Updated: Oct 28
The essay below is inspired by a recent writing retreat I attended. It's about taking a chance with unsuspecting encounters and the many rewards that may arise from blindly stepping into the opportunity of new friendships. It's a move away from my usual focus on novel experiences but I hope you will enjoy it and be inspired to nurture your interests and find a community of like minded individuals with whom to form sustained connections through your shared passion.
As I looked around the circle formed by my writing group during a recent retreat we shared in Utah, I felt awed and humbled. Jen had just finished reading her essay about the loss of her best friend to cancer, and as she wiped away her tears, we held our silence, creating a safe container for her to release emotions that were still very raw and painful.
That’s what we have done for each other over the past four and a half years since forming our Loosely Bound Sisters group.
We met serendipitously during a continuing education class at Rice University. We had enrolled with the intention of gaining tips and advice on starting a memoir. Over the course of the eight- week session, we interacted and engaged as strangers in the classroom, connected only through our love of storytelling and writing. In our last class, I felt compelled to approach each of these five women with the suggestion that we stay in touch and form a writing group. There was something about their stories and persona I wasn’t ready to walk away from. I also hoped that as a group we would encourage each other to keep writing and not interrupt the momentum.
They unanimously agreed and we soon began our monthly meet-ups. With time, we started to shed our protectionist veil, and began to reveal, in small increments, a truer version of ourselves and our lives through our writing. Our untold stories were finding their path onto the page and we confronted them in the absence of judgment or criticism.
Christine, a Jamaican, left us jaw-gaped with her essays about the five years she spent fostering three teen orphan girls who lost their parents under tragic circumstances. The story of how she took them in as her own revealed to us her infinite capacity for nurture and care. Jennifer, an African American Houstonian with roots in Louisiana, warmed us with her family tales of love centered on her six siblings, adoring parents, racial inequity and lived injustice.
Hae Hun, from South Korea, was quiet yet forthcoming when she shared her remarkable story about being the child of deaf adults, CODA. Her empathic and generous spirit was revealed as soon as she read her essays about the challenges of interpreting every aspect of daily life in Sign Language, for her parents who lived in a silent world.
Tara, Texan born and bred, is a pretty young thing. When we first met her in 2018 she was stylishly dressed yet wearing a mask, long before the word was a staple in our vocabulary. We soon learned she was the recipient of a double lung and liver transplant which miraculously, only a few months earlier, saved her life at the eleventh hour. Tara is smart, bold and has a wicked sense of humor. She is courageous too. Her writing evocatively describes her decades in intensive care units and recovery wards.
Janet, a recent corporate retiree, initially wanted to put her family’s genealogy on paper. But her manuscript pivoted and evolved in unforeseen ways until it was published in 2021 under the title Survival isn’t Mandatory. In 2019 she co-founded the nonprofit, Our Silent Voices, for women who experienced abuse.
Soon, Wendy joined the group. She hailed from Guyana and her spontaneous Caribbean sense of humor was a refreshing addition to the medley of personalities present. Wendy’s stories were keen observations of everyday life: her childhood memories in Guyana, her migration to America, and her intimate accounts of the trials and tribulations of daily life. She made it all so amusing, relatable and relevant.
Every meeting was a combination of sisterhood, laughter, personal essays and a meal meant to nourish the body and elevate the spirit. Our stories felt cathartic and formed the glue that would bind us in ways we couldn’t foresee. We had unwittingly created a trusted space that gave way to all the spectrum of human emotion.
We were in this with all our imperfections, regrets, and longings, but also our gifts, resilience, and creativity.
Our writing and stories propelled us out of our heads so we could make room for the roaring spirit within each of us. We were growing as writers and becoming closer as friends.
My inner-child was being fed with the most important ingredients of all: unconditional acceptance and belonging.
We met for the last time in person in February 2020, a month before the pandemic: Our March meeting was the day Houston went into lockdown. As we turned our attention to surviving this unknown virus, we agreed to pivot our meetings online to maintain a sense of continuity and routine in our lives. Our primal need for sharing and gathering felt even more essential.
We were sustaining our friendship through a mutual desire to stay connected. The pandemic created an opportunity for us to focus on our writing and we were soon branching into pursuits we could have never imagined: blogs, public speaking, book publishing and contributing to anthologies.
Our families were seeing our potential in new ways. The Loosely Bound Sisters was not just meeting for coffee and chats; we had bigger plans.
Little did we know then that we wouldn’t meet in person again until August 2022, save for one pre-Omicron meet-up in September 2021. Christine organized a writing retreat for us in Park City, Utah, and we all made the effort to walk away from our personal responsibilities to attend, and commit in-person to our writing practice and our friendship.
We wrote essays based on prompts, we had a zoom session with a published author, we gathered in a circle to share our pre-written personal essay and we made time to cook, roast marshmallows and savor unhurried conversations under the big Utah sky. It was nurturing and fortifying. We were intentionally tending to our Loosely Bound Sisterhood.
Herein lies the value of sustained connection. It can become a container for friendship, reflection, and re-consideration of one’s own values and beliefs. If the group is ethnically or racially diverse it offers an opportunity to expand one’s understanding of other cultures and traditions.
When I read about Exxon Mobil’s oil and gas explorations in Guyana, it’s not just a headline: it’s a threat to Wendy’s country and the welfare of her people. I find myself taking greater interest in the story.
When I come across an article about cystic fibrosis, it’s no longer a remote disease, but a life-endangering one that almost took the life of Tara, the young, witty, creative friend I met through sharing our stories.
And when I hear about an imminent hurricane brewing in the Caribbean, I watch closely to see if Jamaica will be impacted. Christine’s 87 year old mother lives there alone, and I fear for her safety.
I once read that the friendships we build as adults can be every bit as close and meaningful as the friendships we made when we were younger. As we get older, the opportunities to meet new people and create close bonds diminish unless we make the effort to seek them and invest our time and attention to develop them.
As we drove back to Salt Lake City to catch our flight to Houston, we smiled and remembered the seven strangers in the Memoir class 4 1/2 years earlier, enthusiastic to pen down moments from their lives, but unaware what the real outcome would be.
Here is a selection of images from our Utah retreat including the zoom call we had with Nick Holmberg, author of The Emergent.
To read a poem by Wendy published on this site in May 2021, visit: https://www.enlivened.info/post/guyana-a-poem
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