaces. "It's most like a public library," says spokesperson Jan Hathcock.
Bright but comfortable and lined by shelves of Old Dominion authors ranging from Rita Dove to John Grisham, and most any other fairly recent title written by a Virginian, it offers a retreat where you can turn off your daily noise and tune in to the transcendent world of the word.
If the weather is good, there's also outdoor patio seating where you can take your lunch and read in the warming, bright winter sun. 692-3500 or lva.virginia.gov .
The Natural Order of Things
During this season, the mind gets cluttered with the hunt for man-made things, and the bumping and clunking of these thoughts can make you a little crazy. One antidote may be taking a timeout to see how Mother Nature does it at the Lora Robins Gallery of Design From Nature, part of the University of Richmond's Boatwright Memorial Library. On exhibit are man-made objects designed in tribute to nature or with materials found there. The permanent collection offers 100,000 objects, including dinosaur bones and Asian art and artifacts, with more than 300 Chinese ceramics that span 20 centuries.
The current show is "Nature's Forms: Pattern Texture, and Rhythm in Natural Objects from the Collection." You may have heard of fractals and the Fibonacci sequence, and associate them with technology and higher math, but it's all natural, and these aspects operate in the formation and visual appeal of gems, minerals and sea shells, like in the pattern and rhythm of a chambered nautilus' shell. Admission is free. 289-8276 or museums.richmond.edu .
Salon Vivace general manager Kristine Gill says that the Carytown salon, part of a national Virginia-based group, offers an express detox body treatment that uses "effleurage," which is spa-speak for a massage technique that employs light strokes.
"They move in the direction of the lymphatic ducts, upward strokes toward the heart," Gill says. The one-hour, $80 process aims to stimulate the body's natural lymphatic elimination. 565-9000 or salonvivace.com .
Feel Like a Million
Under the lofty skylight and amid the Beaux Arts fantasia of the Jefferson Hotel, sink into deep chairs and contemplate the world like a titan of industry. It's free — or you can have your favorite beverage from the bar at TJ's.
The Jefferson was the brainchild of Lewis Ginter, Richmond's late-19th-century tobacco magnate, world traveler and philanthropist.
It opened on Halloween 1895 with a darker, Moorish interior, but a devastating 1901 fire prompted the lavish Rococo makeover. Go, sit and drink in the place in with your eyes. But you can't spit tobacco juice into a cuspidor by the couch like in the old days, and Pompey the fountain alligator is no more, though he's memorialized by brass figures in the upper fountain. 788-8000 or jeffersonhotel.com .
Ekoji Buddhist Sangha is a Buddhist worship center established in 1986. One collection of seekers meeting there is called the Meditative Inquiry Group. (You don't have to be a Buddhist to attend, and if you're a meditation newbie, you can ask questions about the process beforehand.)
Kirk Warren Brown explains that here, participants sit for half an hour in a classic meditation form. There's also some walking meditation to form a mind bridge between the two worlds of contemplation and action. This is followed by an open discussion period. Warren explains, "In a general sense, we talk about how to bring this meditative presence of mind into our day-to-day lives."
While relaxing, it can be a real mental workout.
Minds secrete thoughts like the stomach secretes acid, Brown observes. Eventually the push and pull lessens, "And there's a certain amount of freedom in that."
And it's even free. 355-6657 or ekojirichmond.org .
( Jay Paul photo )
Quiet Time With Tiffany
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, working its way through a second century of standing by the State Capitol and weathering fires, the vicissitudes of politics, doctrines and urban life cycles, is also a splendid place to sit alone with your thoughts. During the week, the sanctuary is open from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Communications director Kimberly Allen says, "The light coming in from the stained-glass windows is the numero uno attraction. We have 25 of them, 10 from the Tiffany studios."
Other visitors, in good weather, seek the Memorial Garden, and on Wednesdays, from 5 to 7 p.m., there's "Prayer Yoga." There's also free parking in the church's garage, and that should lessen your stress even more. 643-3589 or stpauls-episcopal.org .
Like to visit the islands but can't make the airfare (or spare the travel time)? You can go there in your mind with the help of plant ingredients from the Caribbean at one of Salon del Sol's five regional locations.
Alex Filer, a Salon del Sol spokesperson, says that the centerpiece of the Caribbean Therapy uses mango, lime, aloe and also cocoa butters. "It's a paste, a wet or dry treatment, and hot-towel body wraps," she says. "Mango conditions and hydrates the skin."
The process begins with a dry exfoliation, then the scrub is removed with a warm infused towel, followed by the application of lotion, body moisturizer and a warm seaweed body masque. A scalp, face and body massage completes the 60-minute, $115 treatment. Visit salondelsolandspa.com for locations.
