God’s Crooked Straight Lines

I have fantasized for quite some time about participating in a silent retreat. My ideal vision involved going to a monastery in north Georgia (or somewhere else far enough away from Tallahassee to feel “gone”) and spending two days or so in contemplative silence.

As it turns out, life is harshly disinclined to release me from my Tallahassee obligations for a full weekend involving travel to and from, and my budget is rather slim for that kind of thing too.

When I participated in a Toastmasters competition at Unity Eastside Church recently, there was a flier for a silent retreat day on our sign-in table. Six hours, twenty dollars, fifteen minutes from home. Not exactly my “ideal,” but an option with much more likelihood of happening. I informed my husband I would be out of pocket on March 26 for six hours, suspended my usual Saturday morning long run plans, and prepared.

I had two main goals: 1) write my friend Kathleen, my one true “snail mail only” friend, who I have owed a letter to for a very long time, then 2) read a book which would frame the rest of the day. I chose Becoming Who You Are by James Martin, SJ.

There was a brief introductory session at the beginning of the day (where we were encouraged to “wander and ponder,”) and a 15-minute closing session at the end, but other than that we were free to do whatever we wanted on the expansive property.

When I signed in, I was given a handout about Noble Silence which directed us to refrain from writing to one another. Hmmm ….. although Kathleen wasn’t a participant in the retreat, my rule-follower brain worried if my personal agenda was a bad fit!

Fortunately, there were no Noble Silence police at this retreat so I forged ahead with my plans. My correspondence with Kathleen edifies me in many ways, so it was a blessing to write her. After I wrote Kathleen, I started the book. As books go, it is brief (97 pages), but I figured it would be a perfect fit for a 6-hour retreat. I’ve experienced a great deal of difficulty attending to books on paper (vs audiobooks) lately, so imagine my surprise when I had finished the book before the retreat was even halfway over!

A Day Well Spent

Before I share takeaways from the book, here’s how I spent the rest of the day:

  • Co-existing with the wildlife (I had camped out in the nursery because the rocking chair was great. So had a green frog.) HMMM.
  • Napping
  • Walking their labyrinth. The fact that it was raining made this one of the most lovely labyrinth walks I have ever taken!

God's Crooked Straight Lines

  • Walking their grounds
  • Praying
  • Eating lunch
  • Writing another letter when I was out of things to read and prayers to say (I also skimmed “Radiation Therapy and You” a publication I had taken solely to have a hard surface to write on. Maybe I do have trouble calming my brain!)
  • Reading and re-reading the lyrics to Where Does the Good Go?, which Shonda Rhimes talked about in Year of Yes and I subsequently can’t. stop. thinking. about. Just can’t!
  • Taking pictures with a disposable camera (because I was afraid if I took my smartphone in “just for the camera” I would not be able to resist checking Email/Instagram/Facebook/Twitter)

Silent Retreat Reading Takeaways

Now for my takeaways from Fr. Martin’s book, which focused on insights about what constitutes the “true self,” drawing heavily on Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen.

Humanity is, in itself, holy. Holiness is not limited to the officially beatified or incessantly selfless.

Time is a gift. In a passage discussing how each moment is a sacrament (a parent preparing a child’s lunch, etc.), I was reminded anew that my tasks of caregiving are sacramental (even though that is not how they feel). Yes, I have grumbled audibly when closing our back French door which my FIL frequently inadvertently leaves open, uttered my share of sarcastic comebacks, and prayed for him to sleep in just a little longer in the mornings so I can have my house (and train of thought) to myself. Although I know I need to cut myself a break as a caregiver, I also owe these responsibilities the perspective they are due.

The idea (generated by Nouwen) that “the term burnout was a convenient psychological translation for a spiritual death.” Having said, as I left my job in May 2014, that my soul was being sucked out of me, I could relate to this passage!

As a follow up to the burnout idea, I was intrigued by the idea that “ordinary people,” who are leading “ordinary” non ministerial lives, are still serving God.

Merton calls these men and women “hidden contemplatives” who enjoy a kind of “masked contemplation.” Their ability to do so hinges on their willingness to find God not by trying to be cloistered monks, but by discovering the divine spark in their own busy lives.

Repeatedly throughout the book, Fr. Martin repeated his point that “being holy means being your true self.”

As I walked the labyrinth, I reflected on a proverb Fr. Martin had shared: “God writes straight, with crooked lines.” You can see the center of the labyrinth from the entrance, but you can’t get there without following, obediently, a circuitous path. As the path unfolded before me, I tried not to look at my watch, to let time elapse naturally. I saw a beautiful red cardinal, the raindrops on the trees, and a broken tree, its fresh splinters reflecting how jagged you become when you are broken. All of them encouraged my mind to relax and expand, to focus on enjoying the journey knowing that the center would appear eventually.

In a day of quiet, one idea persisted in asserting itself, wordlessly but forcefully:

The divine spark. It is worth seeking, protecting, sustaining.

(For more pictures from the day, click here.)

Creative K Kids

Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many.

Two Minutes on the Table

know why “Table Topics” are called “Table Topics” in Toastmasters. According to the Toastmasters website, these two-minute impromptu speaking exercises, which typically occur at the table (rather than the lectern/podium) “improve confidence and impromptu public speaking skills.”

Impromptu Speaking

When you participate in a Table Topics competition, however, the “table” part goes out the window as you speak on a stage in front of the contest attendees (which can be 10 people in an area contest or hundreds at a division or district contest).

When I participated in the Area 82 and 83 Spring Speech Contest at Unity Eastside Church on March 12, 2016, I had the opportunity to relax after participating in the Area 82 contest and simply enjoy the Area 83 contest. The question was “Identify your greatest fear and how you have overcome it.”

As each of of the five participants approached the stage, I wondered what they would talk about. Spiders? Flying? Falling? Bridges, water, closed spaces, the number 13, clowns, snakes? It turns out the five participants had fears that were less specific but, to me, more profound and eminently relatable:

Public Speaking

While I suppose there are Toastmasters (and non-Toastmasters) out there who truly feel ONLY ENERGIZED by and NEVER TERRIFIED BY public speaking, I am guessing many more of us fall much closer to the “scared of” end of the spectrum. I always say I joined Toastmasters because I don’t want to be “that awful speaker” I have heard way too many times. To the gentleman for whom this is a fear: your two minutes proved you are well on your way of facing that fear head on and overcoming it!

Being Harshly Judged

If it would not have been utterly inappropriate, I would have stood up on my chair the moment this participant announced her biggest fear and pronounced “ME TOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” What struck me about this speech was the participant’s explanation of how the fear GREW as she gained life experience, instead of DIMINISHING. For me, I keep reading all these stories of women who, having reached “mid-life,” have gotten to the “I really don’t care what others think” phase, and wanting to know if AAA does a Trip-Tik to that because I seem to have lost my way! I suppose it’s a work in progress, like most things in life. One thing about Toastmasters is we don’t just learn to speak, we learn to evaluate, non-judgmentally and constructively. I think this participant has chosen a great place to keep overcoming that fear.

Feeling Inadequate 

Another one where I could easily see myself being a part of the “me too” chorus! Especially when the speaker talked about his first venture coaching little kids in soccer, I could relate to the fact that very small people can bring out our biggest inadequate feelings. As the speaker pointed out, humility was part of the equation for resolving the fear; once he humbled himself to admit his inadequacies and seek help, everything improved. Humility is, indeed, powerful.

Failing as a Parent

Perhaps there are parents out there brimming with confidence, never questioning themselves, their choices, or the example they have provided for their children. I am not that parent. It is no exaggeration for me to say that being a parent is all I ever wanted to be. I realize that declaration does not embody any work life balance but it’s the simple truth. I gave birth 19 and 16 years ago, respectively, and have subsequently questioned myself the whole time. And I have degrees in child development and counseling. There’s nothing like procreating to eviscerate the academic initials you thought taught you something!

Something Happening to Your Kids

Although this topic is in the same category as the one above, it was a very different speech. I’ve been around the block long enough to have seen many tragedies befall friends, family, acquaintances, and now thanks to social media, a stream of people I will never know but for whom I still feel grief and sadness as they cope with unspeakable outcomes for the people who mean the most to them. This speaker did a great job of distinguishing between our tendencies as parents, especially when our children are young, to turn every cut and scrape into a catastrophe in our minds, and the dangers that really matter. It’s easy to forget to live while trying to mitigate for all the imagined dangers that may befall our children.

In the case of the five participants from Area 83, it turns out their greatest fears are ones that are harder to conquer than a spider and harder to avoid than a clown. They are the kinds of things that keep people up at night and can take a lifetime to learn to manage.

At my home club, Podemos Hablar, which is quite small, I have heard Table Topics speeches about fears and other difficulties in which the participants disclosed profound pieces of their souls. There have been plenty of light and downright amusing Table Topics speeches too, don’t get me wrong, but I am consistently reminded that you can learn a lot about a person and gain a different perspective on life in two minutes through the simple act of listening.

That’s the funny thing. We come here to speak but sometimes we learn the most without saying a word.

Impromptu Speaking

Lastly, I want to share the speech I gave as my entry to the club level International Speech contest at Podemos Hablar. It did not advance to Saturday’s contest, but I am passionate about this topic (not about the pencils themselves, but about education for all children, everywhere). It was inspired by a speech I saw Jackson Kaguri give at the 2015 Social Good Summit. This video was my last practice session the day of the contest. I am seriously considering keeping the speech in the rotation, and continuing to refine it, if for no other reason than it took a long time to figure out how to do what I do at the end with a pencil; there’s a reason Jackson’s father used a machete!

Stopwatch image courtesy of atibodyphoto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many.