Still Blooming . . . .

I’m still processing what happened at last weekend’s “A Second Blooming Retreat,” at the lovely Homestead Education Center in Starkville, Mississippi. After writing about Nina Gaby’s wonderful workshop during the retreat—and my discovery of my spirit animal—in my last post, and also about the drum circle led by Jeri Mangum, I’d like to share a bit about the rest of the retreat.

Ellen, Kathy, Jennifer, Susan and Nina, retreat leaders

About twenty women from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Vermont (yes, Nina flew down to lead a workshop for the retreat) gathered in jeans and yoga pants, most not worrying about makeup and jewelry, for a weekend of inspiration and growth. And delicious food prepared by an excellent cook who used locally sourced organic produce for our meals. We sat around a large, comfortable living area with several couches and chairs, overlooking a lake, some woods, and a few pens full of chickens.

My “keynote” talk on Friday night would serve as an introduction to the weekend and would hopefully set the stage for all the creative magic that would follow. I had never given such an extensive talk about the anthology I edited, the one that that retreat was inspired by—A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. As I developed notes for my talk, I created a little booklet to hand out for the women to use. You can see it here: ASB Retreat Workbook I had an hour and a half to talk, and I certainly didn’t want these women to have to sit and listen to me talk for that long, so I injected some interactive elements into my talk. At one point each woman was asked to write a “word portrait” of themselves—describing their physical, emotional, mental, and intellectual selves. This idea wasn’t original with me. It came from Sally Palmer Thomason’s wonderful book The Living Spirit of the Crone: Turning Aging Inside Out. (Sally also has an essay in A Second Blooming, and was a big part of the inspiration for the book.)

Much of my talk was an expansion of the Introduction I wrote for the anthology, which included lots of quotes from others who inspired—and continue to inspire—me on this journey. People like Richard Rohr, and Anne Lamott. I also read excerpts from essays in the book by a few women who weren’t on the panel of workshop leaders at the retreat, like Emma Connolly, Suzanne Henley, and Cassandra King.

Later in the talk each of us filled two containers with descriptions of things we had put into our “old containers” (ourselves) the first half of our lives—some helpful, others not so helpful—and then the things we want to put into our “new container.” The idea for the containers came from Richard Rohr, especially this quote:

“Life is much more spacious now the boundaries of the container having been enlarged by the constant addition of new experiences and relationships. You are like an expandable suitcase, and you become so almost without your noticing. Now you are just here, and here holds more than enough.”

His “expandable suitcase” analogy reminded me of the scriptural metaphor of the “new wineskins,” and I talked about how we needed to either expand our old wineskins (containers we had built for our lives) or get new ones, as Cassandra King wrote about in her essay for the anthology, “Something Has to Die.”

I even shared my containers so that the women would perhaps feel more emboldened to be candid in their entries. (See image.) After both of these activities there was time for others to share if they wanted to, and I was so moved and encouraged by the candor and courage of these lovely women.

The next morning Ellen Morris Prewitt led a wonderful workshop about “Creating In Groups.” Our hands-on activity was making a small book, which we sewed together and decorated with glitter paint, and in which we wrote our ideas based on Ellen’s talk about the importance of guidance, quiet, and sharing.

 

And then we did an exercise in which we wrote a spontaneous piece about one of three prompts:

My best surprise

Something I’ve grown

My favorite delicate thing.

I chose “Something I’ve Grown,” which inspired the title on the cover of my little hand-made book, “Roots, Leaves & Blooms: How I Grew a Marriage.”

Nina Gaby led the next workshop, “Little Altars Everywhere,” which I wrote about in my last post.

Jennifer Horne (who happends to be the current Poet Laureate of Alabama) led our evening session, “How Our Stories Shape Us.” She led us in several exercises in journaling, which she said is wonderful for those who want “self-directed healing and growth.” Some of the prompts we wrote from were:

“Change came when . . . .”

“I’m feel . . .”

“I’m like a seed because . . .”

After some excellent and candid group discussions about these things in our lives, she had us “flip the story,” (a phrase that Alison Buehler, our retreat hostess, came up with on the spot!) and write:

“I used to . . . but now . . . .”

I’m still thinking of ways to “flip my story,” and I think that will stick with me for a long time.

On Sunday Morning Kathy Rhodes led us through the final workshop of the weekend, “Pushing Up the Sun,” which was the title of her essay in the anthology. Kathy lost her husband suddenly a number of years ago, and writes powerfully about grief and healing. As it turned out (of course) there were several other women at the retreat who also lost their husbands—several of them in the same year, 2012—and they all had powerful things to share as well. I think they would all agree that at first they felt like Kathy, who wrote in her essay:

“I didn’t want to start over. I was not in the building phase of life. In my fifties, I should be basking in the easy warmth of love, on the cusp of twilight years with my mate.”

But she did start over—selling the business she owned with her husband and starting a new one. Building a new home, and eventually getting a new pet. She continues to bloom, and her experience and wisdom brought enlightenment to all of us at the retreat that Sunday morning.

I found myself wishing that Michelle Obama could have been there with us, as I shared this excerpt (and a longer one, actually) from her wonderful memoir, Becoming:

“Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done . . . . It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others.”

That’s exactly what I believe happened at the Second Blooming retreat, and I’m so grateful to Alison for organizing the retreat and hosting us, to the four gifted authors who came and led the workshops, and to the amazing women who came and shared their stories with all of us.

Here are what a few of the retreat-goers and leaders had to say about the weekend:

I was hooked when I arrived at The Homestead Education Center and saw the goats and the lake and the chickens! I was met at the door by Kathie, a most beautiful and sweet and welcoming woman, and then one by one, I met the others…strong women in their roles and struggles and wisdom and power and all looking to become and to bloom. I presented, but I also participated in creative and interactive workshops by Ellen, Nina, and Jennifer. I made a reliquary that held seashells reminiscent of the ebb and flow of life, titled a book about self “Waterfalls of White,” saw how stories shape us, shared my own journaling experience, participated in a drum circle for the first time ever, and was challenged: DO EPIC SHIT! I went to talk, but I went home thinking all the way on the five-hour drive, “I’m not where I’m supposed to be.” I feel lifted up ten feet taller now. It’s almost spring; it’s time to bloom!—Kathy Rhodes, Spring Hill, Tennessee, author of Remember the Dragonflies, and an essay in A Second Blooming: “Pushing Up the Sun.”

Susan Cushman conjured up 22 writers who shared savory stories in the book A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. From that book the workshop birthed by Allison Buehler was hosted at an oasis in the Starkville woods complete with chickens, goats, and a cray cray red cardinal in a holly bush that hurled himself against a picture window wanting to join our group. Susan encouraged us to not put new wine in old skins. Ellen Prewitt told us to put the date on anything so we can remember when present was.   Jennifer Horne showed up how to see, record, and respond to life experiences. Flip that thing like a Patty Duke hairstyle. The elfin Nina Gaby offered us sacred crafts to inspire us when we find ourselves stuck. Kathy Rhodes reminded us that loss can be the seed growing in shit that blooms into something wonderful.   We had chair yoga, healthy meals, and incredible sharing from a collage of wonderful women. And when all the women were drummers, we were there, playing musical chairs with percussion instruments brought by Jeri Mangum. I am at my computer today roaming around past writing efforts. Inspired to keep it going. Thank you, ladies, for the gift of gathering with you!—Susan Hogan Schepens, Tuscaloosa, Alabama

