The 2011 fall retreat on Lake Michigan this past year provided a metaphor of the future of our organization in my mind. Though it was the 29th annual fall retreat since the women at Rockford began at Lake Geneva on Williams Bay, the spot on Lake Michigan was familiar and all brand new at the same time. We are comfortable on the water for this fall retreat and the ocean-like vastness of Lake Michigan with its unseen shore on the other side calls us to the broader world. During the retreat, we walked to the beach to bless the waters of the world, "Dr Emoto-style." We seem to truly be living out our mission to connect women to the larger world.
An unusual and unexpected storm the week before the retreat left a deposit of new sand on the grassy areas near the beach. We were among the first there to investigate bits of colored glass, pretty little shells and shell pieces, sea weed and worn pieces of drift wood that the storm had blown ashore. We joined water birds in investigation of the small tide pools teeming with life. Our foot prints mingled with bird prints in the sand on the freshly swept beach. Were we also what the storm blew in?
It can be whatever you need it to be.
This year the spring retreat for me was about coming to terms with many changes in my life. I found exactly what I needed in the keynote and the workshops. It felt tailor-made for me as we transitioned from Friday night gathering where I felt welcome and surrounded by a warm and supportive environment to Saturday morning when Teri Freesmeyer's keynote address helped me really engage with the present moment. The day of workshops one by one chipped away at my resistance to the changes I was facing until the last workshop where like a bolt of lightning the answer came.
In past years it has been other, less dramatic things. When I was coming off of my time on bed rest during my last pregnancy, it was a wonderful antidote to the isolation I had been feeling. When I was new to UU it was the introduction to a wide array of ways to be UU that were different from my own church. Some years it has been just a simple break from the craziness of life with kids and work where things could slow down and I could just be.
A UU Women's Connection retreat doesn't have to be a life altering experience. But it can be.
What I learned at CMw District Assembly this year .
I always look for some ideas to inspire my volunteer work with district women and my local church at the annual district assembly. CMwD put it on, as always when the pink dogwood is blooming in my yard. Spring makes me so hopeful as a volunteer and human. Something in bud, only begun. A large spray of the stunning pink bracts from my yard sat on the UU Women's Connection vendor's table with flyers and newsletters and retreat registration forms, organizational tri-fold. Diana and I planned it together. And oh yeah, the ever-full bowl of CHOCOLATE! The creamy chocolaty goodness was only topped by the wrappers with their little sayings. "You are truly beautiful." Or "You deserve a good day."
Women's Connection vendor's table was in a small, narrow hall way of the mammoth conference center in Bloomington, Illinois along with the usual suspects: the humanists, Channing Murray foundation, Popcorn Wisdom, Earth Beat, Continental Women and Religion and more. New this year was "The Mountain" Retreat Center promoting their beautiful retreat location in Highlands, North Carolina. Next to us were two women in bright hats from the Peoria Church with their fabulous cook book, who reported many visits to our table while we were away learning about how to be diverse in Dr Morrison's sessions. They observed that men as well as women like chocolate and helped themselves to our chocolate offerings.
The Perversity of Diversity, theme talk came in two sessions. The speaker, Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed has recently released his book Darkening the Doorways: Black Trailblazers and Missed Opportunities in Unitarian Universalism. His 1984 doctoral thesis titled: Black Pioneers in a White Denomination is still in print.
Dr Morrison spoke twice split by lunch with its theme talk tables. Enthusiastic and funny he interacted with the small audience of district leaders and delegates and had us calling out the names of famous African-American UUs from the get go. Most of the names called out I did not know. It wasn't till we looked at the list later that I realized most of the names were of people of color in congregations from around the district. I could have called out Janice Bailey one of our former councilors, or Rachel Anderson a former ALUUC member now retired to her home state in the south. A woman of color, Rachel had welcomed me when I first joined ALUUC.
I didn't catch on until later that many of the names being called out were of acquaintances and leaders in many district churches. I am ashamed I didn't know much about the famous ones either. So point-well-taken, Mark. I vow to learn and lift up these folks as the pioneers and ancestors they are. Good UU practice for me.
