Have you ever asked a stranger to tea?
Ever spent the night with someone you’d only just met? (Wait, that came out wrong.)
How about deciding to gather together folks you’d (mostly) never met for a week. Six nights!
Why would you do such a thing?
Why did I?
That one I can answer.
Strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet.
Was it Yeats who said that first? Someone I read in high school English. But it’s long been a sentiment I resonate with. I like people. I like my quiet time too, but I like meeting new people. I find them endlessly fascinating.
I particularly enjoy that moment with a person I’ve just met when I realize the mutual affinity is tangible; somehow I know this is a friendship that can last. I just like her. Or him. Have you found that?
Last year’s retreat was such a success, I wanted to do it again.
Eventually, given the crush of schedules and the press of illness, the starting field narrowed itself to six. Including me.
Six bloggers I’d heard of through the magic that social media is now. (Well, two hadn’t been blogging for a while, but I’d met them back when they were blogging. That was good enough for me. I still wanted to meet.)
The excitement of the new called: New voices, new energy, new ideas.
And so we gathered: from the south, the Midwest, the east coast, and the northeast.
One of the first things I noticed as we got comfortable with each other was that, thanks to two of them, I had become a “tall person.” It had been ten years since I had had that opportunity and I joked about how it offered me a new perspective.
A new perspective.
I liked the idea, so it became my theme for the week. What would I discover through this “new perspective?” I wondered. And what I did, surprised me.
As I had done last year, other than how we were going to eat, I didn’t specifically plan this retreat week. These were competent, engaging women who had different needs and much life experience. We would, I trusted, find a routine that worked for all of us.
Besides, what quicker way is there to disappointment, than to hold tight to a specific expectation?
Soon enough, my new perspective
gave me two surprising revelations:
(1) I didn’t feel as if I were welcoming people into my home.
Don’t worry; I wasn’t rude. It’s the word “HOME” I struggled with.
I am, it turns out, a one-home kind of girl. And that home is in Vermont with my dog at my feet, my husband by my side, and my mother around the bend. That’s a big reason why this house is no longer being rented and is now on the market (i.e., FOR SALE — contact me; we’ll talk.)
The structure, this little log cabin on the shores of Oyster Bay (Virginia) was our home the year and a half before we went into Peace Corps and for the year following our return. I fussed over it, tended her gardens, bought stock in Pottery Barn to furnish it (or should have, by the time I was done).
But it has been a rental property since Woody and I moved to Vermont nine years ago. During this retreat week, I felt less that I was at home than that I was simply the first of the group to get there.
I grew keenly aware that this house had become like the old boyfriend from our past (our very distant past, if we are lucky) — the one we remember occasionally, when we think about how good we now have it — the one we had to break away from, say good-bye to, once we recognized how much he was depleting us rather than helping us grow. And we can still be sad; we can still miss him.
For the week, I strived to set my sadness aside.
Having my Ladies-In-Writing — as Woody dubbed them — helped.
Once together, we were on equal footing. And that I liked very much. It wasn’t hard either. It’s not like we had enormous cultural barriers to cross. Not at all. We were, after all:
* born and bred in America (I think; we never actually talked about that),
* from the same generation (ah, that we did talk about — all of us in the broad category of “midlife“), and
* holding to a similar world view (yes indeed; big topic).
And, when I really listened, my new perspective
also let me know that
(2) I did not want to be seen as “the hostess,” or (worse) “the owner.” I wanted to be one of the group, one of the girls.
Here I was, the inviter; how could I NOT adopt the role of hostess? I found it was not difficult.
What is, exactly, the role of hostess? I know how I played hostess when I was a suburban housewife with two small kids and a working husband. I did it the way my mother-in-law did it. For that was how it was done.
I couldn’t help but compare my experience to
the one I’d had as a Peace Corps volunteer, living and working in Kazakhstan.
In Kazakhstan, you might remember from my memoir At Home on the Kazakh Steppe, a guest is treated like a gift from God.
It’s not a metaphor.
No matter where we gathered, Woody and I were greeted royally and warmly, ushered to our seat, and waited on “hand and foot” throughout the meal, our every need anticipated and answered and welcomed. And, we were welcomed even more if we just dropped in. For then we were truly a gift from God.
I acclimated to this fairly quickly (Really).
But this was NOT how it worked this past week.
Here’s what I came up with, guest roles first, then hostess’ …
In Kazakhstan, guests have only one responsibility: to eat.
In America, guests have additional responsibilities.
Guests are expected to participate in conversations, not just listen. We listen, of course, but then we are expected to add to the story, embellish the point, contrast the experience in a way that is either entertaining or educational (and God bless the guest who can do both!).
Guests are encouraged to “Make yourselves at home.” Have you said this, as hostess? I do it all the time and I certainly served under that umbrella during this past week. “Thirsty? Here’s what we have. Please help yourself.” “Need a walk? Let us know; we may want to join you.” Again, working towards the moment when “guests” can participate actively; without needing to be asked.
In Holland (and probably other countries), if the host has done the cooking, the guest generally cleans up. While America hasn’t come quite that far, we often see guests participate in the cooking.
I’m a big “pot luck” person. My parties are generally “pot luck” suppers and my writers’ retreats are a form of that as well.
I cooked the first night’s meal while my “ladies” got settled. Then they took turns, one had Thursday, one had Saturday, one had Monday. But I noticed no one cooked alone. Someone popped up to help chop, someone stirred, someone set the table. We were connected sufficiently to know what needed doing and it got done. THAT is synergy.
But what about the American hostess? She has responsibilities too.
I came up with three four.
To welcome them. Eager to have them under my roof. Glad to see them. (This I cannot do authentically if I don’t know they are coming; very different from the communal cultures).
To orient them to a new surrounding: “Here’s the bathroom; we compost here; the password for the WiFi is … here’s the Mr. Coffee.”
To connect with each one. After all, why get together if not to connect? Anything else is sheer utility; and no one likes to be used. This involves active listening. And caring.
To clean the house before their arrival. I will also be the one to clean again once they depart. This fourth one is not nearly as much fun as the other three.
And so, as I write this, they have all gone, heading back to their respective homes. My little log shell is empty — and quiet — and I am once again adjusting to a new surrounding. But one filled with a wealth of new memories.
We have each taken different things away from this week. And if you have some time, I encourage you to visit their websites. Each one has things to say.
Before I list the links, here are a few photos that are just fun to see: