02 March 2006

On building community

This week I'm headed into the homestretch of planning for a retreat to be held in the woods of Adelphi, Maryland, in a sanctuary I have always found inviting and friendly from the bright summer day I first walked up to the building in 1998. When I came there, I was a struggling student who felt out of place and who didn't have many friends beyond my life in the Ivory Tower of Academe. I was on a quest for something that I could not describe on that day, but I soon discovered what I most needed was a place to belong, a sense of community.

Now, eight years later, I am bringing the women of the Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church congregation together for a retreat-in-place this coming Saturday. I have to laugh and remark how much trouble it is possible to get into by being in a conversation with a number of friends and beginning a sentence with, "You know, I've been wanting to . . ." In my case, I said that "I've been wanting to facilitate a retreat about creativity" and the friends are members of this church. From that conversation late last fall, the fleeting idea has grown into solid reality. One of the main purposes of our retreat is to strengthen community among the women of this church and our guests, and in some ways this has already happened before the retreat has even begun.

It seems to me that women are often naturals at community-building. We can become friends over a snag in one's stocking at a fancy party or in the checkout line at a supermarket. It seems an outgrowth of the roles we play as caregivers to family and friends that we create bonds and bring groups closer together. Not all women are like that, of course, but I view it as a quality I've observed in many women around me. I've witnessed how they focus their energy upon and many make it an important part of their life's work.

It's odd for me to see myself in the role of retreat facilitator when I really reflect about my past. I was a loner as a child. I always felt like I stood apart and didn't want to play the games by my friend's rules. I was a bit of a Tomboy and didn't like the make-up, cute-boy talk and other subjects that seemed to be endlessly fascinating to the neighborhood girls. When I got old enough to leave home for longer periods, I found teen friends more like me who liked to escape to "Downtown" by bus and explore cultures and flavors not found in our insular (and we thought, often narrow-minded) suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. I thought I would never really fit in as a teenager, and actually relished the idea that I would be a wanderer of the world. I arranged my life so that I could leave the country immediately after high school on scholarship to a collage in England and planned to never settle down. At that time, I would have been hard-pressed to say that I would even choose to marry someone or live in the same state for more than a decade.

Yet, it's strange how the protestations of youth often make 360-degree turns. Not ten years after I left for college I found myself in my sixth year of graduate school in Maryland and wondering just who I was. My life had changed so dramatically, my teenage fantasies were no longer able to hold up to the life I had created for myself.

Slowly over the course of the years I attended graduate school I learned that there were communities of people who hold the values I believe in. There are people who enjoy the quirky culture and intellectual bantering on literature, film, art and international news as I do. And when I met a group of people who attended this wonderful, wooden sanctuary nestled back into a grove of trees along a stream, I found a kind of home. This place became a home like one I hadn't known since childhood, since the world and responsibilities had intruded upon my sense of peace and upon my boundaries. Most of the feeling of belonging came not only from the building itself and from its natural setting, but even more from the people who inhabit it and who make it their spiritual home.

So this weekend I return there, and in a way this retreat is very much a homecoming. I have been able to attend services again and feel a part as we have planned the retreat. Although my life has moved in different directions, and I am no longer a member there, I feel a jubilation in the reunion. I am especially grateful for the opportunity to give something back to this group of people who gave me support in a critical time in my life.

The theme of our retreat is Spring Clearing: Honoring Transistions, Restoring Creativity.

To me it's especially poignant that the women of this church are asking me to help them with this particular task because it is within this community that my skills as a facilitator and leader of spiritual groups blossomed. My participation enables me to fulfill a dream I've had in just the past few years of bringing people together to inspire greater creativity. And now the time is right for me to answer this calling. My tasks were made all the more easy for me by the professional experience I now have as an educator and as an events planner. So the spiritual and the practical roles I play are now nourishing and sustaining each other. It brings me a great feeling of accomplishment. I feel honored and a bit humbled by it all.

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