Recharge in Silence
Overlooking the city, Richmond Hill is a secluded oasis in the middle of town. Happily, it also offers a quick escape from some of the stresses of the season — guest master Karen Moore leads a silent prayer group on Tuesdays at 4:40 p.m.
"You have in essence an appointment with God," she explains. It's 20 minutes of silence. "It's pretty down and dirty. It can be, as I call it, ‘My Peeps Are in Trouble, Help Me, Oh God,' if you have come up with so much in your heart and on your mind. You'll be quiet for a while and see what happens. ‘Whining and Beseeching' for 20 minutes. If you need to take a nap, rest in the arms of God, and I'll wake you up."
At 5 p.m., she rings a gong and all depart in silence.
If you've got a little more time, Richmond Hill also offers an ecumenical spiritual retreat in the restored former nunnery, during which you can choose to observe silence and eat separately from others on retreat. Recommended donation for individual retreats is $55 per night undirected, or $80 per night for a directed retreat, and you'll want to call a few days in advance to make arrangements. 783-7903 or richmondhillva.org .
Take a Hike
Elli Morris thinks winter — if it hits here as early as November and December — is a splendid time for some hiking. If you hear a rustle, it's probably wildlife, and with the leaves down, you can peer low through the forest trunks and spot deer and other creatures.
Morris, a writer/photographer/outdoorswoman/dancer, works often as a contract instructor and guide for Chesterfield County Parks and Recreation. A place she enjoys is Pocahontas State Park, located in the county's midsection.
She favors a trip over the little walking bridge across the creek by the swimming area, where numerous trails wend through the woods. "I ride my bike back in there. It's really cool and feels like you're somewhere else, like the bottomland of the mountains. There's a boardwalk on marsh, and it's like the southern exposure of a mountain."
The entrance fee is $2 on weekdays and $3 on weekends. 796-4255 or dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/poc.shtml .
War and Peace
The view of the North Anna River's "V" is splendid from the North Anna Battlefield Park. It may sound oxymoronic to equate a place of war with relaxation; however, according to Hanover County recreation and parks spokesperson Lisa Walker, people say it is just that.
Opened in 1996, this 80-acre park also features a one-to-two mile circular trail. The Civil War confrontation of May 23-26, 1864, was an immediate precursor to the carnage of Cold Harbor, and the resulting park possesses some of the best-preserved earthworks among the region's numerous battle sites.
And again, besides the bloody history, Walker says, "There are gorgeous views of the river, and it is a really nice getaway for a few minutes of peace and quiet." The best view is from Interpretation Station No. 9. 365-4695 or co.hanover.va.us/parksrec .
Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in the Shoppes at Belgrade boasts several hearths that are original to the plantation house and now fitted with gas-log fireplaces. One of these is located in the restaurant's front parlor, where there are several overstuffed chairs in which you can enjoy a drink and the warmth of the hearth. "People do ask to sit there and drink a glass of wine by the fireplace," says hostess Paula Friedrich. If you feel like staying for dinner, she adds that the Woolfolk Room off the parlor in one of the wings of the house also has a fireplace. "It's like being in your own dining room without doing any of the work." 378-0600 or sizzlingsteak.com .
Working with your hands to create holiday ornaments and decorations may be your idea of stress release.
The Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden offers several related classes. On Nov. 16, "Seasonal Floral Designs" by instructor Laura Anne Brooks ($60; $50 for members) allows students to leave with a floral centerpiece or seasonal décor item. Demonstrations include designs for doorways, entries, mantels, tables and other spaces. Materials are provided, but you need to bring sharp floral snips. 262-9887 or lewisginter.org.
Maymont offers a wreath-making workshop at the Stone Barn, on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 and 2 ($25; $22 members). Greens, forms, wire and instruction are supplied, but, again, you need your own clippers. You take one wreath home and make another for Maymont. 358-7166, ext. 310, or maymont.org .
Do It Yourself
The old image of the jolly old elf manufacturing gifts in his polar shop is overshadowed by the reality of massive warehouses of stuff. But at All Fired Up's two locations, in Carytown and at Commonwealth Centre, you can release your inner elf and create objects to give. On the first Thursday of the month, $30 adult evening classes are offered for those who want to know how to make something of their own.
"We have a sample of the piece and give them templates and an instructor to make it as easy as possible," says owner Amy Talley. "Then they have a lot of cute gifts to give. The greatest thing to release stress, cheaper than therapy and you get a handmade gift."
And if you're a parent who needs to swoop through Carytown or Commonwealth Centre for gift-giving, consider leaving your tykes from ages 5 to 12 at All Fired Up's Funshop, where they can make things for any family member or friend.
All of the projects created prior to the holidays will be ready for pickup by Christmas Eve. Funshop runs from $25 to $30 and is held from Dec. 20 to 31, except for Dec. 24. 355-3412, 744-5506 or getallfiredup.com .
( Bridget Hazel photo, courtesy of All Fired Up )