Sunday, February 06, 2022

A Beautiful Weekend and An Unexpected Gift

The last weekend in January was an unexpected gift.

Both Shari Zook, who writes at Confessions of a Woman Learning to Live, and Luci Martin from Three Green Doors came for the Renew women’s retreat, hosted at Pioneer Christian Academy in Brownsville by Riverside Mennonite. Shari came from Pennsylvania to speak at the retreat, and Luci came from northern Alberta to attend.

I felt utterly presumptuous, inviting both these well-known women to stay at my house. But I took the risk, because I so wanted to spend time with them, having connected online and at random events with both. After all, they could always say no if they’d rather stay somewhere else with someone funner and cooler.

They both said yes. Oh happy day. I cleaned the guest room and messaged Amy for menu ideas.

The retreat was all that a women’s retreat should be. Planning and preparation are expressions of love, I think, and that beautifully decorated gym spoke welcome and warmth to everyone that entered.

I'll pretend I made this picture blurry on purpose to protect identities.
But you can still see smiles everywhere. It was just that sort of retreat.

Shari spoke twice, and we all cried, which is a good thing. Bonnie Kurtz and Glenda Joseph also spoke honestly from lives of hard times and faith. Graceful, a group of six women from Indiana, sang often and beautifully. And a local group led in worship. I drank in every bit of it. 

Shari, me, and Luci, enjoying the scrumptious food.

Summaries of events never quite convey how they made me feel. The last years have been hard for all of us, but for me they have been not just challenging but so savage that I wasn’t sure I would ever find a path forward or feel like myself again. Some reasons are obvious, of course, like my dad’s death and Paul’s accident. Other griefs were private, and those are sometimes the most daunting of all.

Both the retreat and my guests were gifts and medicine—like hot tea on a cold day, warm blankets around me, hot chicken soup, a Thai massage relaxing tense shoulders.

Luci, Shari, and I have a remarkable lot in common. We sat up late on Saturday night, curled up on couches in our living room, and talked and listened. Pieces of my life that seldom see the light of day were tugged from deep inside and examined in the gentle light of mutual experience and empathy.

Tea around my table.
Photo by Ben.

We are all Mennonite women bloggers, pastor’s wives, and moms. We all deal with mental health issues, and our children ask lots of hard questions. [Those two details may or may not be related.] We faced many of the same challenges with Covid, and had similar crises of conscience. Our pastor husbands have taken unpopular positions. 

To be clear, some of these definitions are shifting or in transition. Paul retired from being a pastor. Shari’s husband took a leave of absence. Luci blogged every single day of 2021, an astonishing achievement, while I was doing good to post once a month.

To be a pastor’s wife is to feel alone. To be a Mennonite woman writer is to feel like there’s no one within 500 miles who really understands. We seldom spend time pining over this, but we savor the chance to connect.

“Why do we do this?” we asked, discussing our writing, and none of us had a simple answer. Why do we go to the trouble and work, or volunteer for the vulnerability? Why do we take the risks of offending readers, annoying our children, and exposing our flaws? We know, with varying degrees, not only the joy of loyal readers but also the realities of dark cautionary emails, rumors of disapproval, anonymous letters, and phone calls attempting to silence us.

Why do we do this? I’m not sure we even really know. All we know is that the words bounce in our heads obsessively until we open the spigots on our fingertips and let them out. We see things, we sense truth that needs to be told, we feel a wind blowing and an urge that must be obeyed. We want to turn it all into words: events, stories, thoughts, colors.

They listened and nodded while I told them how my brain has felt frozen for the past 2 1/2 years, ever since my dad died, and through all the hard experiences that followed, one after another. The words didn’t bounce around like they used to, I said, and I wondered if they ever would again. Then, recently, I realized I was writing in my head again while I was driving, and I had a sense of spring coming, the ground thawing, and seeds sprouting.

They understood that this was a good thing, even if it meant once again wrestling with structure, agonizing over what to say or not say, and risking disapproval and misunderstanding.

I have wonderful people in my life who provide empathy in a hundred ways, but what a unique gift it was to sit and visit with women who totally “got” that specific piece of my soul.

Of course we covered many other subjects as well—children and challenges and church, sunsets and schedules and snow, quirks and questions of all kinds.

We agreed this was a confidential conversation. 

On Sunday, I drove both Luci and Shari to the Portland airport. Shari flew to Pittsburgh and Luci to Vancouver and on up north to Fort St. John, BC. 

I can’t imagine that this fortunate combination of events and people will ever happen again. It was a unique and unexpected gift that I didn’t know I needed, and it felt like a sign of a chapter closing and another opening. 

Sometimes you don’t know what to even ask for, but someone prepares exactly what you need and hands it to you, on a pretty plate, with a garnish.

I accept the gift with enormous gratitude.

Luci gave me warm, soft, wool-blend socks
that I wear to bed.

Both women left notes for me.
Of course they did.

Quote of the Day:

Me: Where are you going out at the coast?
Sharon from the Graceful group: We're going to see, I think it's called Burrito Rock...?
Me: Burrito...Rock...?? I've never heard of that.
Another Graceful member: No! Haystack Rock!!
Sharon: Well, I knew it was food!