When asked to write an essay for Susan Cushman’s anthology A Second Blooming: Becoming The Women We Are Meant to Be, I had just gone through a second blooming that was, for me, of epic proportions. I felt that I was an expert on the subject. But when I got the finished product and read the other essays, I realized that we all have second bloomings in our lives. Many women go on to bloom over and over again, reinventing themselves and experiencing life to the fullest. Some of the essays resonated with me deep in my soul, and when I saw that Susan was planning a retreat based on Second Bloomings, and the authors that wrote some of the the very essays that were especially powerful to me were going to be presenting, I believe I may have been the first to register for the event. I did it without thought or hesitation. I knew I wanted to be sequestered at the Homestead Education Center for a weekend with those women. I knew I could learn from them and gain insight from them, and I did. I also got more than I bargained for in almost instant friendships. Honestly, I had not factored in the other women who would be attending. They were each powerful in their own way, overcoming hardships and heartbreak, some even in the midst of their struggle. The level of trust and confidence each woman had in the group was so special. I loved the group of women from Starkville and the group from Hattiesburg. Each of those groups have such a strong bond and support and love one another. They opened their arms to all who came on their own, independent of a group. I have been to many retreats over the years, but this one was especially special. There was a sort of magic there that only happens when good things converge. There were plenty of good things over the weekend that soothed my soul, gave me clarity and direction and warmed my heart. I left with great memories and new friends. I’m grateful I had that knee-jerk reaction to register when I first read about the retreat. I’ve learned to trust my gut and do it! Thank you to all who presented such a meaningful and memorable weekend. I love you all. Now go out and bang your own drum!—Susan Marquez, Madison, Mississippi, whose essay, “A Second Chance at Empty-Nesting,” appeared in A Second Blooming

I’ll close with a link to Nina Gaby’s blog post about the retreat, which is wonderful!

“Not Bad For a Yankee.”

And also Ellen Morris Prewitt’s blog post, which is also wonderful!

“I Second a Blooming.”

Several women have asked if there will be another “Blooming” retreat. The fact that they are asking speaks volumes, and all I can see is, “We’ll see!”

A Second Blooming Retreat Speakers: Part 4

I’m following up on my recent post, in which I gave a link to information about the A Second Blooming Retreat this March 1-3 in Starkville, Mississippi, and in which I introduced one of the workshop leaders, Ellen Morris Prewitt. The retreat schedule is also in that post.

In the following post, I introduced another speaker, Nina Gaby.

And on Tuesday I featured Jennifer Horne.
Kathy for ASB retreatToday I’d like you to meet our final workshop leader, Kathy Rhodes. Kathy and I were co-directors, with Neil White, of the 2010 and 2013 Creative Nonfiction Conferences in Oxford, Mississippi. We’ve remained close friends and I was thrilled to have her contribute an essay to A Second Blooming. “Pushing Up the Sun,” which I placed in the section titled, “Blooming After Loss,” is about the sudden death of Kathy’s husband, and her subsequent “blooming” as she worked through her grief.   Here’s more about Kathy and the workshop she will lead on Sunday morning during the retreat:

Kathy Rhodes is author of Remember the Dragonflies: A Memoir of Grief and Healing. Her essay “An Open Letter” appeared in The Best Creative Nonfiction, Volume 3, and was singled out for a review in The New Yorker. She is Senior Writer/Editor at TurnStyle Writers. Rhodes lives in Nashville, where she enjoys gardening, kayaking, and walking her cocker spaniel.

Pushing Up the Sun – As life happens and hurts come, you have a choice of sitting by and waiting for healing or standing up and helping healing come: pushing up the sun. The more light you let in, the brighter your world will be. This workshop will be about proactively working toward healing, surviving, and thriving. Writing down thoughts and feelings helps you make sense of your own personal story. We will do some journaling with prompts. Journaling gets whatever you’re dealing with out of your mind and onto the page. It’s a tool to new insights, new perspectives, and self-discovery.

ASB cover w PQ badgeAs I said in my previous posts, everyone who comes to the retreat will receive a copy of A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE (which I edited). There is housing at The Homestead Education Center, which is included with your registration, or rooms are available at a nearby hotel.

I can’t wait to hang out with all the interesting women who come to this retreat, and to share our hopes and inspirations for our “second bloomings”!

