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Sitting with the Dog and 120 Women

2015 September 9
by Ann L. Carter

Kansas gardener and writer

 

I just came in from dodging a spider web. I’d already accidentally knocked this particular one down twice and if I am to go by the most famous spider of all times, Charlotte herself, building these things is no easy job and therefore should not be taken lightly. Which is why I really didn’t want to make this spideress build for a forth time. It makes you wonder why something necessary for the survival of the species is so vulnerable. Rather like us, come to think of it, and certainly in the area of insecurities. And although I’m sure I could find examples in all of us to clearly show this, I guess I had just better use my own story.

After receiving a lovely rejection email (I’m rather fond of these now) to my application to attend the AROHO women writers’ retreat, I later got another email telling me a space had opened up and the group would be honored to have me. YES, I replied within minutes, and the honor was certainly mine to be able to join 120 other participants on the high desert of New Mexico this past August.

I was amazed that I didn’t have my usual trip anxiety when packing for this trip—layers of clothing for the hot days and cool nights, a couple of skirts and blouses for evening events and a possible day trip to Santa Fe (I picked bright colors with a bit of ex-hippie character), seven copies of Spiders from Heaven to put out on the for-sale book tables, my computer and, last but not least, 2 copies of what I planned to read aloud to the entire group.

Yes, everyone had the opportunity to read aloud something they had written, a maximum of three minutes in front of all 120 women, some of them well known writers and others big in the publishing industry. Three minutes turn out to be a very short time, especially if you allow for a few dramatic pauses, and I ended up picking one of my shorter but favorite blogs, “Sitting with the Dog vs. Going to the Dogs” (posted June 16, 2013). I arrived feeling pretty good about this selection, a short essay about how sitting with my lovely dog Jack on the back steps gave me a clearer and more positive perspective on the world.

Although I can’t say I was completely comfortable the first evening and following day, I started the retreat with an acceptance that I had enough to contribute and was worthy of being there.  (I did, however, show early signs of overall insecurity when I met my roommate. I found it rather ironic that AROHO stands for “A Room of Her Own” and yet all the participants had a roommate. Mine was young, pretty, obviously very bright and witty, and my first worry was what she must be thinking—paired up with a much older woman and why couldn’t she have someone her own age, someone she surely had more in common with, maybe even someone who could stay out late with her and not complain about aching knees. I actually was thinking something along the same lines, as an older roommate and I could use the time together to figure out how to turn off roaming on our smart phones, in case Verizon tried to charge us extra. But more on roommates later.)

There were four nights of readings, over two hours each night with a wine and snack break in the middle. I was scheduled to read the last half of the last night, which seemed O.K. as that gave me plenty of time to get comfortable (silly me). I went the first night, sat down by yet another woman I’d never met before, and settled in to listen. And that’s when those carefully woven strands of web began to break apart and any anxiety I’d lacked pre-trip started up in full force.

Apart from a few very funny readings (how could my couple of witticisms possibly compare?) the main themes I was hearing had to do with very serious topics—rape, domestic abuse, slavery, the struggle of women in a man’s world, suicide. And I was going to reading about sitting with my dog???? What was I thinking?

As I went through the week, I had experiences that only get more valuable as I think back. A class that mapped the heroine’s journey taught by a woman whose richness of knowledge and experience astounds me and has led to a greater desire to finish my children’s story about a little girl on her own heroine’s journey. The beginning of friendships with women I wish could be my neighbors, as the time with them was far too short.  A private consultation about promotion with a woman whose caring for others shone forth whenever I saw her (though my eyes still glaze over at the thought of updating websites and tweeting, which I have now done once). An atmosphere where the commonality of our femaleness seemed to break down other barriers. But as I had these wonderful experiences, I also became more and more obsessed with my reading. In the midst of all the good things, I was hanging by a slender thread.

In the end, when my turn came up, I felt O.K. about reading my piece about sitting with the dog. It helped that I had just had a glass of wine and it helped that somehow during that day I had lost my obsession. The retreat would soon be over, I could only read what I had brought to read, and that was that. As I sat down, I looked up to see faces smiling at me. And the next night, the last night of the retreat, a woman who I never noticed before approached me. “Are you the woman with the dog”, she asked. Thinking she meant the woman with the service dog, I pointed across the room. “Funny,” she replied, “because you look like that woman.” And then, when I realized she was talking about my reading, I heard how she had sat by herself that morning, doing nothing, and had noticed the birds around her.  And she had made the effort to seek me out, to tell me about her own experience “sitting with the dog”.

That was the night when chairs were stacked against the walls, the room was darkened, and we danced. A night when I drank more than one glass of wine and when my knees didn’t ache. A night when lots of photos were taken, some with me and my “roomie” making funny faces. As it turned out, she and I quickly bonded and it wasn’t long before we were sitting on our single beds at night (she didn’t want to stay out late either) talking about ex-boyfriends and jobs and writing, children and travel, all sorts of things women of all ages talk about, at times even sharing confidences not easily or often told to others.

My short reading ended by saying that all we ever need at any given moment is something to appreciate and something to contribute (I think this came from Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years but google isn’t helping to confirm this). At the retreat, I had much to appreciate, including the trust these other women gave to me, believing I would really listen to their stories. What I had to contribute was very simple, but also worthwhile. It was my own story, told in my own voice, told in an attempt to be honest and authentic, the story I had to tell.

The women who read their stories of things much beyond my own experience had woven webs that had been knocked down innumerable times and in ways I cannot imagine. But they had rebuilt and rebuilt and the fact that they stood there before us showed the endurance they had. I don’t know if all that rebuilding made their webs stronger but I do know that we should be able to learn the techniques of rebuilding from each other, whatever we have to offer, whatever our differences may be.

The spiders seem to be extra busy right now, so take care where you walk. Remember how much effort is put into their webs. And don’t forget to take a moment to stop and look at them, to really see them. They are a reminder of how fragile we all are, and yet how strong and persistent we have the ability to be. And I do believe that somehow or other, more sitting with the dog will help as well.

woman writer, AROHO Retreat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#Women Writers, #AROHO, #Ghost Ranch

4 Responses Post a comment
  1. Barbara Gottschalk permalink
    September 10, 2015

    Glad to hear you had a great experience. I knew you’d like it!

  2. September 10, 2015

    Ann, loved experiencing the retreat again through your eyes! Picking out a three minute reading is so intense for all of us–so glad you were able to arrive at feeling happy with your choice. Everyone I talked to shared some form of doubt about what she chose to read…I have a feeling many of us morphed and mulled our selections up to the last minute!

  3. September 10, 2015

    Ann, It was absolutely delightful to meet and work with you at the retreat. Everyone (and I mean everyone) has those insecurities you speak of. My first retreat in 2009, I somehow didn’t receive my acceptance notice. I assumed I had not been chosen. Eventually, I was brave enough to ask, thinking surely AROHO would have told me one way or another. Then I discovered that I had, after all, been offered a seat, and somehow the email had been lost. So I went, but because of my late sign-up, had to enroll in the only Master Class left – flash fiction. Me, a poet! I was terrified. Then my roommate was this very hip New Yorker, and I thought, what the heck am I doing here? Of course, like you, everything turned out much better than I anticipated. Flash fiction gave my poetry an entirely new dimension. My roommate and I became good friends. I fell in love with AROHO. And this year, returned for the fourth time. So privileged to have been part of this journey with you!

  4. Mai-Lon gittelsohn permalink
    October 28, 2015

    I am so glad I met you Ann at AROHO. Every time I read about another very tempting writing workshop I think of you and hope that we can do one together in the future. I’d love to be your roommate!!

    Mai-Lon

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