The light-bulb-going-on, kernel-of-inspiration and knowledge that I think was the piece I came to the district assembly this year for didn't come, however, till Dr. Morrison's afternoon session in which he showed a video about a church in Maryland who had attained their vision of diversity. The vision was held in its beginning by an African American minister in an inner-city area, who dreamed the big dreams about a diverse membership at his church.
My kernel, turn-on-the-light-lesson taken from the video was a brief mention of the "bull dog" as he was called in the video. This guy was the protector of the leaders who were working on the vision. He seemed sort of a spiritual body guard...karma patrol, if you will. There were only hints of how he did this, but the idea intrigues me.
Don't leaders in our congregations and UU organizations need protection at times from the vocal, frequently loud and stress producing complaints that invariably come when change is going on? A vision is being realized? Sometimes these usually well-meaning comments can be adamant and even a little mean-spirited.
Let me be the "bull dog' for leaders, board presidents and board members, committee people who above all are volunteers. Ministers should not be excluded from this protection as well. All of these take the flack and do the best that they can. They have ideas and opinions and considerations and lives and baggage as we all do. I want to have the courage to be a "bull dog" and feel like I am protecting the vision of all the diversity that volunteers, members and friends bring. Gay, straight, young, old, Christian, Buddhist, Jew, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, or earth-centered, rich, middle class, poor, naive or worldly, those with advanced degrees or graduates of the school of hard knocks, men and women, teenagers, and little ones, parents and grandparents. This is our diverse beloved community, our family.
We are experimenting with living peaceably and lovingly in this diversity. It is our covenant. Let me be a "bull dog" who guards the vision of this community. It could be hard, but who wouldn't want it. Where to begin? Let's see, maybe with the lessons we taught to first and second graders in RE this year: Treat others as you would be treated. Seek justice. Be Brave. Walk in another's shoes a while. Talk face to face about problems. Compromise and forgive. Above all: Be patient, big dreams take a while.
I had been thinking of the story about the Prophet Mohammed asking the mountain to come to him, as Councilors began discussing details of their trip to The Mountain Retreat Center over Labor Day Holiday. It was our annual retreat and vision quest that would take us on a two day road trip through Nashville and on to the mountains of Western North Carolina for the weekend and then bring us back home by the same two day route. The drive would include an overnight stop in Nashville going and coming.
We visited Diana's bucket list check off, Vanderbilt University's Parthenon which housed a twenty five foot stature of the Goddess Athena, holding the six foot statue of Nike in her hand. Built during the Nashville, Tennessee exposition in the late 1800's, the sight was a jaw dropper. Didn't know Nike was a goddess. She was in Athena's hand because she was to place the Goddess' head dress on her head. Can't remember what Nike was the goddess of, but joked that she must be the goddess of "just do it."
The last leg of our trip to the Nantahala National Forest where The Mountain is situated atop Little Scaly Mountain was through winding roadways and hairpin turns up the retreat center's private one way drive, that let us have a preview of how the Mountain would turn us back on ourselves.
We arrived in time for happy hour before dinner, wine and popcorn with a Jewish folk dance group on their annual retreat who would share their braided Challah loaf with us during their Friday Sabbath feast. They were full of energy and endorphins from their vigorous exercise and happy romping that led me to believe that this weekend would be no ordinary experience.
Our mentor for the weekend, a volunteer named Harriet, who had given up her home along the Hudson River in New York State to travel, volunteer, be part of this scene and many others in what seemed a courageous life of foot loose and fancy free travel with everything she owned in her car. She began volunteering at the Mountain with its elder hostile beginnings. Now seasonal resident naturalist, mountain dulcimer aficionado and talkative happy hour host she arranged for our first evening activity--Instruction about and demonstration of mountain dulcimer and incidentally, Little Scaly's black bear population.
Nodding and eyes closing after our long trip from Nashville, Diana and I listened to dulcimer music and bear stories. On the walk to our cabin and in anticipation of a great night's sleep we followed the small flash lit path to cabin three. Claire and Debbie were in cabin two, a little farther down the darken path. They and our cabin mate, Cathy, had opted for early sleep and were safely tucked in their beds. Couldn't help but think of the bear stories and admonitions about throwing even biodegradable food anywhere but in building bins, made me think of the terrifying stories of grizzlies that I had heard in Alaska last year. It also reminded me of childhood story of Three Bears and Goldilocks search for "just right."
On the walk to our cabin we looked for our dim pathway lights that led us to the front door of our cabin. Now, where was the switch to turn them off so we could save electricity in the Mountain Retreat Center tradition? Diana went outside to look for the switch and ran back squealing. Visions of bears in my head, I squealed too and we both hit it for the cabin door. A spider, you say? The size of a Buick? Okay at least it wasn't a black bear. I'm laughing in this kind of "I can't stop laughing way". I do it when I am nervous or uncomfortable. I'm beginning to recognize that my fears in this high, dark, unknown, place, are fueled by childish fears of the dark,the night time walk to aunt Dorie's outhouse when I was a grade school visitor, the Goldilocks story and Harriet's tales about people who "invite the bears" by dropping banana peels and such.
The wind howled, the cabin responded with moans and groans, acorns from the Dwarf White Oaks dropped to the cabin roof, frequently rolling down hill. Cicada sent their anticipation into the night air at a deafening pitch. Bears were searching for berries, but banana peels would do. No sleep for me tonight.
Pema Chodron, Principal teacher at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia recommends we go to places that scare us. Not just to confront fears -- but to become comfortable with our uncertainly. I am humbled and opened and a little scared that first night at the Mountain, but now The Mountain comes to me offering acorns and spiders and black bears and mystery of night and nature.
Finally light broke to the east and I arose to meditate and read, watch the sunrise across the Mountains and Blue Valley below. During the day the view was all trees and green, a lake in the distance and more mountains to the horizon. There was no evident sign of civilization, but we were told that Clemson, South Carolina lay beyond the farthest range. At night the populated areas were lit but not enough to drown the message of the Milky Way.
The deck situated by our meeting room in the Great Hall, revealed the mountain's wonders to us as well -- a soaring hawk, seen from above his flight; the clear night sky that gave a glimpse of the Milky Way and a shooting star; an apple tree laden with ripe apples that we sampled in an apple crisp on our first night at dinner; an undergrowth of 20 foot Flame Rhododendrons; Spanish moss hanging from bonsai shaped 200 year old White Oak trees and jewel weed beside sun dappled paths. There was reminder after reminder that the Mountain is about peace and diversity and welcome. No longer just for elder hostile, now The Mountain trains young people and others about moving out into the world with grace and peaceful purpose.
Everywhere there was wonder and the mystery of the unexpected: Glittery mica laden stone out cropping at the retreat center, flat enough for a couple of benches. It was called "meditation rock." The clever uphill walk made me feel like I exercised three times every day on my trip up the Mountain to the dining hall. There was a Fall Art Fair in Highlands and visits to quaint shops to buy gifts for loved ones back home. Excellent Retreat Center vegetarian food and a gourmet lunch at Wild Thyme made the time a food success for me. The hike down to Dry Falls, not really dry, but bringing cold mountain water to the land below had a path that led us behind the careening falls, where we felt the mist of water on our faces, and saw the wonder of moss and fern and giant Carolina Fir hanging from the same mica laden rock.
On the way home my companions and I discussed how we could serve the women in our organization and spread the word of joy and hope and service to a needy world. Now back home I have time to let it sink in and feel gratitude to all these mysteries, adventures and fears, and to my traveling companions who made the trip about friendship, sharing and a purpose larger than our own.
There comes a time when the bubble of ego is popped and you can't get the ground back for an extended period of time. Those times, when you absolutely cannot get it back together, are the most rich and powerful times in our lives. -- from Shambhala Mountain Center's Learning to Stay, 2003