A Second Blooming Retreat Speakers, Part 2

Nina for ASB retreatI’m following up on my recent post, in which I gave a link to information about the A Second Blooming Retreat this March 1-3 in Starkville, Mississippi, and in which I introduced one of the workshop leaders, Ellen Morris Prewitt. The retreat schedule is also in that post. I’m going to continue here by introducing our second workshop leader, Nina Gaby.

I met Nina at the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi, which I was helping direct, along with Kathy Rhodes and Neil White. I was instantly drawn to Nina’s beautiful soul, strong sense of self, and many talents. Here’s a bit more about her:

Nina Gaby is a visual artist, writer, and psychiatric nurse practitioner who has
worked with clay, words and people for five decades. She currently works in
mixed-media, focusing on single edition artist books which explore the
intersection of narrative and object.

Nina will be leading a hands-on workshop on Saturday afternoon during the retreat. Here’s a description of the workshop:

 
Little Altars Everywhere – In a time of deep grief I turned to making art again and developed a second wave to my creativity which continues to this day. The workshop will offer an opportunity to create a small assemblage to commemorate an object of focus, to secure a tableaux for a thought or a poem, to honor a grief, or to celebrate an idea. Some call them shrines, or altars, nichos or reliquaries. Three dimensional poems. Joseph Cornell called them shadowboxes.

ASB cover w PQ badgeCheck out Nina’s art work here.

As I said in my previous post, everyone who comes to the retreat will receive a copy of A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE (which I edited). There is housing at The Homestead Education Center, which is included with your registration, or rooms are available at a nearby hotel. I can’t wait to hang out with all the interesting women who come to this retreat, and to share our hopes and inspirations for our “second bloomings”!

A Time to Grieve Part IV: Rebuilding and Remembering

Ijtg_book_4_covert’s been six months since my last post about my grief journey following my mother’s death on May 22, 2016. I was going to wait until May 22—the one year anniversary of Mom’s death—to write this post, but with Mother’s Day coming up, today just seemed like a good time. And, I recently received Book Four of Kenneth C. Haugk’s series, Journeying through Grief in the mail from Mary Lewis, the Stephen Minister and Grief Ministry Coordinator at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi. This was the church my parents helped to start in the 1950s. The church I grew up in and was marred in on June 13, 2013. Mary’s letters and the booklets have been a great blessing to me over this past year, and this final mailing is no exception.

In Book IV, Rebuilding and Remembering, Haugk says:

Part of what we do during grief is to develop a new relationship—a continuing bond—in which we don’t disconnect from our loved one, but instead reconnect with him or her in a new and different way…. There are many ways to have a continuing bond with a loved one.

Haugk goes to on to share examples, personal stories of ways that people have kept that bond alive—using a grandmother’s recipes for Thanksgiving; curling up in a husband’s favorite lounge chair to feel close to him; lighting a scented candle as one man’s wife often used to do.

Mom and me circle 1953

Mom and me circle 1953

For me, this past year has been about working through the stages of grief in ways that have surprised me, knocked the wind out of my sails (depression, weight gain, etc.), and then encouraged me, as I began my book tour in March for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. Reading stories from those years of caregiving for Mom at book signings has reminded me of God’s grace in allowing me to forgive her, to ask her forgiveness at one point, and to begin to heal what was a very dysfunctional relationship.

This coming Saturday I’m traveling to Nashville for two book events. The second one is a book reading and signing for A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be, with Nashville area contributors Kathy Rhodes and River Jordan. That will be at 1 pm at Barnes and Noble in Cool Springs Mall in Brentwood. But Saturday morning at 10:30 I’m meeting with a group of women in nearby Thompson’s Station, Tennessee. They have formed a support group for caregivers, and one of them read Tangles and Plaques and asked the group’s leader/hostess to invite me. I’m sure I will benefit as much or more from their stories as they might from mine, and I can’t wait to talk with all of them.

