Sometimes, in the midst of rocking and rolling within our invisible life boats as another mini-gale peaks and subsides, we yearn for a break. And speaking for myself, there are also moments when I need to vacate the confines of my vacuous or nitpicking or redundant thoughts. It isn’t always clear what a reprieve may be despite desperate daydreams or spontaneous forays onto travel sites to check on the cost of a plane ticket to (and cheap hotel room in), say, Copenhagen or Buenos Aries. How many “free” miles has my spouse racked up after several business trips already this year? Likely not enough for where I want to go, what I want to do. I was thinking: a month in a cabin by a sparkling lake under the reassuring watchfulness of mountains in British Columbia. Or a combination of a thrilling/lazy respite in pristine New Zealand. But I will just as gratefully take a steamboat cruise down the Mississippi River for a couple of weeks.
Next year, maybe, if I start saving now.
Since I don’t have huge money at easy disposal I’ve become reasonably adept at taking little internal and external breaks. It gets even easier when the rain stops, since I love the outdoors. I enjoy the beach for a week-end, meander by car over the breathtakingly varied Northwest topography, take day hikes and visit all green spaces and nature preserves we can find nearby. All these make an immediate difference in my state of mind.
Simply stepping into fresher air (for the most part it is fresher in Oregon than many places) gives me a lift. I like my balcony all year around even though it does face a two-story house and a big backyard with its oft-used barbecue. I have flowers in crayon-colored pots. There is room enough for a three or four other folks if required or desired. And I can see partial sunsets and a few choice constellations even within the city.
And there is my usual: daily walks and the gym, music and books, action-packed or funny or romantic movies, light shopping (must watch cash flow), having lunch with friends (as long as heavy topics are off-limits), making art (I even have a Lego brand architecture set waiting for me to build something), visiting galleries and so on. I am not easily bored unless my own mind corners me with it pathetic insistence that I keep perseverating about the infinite meanings of life. Or the lack of signs of optimum earth life. The other night I thought: I just have to shut the door on myself more often. Granted, I have been grieving my sister’s death, but the thought still seemed right in the morning. It was easier to do that when I still worked long hours with other people’s issues.
But there are times when I am surprised by a turn of events, when even something expected takes on a far better sheen and opens up mind and spirit.
My new once-a-week break took shape a few months ago when I joined a women’s study group at my church. Alright, I suspect you want to stop reading right now and are thinking: really, a religious group, a bunch of women mostly over forty and a couple into their eighties? Not an auspicious rendering of “taking a break.” But I had gone to the traditional coffee hour after a church service and talked with an artistic woman whose cards I admired. She–right then and there–asked me if I would like to come to the Open Circle group. I liked the name of it immediately and her responsive but quiet way, so agreed to attend, shocking myself.
It took a month or two to get there, but when I made the decision I felt ready. Yet, as I entered heavy wooden side doors and trudged up the stairs to a very large room, it again crossed my mind that maybe this was not what I needed or was looking for; maybe it would even put me to sleep. Or I would say something not acceptable to them. But I had been looking for a welcoming, energizing congregation for years and when I finally felt that church might be the one, I took an unprecedented action: I joined something without having a clear idea what it was about and would happen.
Frankly, I am not an easy joiner as much as I appreciate mingling and working with others. And I do not fit a “typical” mainstream Christian believer in a few ways, due to my own theological understandings and personal experiences. I have tried other study groups throughout the years and never found a comfortable spot, at least not since my youth.
It has, however, occurred to me that being comfortable is not always the best thing. Into the room I went and surveyed the scene.
The women sat in a loose circle as if reflecting the name Open Circle. The decaf and regular coffee dispensers and cookies of the sort one has at any meeting anywhere were arranged on a cart. I availed myself of some of each. I was instructed to write my name on folded white construction paper as the others had done, then placed it at the spot I claimed. I recognized a few faces; people greeted me with a smile and nod. And we began.
I’ll spare you the tiresome bits and exact nature of our studies. But I do want to note that each time we get to know one another with creative icebreaker questions and personal prayer requests. The informative studies happen, but within this context. And the women are lively in discussion, thoughtful and open to others’ opinions.
Their sincerity that first day nearly overwhelmed me. Many are so invested they continue to attend after many years, extend themselves to one other beyond the meeting, engage with bold intelligence. It is a genuine community of thinkers and doers, all Christian and still searching for greater knowledge and connection.
I couldn’t wait to go back and did so. After a couple of months I began to develop a clearer sense of folks. My respect has grown. Their lives, of course, hold challenges not readily apparent while demonstrating strength and hope moves me. I began to rearrange a corner here and there in my mind so it was a better space to think about things in a fresh ways, ponder an array of faith concerns, consider the impact of their lives intersecting with mine. I am learning more about our complicated, sometimes confounding faith. It is like moving steadily across a common landscape toward a brightening horizon, only this time not so alone. New information is being excavated, with better tools to aid us as we dig even deeper. How do we demonstrate in our living what we are committed to upholding?
The prayers at that table can shake me in my innermost center. Those moments tell me this is where Spirit thrives and people work to bring into fruition thoughts and deeds of compassion, despite human frailties. God, after all, already knows how and why we have failed or could fail–but that’s no excuse for not keeping at it.
Yesterday was the end-of-the-year group luncheon. It sounded like a pleasant way to spend a few hours at a stunning home with women I wanted to know better. The sky was displaying its early summer genius with vivid blue; bright sunshine made it even better. Roses and many other flowers were showing off, their blooms redolent of a tender richness. As I entered, women greeted me, chatted with me, showed me around. Iced tea and lemonade and a little wine were passed from outdoor table to hands. I finally took a seat and in minutes enjoyed various companions. Something interesting was revealed about each person with whom I conversed as we filled the deep patio and shady yard, waiting for lunch to be served.
The hostess, a woman likely in her later seventies or early eighties, made all the food herself. The simple lunch was made of freshest ingredients with subtle but tasty seasonings. The desserts–five that I can recall–were five-star deliciousness. We ate off pretty china and sipped from chilled crystal goblets. I was told this lady puts on the luncheon yearly, as she has been church and group member for more than a couple of decades. It is an act of love, a gracious offering of her time and an unusual talent for hospitality. I left content, satiated by excellent food (I am not a foodie, either) and genial conversation.
Much to think over. Already I am wishing it was autumn so the group could reconvene. I look forward to welcoming someone who is newer, finding out how to be of service, participating in more thought-provoking discussions. I am hoping to become a good friend as well as welcome others into my life. And that my faith will expand and be shared in effective ways.
This post was to be about taking a break, leaving behind troublesome or self-absorbed thoughts that can threaten to undermine–any sort of reprieve that does what you need it to do. Or what you weren’t looking for at the start. And maybe this kind of time away from your home or head would not be for you. I wish you well in your search for rejuvenation.
But for me, this circle of pilgrim women has been a surprising answer to prayer.
(Thank you, KB, for extending a kind invitation to me.)