6 Women in the Woods

I rarely take vacations. On occasion, I’ll take a long weekend to go to the beach or a friend’s wedding, but the only time I’ve taken off more than two weekdays in a row was when I had the flu. So, clearly, time off is not my strongest form of self care. However, I recently came across the opportunity to go on a writing retreat with one of my grad school professors, and I immediately contacted my boss to confirm my time off before I could back out.

I spent four days at Lake Logan in the mountains of North Carolina with five other women, all at least a generation older than me, many of them mothers. It wasn’t shocking that I was spending the week with a group old enough to be my grandmothers, but what I learned from them was comforting in a way that was unexpected. I went on the retreat to write. I had been feeling stuck in my writing, both in terms of subject matter and because I had been struggling to make time for my writing. I wanted to take advantage of four days with no obligations to churn out a backlog of poems. I accomplished this, but I was offered so much more.

Each morning, we spent time writing together from a prompt, then sharing our writing and giving feedback. I’m a member of a long-standing writing cooperative, so this process was familiar to me. However, I’ve spent the past five years with more or less the same eyes reviewing my work, so the fresh eyes of these women were a blessing. They were not tired of hearing about the same three traumatic things that had happened to me, and this allowed me to find new wonder in my own story. Hearing the stories of strangers also allowed me to open up more space inside myself and shake loose some long-forgotten stories. I wrote about things I’d never written about before, mainly because I’d forgotten they had happened.

Each afternoon, we had time to ourselves. I usually spent my time hiking or doing yoga, napping, and reading. The silence was astounding. I live with two roommates and I work at a social service agency, so my life is not often quiet. At the lake, though, it was. I couldn’t distract myself from the hard things by re-watching Parks and Rec again because there wasn’t any cell phone service. I couldn’t avoid rest because there was nothing for me to clean and no roommate I could go to the next room to chat with. I was forced to sit alone, and it was hard.  It forced me to introspect in a way I haven’t in a long time.

Each night, we sat around and drank wine and told stories.  Hearing about the lives of women forty years my senior made me realize that I will never have my life together. These women are mothers, grandmothers, and retirees, but they are still figuring it all out. One woman recently decided to go back and get another graduate degree despite the fact that she will soon retire. A retired episcopal priest relayed to the group how confused she is about her identity now that she isn’t working. A woman from rural Georgia recounted her difficult relationships to us and the things she had learned. At my fingertips, I had a treasure trove of wisdom. And the wisdom, essentially, was nothing – that I will never really know what I’m doing and that’s ok. That with each stage of life I will continue to be confused and feel like I’m making things up.  We are always learning as we go.

Each of us expressed feeling tired of conforming, tired of doing what was expected. The other women told me I would care less and less what other people thought of me as I got older. At one point, someone exclaimed, “I’m so tired of being nice! I’m so fucking tired of being nice!” And I thought, yeah…same. Forty years from now I won’t care if I was nice. I will care if I sought healing, had hard conversations, chose adventures, and stood up for myself. I’m still learning how to do these things, but the women on this retreat made me feel as though I was ahead of the curve. “At least you’re dealing with your demons now,” they told me. “It took us years to get here.” So, for now, I will continue writing, not really knowing what I’m doing, but knowing that no one else does either.

On our last morning, perhaps my favorite woman on the retreat gifted me a gold necklace with a small circle charm hanging from the chain. “When I look at you, I feel like things have come full circle for me,” she said, “so I want you to have this.” Each time I wear it, I think of her and her small service dog who loved to lick my hands, and I know that I am headed somewhere important, even if I’m not quite sure where that will be.

Making a Home

I hate moving.  I don’t like change.  I like routines, stability, consistency.  I wish I could stay in my little shoebox apartment, but my rent is going up and I can’t afford it.  Within the next month, I have no choice but to move to a new home.

The things I’m going to miss about my current living space don’t exactly make sense.  I’m not going to miss the occassional roaches or millipedes.  I won’t miss not having a dishwasher.  I also won’t miss the lack of central heating and air.  Most of all, I’ll enjoy not having my power go out every time it storms (thanks, Candler Park).  But I will miss the four mile loop I run each day on the Beltline.  I’ll miss the people I see every morning on my walk to the train – a family with two elementary aged kids walking to school, a family that got a new puppy several months ago that has now grown into a full sized dog, a girl who rides her bike to school and once told me she liked my shirt.  I’ll miss the Kroger where I shop.  I’ll miss my neighbors.

Recently, I got teary eyed just thinking about moving, and I was embarrassed at my emotions.  I’ve only lived in this apartment for two years, and I haven’t always loved it.  It has its kinks.  There are times I wished I could move out.  I’m also not moving far.  I’m staying in the same city, so the area I live in is one I could easily visit any time.  Even so, I’ve grown unavoidably nostalgic about leaving my little corner of the city.

Every day at work, I’m baffled by the ability of humans to make a home in any situation.  I see guests with systems of suitcases that hold their belongings.  I see others with a daily routine – washing their face in our sink, putting on perfume, going to a prayer meeting.  When I pass the areas where our guests live, I bear witness to encampments made of cardboard, tarps, and blankets.  Some use old cardboard and milk crates to make a night stand.  Others use found wooden pallets as a mattress.  Humans do not deserve to be cast aside like this, but I cannot help admiring their ability to make a home in the worst of circumstances.

We desire to have a space that is ours, a space of comfort, organization, routine, and safety.  This desire is so strong that it grants us the ability to make even the worst of conditions into the best home we can manage.

I am privileged.  I have never experienced homelessness or even come close, so in this way my moving woes seem small.  However, I think we all experience a sense of mourning when we have to leave what is familiar and safe in order to make a new nest elsewhere.  I love my little nest, but I have made new ones before.  In my adult life, I moved to college, lived in Costa Rica, spent summers outside of Ashville, moved to Charlotte, and finally landed in Atlanta.  While I was not used to moving as a child, having only moved once with my family before heading to college, I have had my share of transitions over the past ten years.  I know that I will make a new home where I land, but that doesn’t make the uprooting any easier.  For now, I’ll smile broadly as I pass strangers on their way to the bus stop who will never know how much I treasure our silent relationship.