Mom peace lilyMeanwhile as Mother’s Day approaches, I’ll continue to heal, and hopefully to share that healing with others. As Haugk says:

Nearly every grieving person I’ve talked with has told me they’ve become more caring and compassionate with others who experience losses. They know what it’s like to lose a loved one and are much more sensitive to other people’s needs.

I hope I’ve become more compassionate. I think I’ve become a better listener.

This beautiful peace lily sits by my front door, as a reminder of the love of the people at St. Peter Orthodox Church in Madison, Mississippi, who gave it to me for my mother’s funeral last year. I love that it’s blooming right now, near Mother’s Day, and near the one year anniversary of her death. I hope it will bloom for many years to come.

A Time to Grieve: Part III

51P21tvRLRL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_It’s been almost six months since my mother’s death on May 24. I wrote about my grief process back in July initially, and then again in August. Both of those posts included reflections on the series of booklets by Kenneth C. Haugk, Journeying through Grief. This week I received the third of the four books in the series, from Mary Lewis, the Stephen Minister and Grief Ministry Coordinator at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi—the church my parents helped establish in the 1950s. The church in which I was confirmed as a communing member when I was twelve. The church in which I was married in 1970.

This third booklet is titled Finding Hope and Healing. I found two sections to be especially helpful. The first is “Talking Is Healing.” Haugk encourages those of us who have lost a loved one to talk about it—to share our feelings:

Talking is healing. Talking helps you locate your pain, bring it to the surface, and let it go. And because your grief doesn’t suddenly go away, the pain recurs, and you need to talk about it again an again and again. That’s why grieving people need to talk about the same feeling or memory over and over.

I remember one night a few weeks ago when I was a bit depressed and my husband asked me what was wrong. I simply answered, “My mother died.” He smiled gently and embraced me, making himself available for my words. Talking helps. And for a writer, that often means writing. It’s almost ironic that just before my mother died I finished writing a book about my years of caregiving with her. Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s will be published in February. But this summer I read all the way through the manuscript again, not only proof-reading for errors but also letting my words into places where my heart needed healing. I read parts of it aloud, which felt like sharing those words with a friend, or maybe with the little girl inside who had lost her mother to Alzheimer’s years ago—the little girl who had always been grieving for a different kind of mother, for one who could love her unconditionally.

Another section in the booklet spoke to me—“Letting Go of Guilt.” I’m sure my feelings of guilt are shared by everyone who has ever been the caregiver for an aging parent. It’s that feeling that you can never do enough—that you could have been a better daughter. One thing that I found helpful in this section was this:

View your guilt as someone else might. It may be helpful to look at yourself as if you were a third person. You may see how unrealistic your expectations are. If you wouldn’t blame another person, why are you blaming yourself? If you’d have compassion on another person who is grieving, why wouldn’t you have compassion on yourself?

I actually experienced this from real, living “third persons”—close friends who reminded me not to blame myself. Friends and family who told me that I had been a good daughter. That what I had done was enough. Again, Haugk says:

Remember the good that you did…. Take a fresh look at your relationship with your loved one and recognize the good things you did as well. Commend yourself for those.

EFfieSusanhandsOne of my favorite memories of “good things I did with Mom” is from six years ago. I wrote about it here: “Coloring Violets With Effie.” Mother was very artistic, but I couldn’t get her to draw or paint in her latter years. So I took a coloring book and crayons to the nursing home and we colored together. At first she was shy about it—perhaps she was thinking it was childish. But once she got into it with me, she started remembering things she loved and talking about them—her favorite color (purple); how much she loved flowers and making flower arrangements. It was one of my favorite visits with my mother.

February 2010, around Mother's 82nd birthday

February 2010, around Mother’s 82nd birthday

 

So today I’m again thankful to the folks with the Stephen Ministry at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Jackson for this gift, and I look forward to the fourth and final booklet in the series when they send it. What a blessing for my grieving heart, which is healing.

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