Thud. Pause. Thud. The cardinal bashed against the picture window of the group room where the twenty or so of us were gathered for a retreat. “Second Blooming, Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be,” was held at the Homestead Education Center in Mississippi and I was invited to present a workshop by the owner, Alison Buehler, and the editor of the book on which the weekend theme was based, Susan Cushman.
The cardinal bashed again and again. March in Mississippi has birds and flowering trees. Where I come from, Vermont, we have ice, more ice, and windows we can’t see out of as the snow still rises to at least midway. It was nice to see a red cardinal despite the eccentricity of his behavior, because I’m facing at least two more months of winter.
When we went downstairs to do yoga, the cardinal threw himself against those windows too. Alison calls the bird a “he” and thinks he is drunk on the red berries outside the window. She thinks it’s the same bird who has done this for years. I don’t know, is he drunk or is it just his imprinted need to belong? I think about that goose who imprinted on that guy in Oregon and follows him everywhere. The man didn’t ask for it, but the goose chose to belong to him.
So here’s the thing. I wasn’t sure, when invited to present at the retreat, that I would belong. Or want to belong. Because–here it comes–it’s Mississippi. I am from the bluest state, a sober northern pro-choice Jew, a soul shattered anti-Trumpster who says ‘motherfucker’ (a lot) and on top of all that, agnostic. I have an anxiety disorder. I wear mostly black. My writing can be pretty bleak and my artwork follows no guidelines. In my day job I deal with suicide, addiction and trauma. I often do not “belong” so I rely on snark and sarcasm as a defense. I’m psychologically clumsy and pretty transparent. The opposite of a southern belle.
And I’m scared of the divisions in our country.
And clearly, a cultural profiler.
But I trusted Susan and we had a frank discussion about any fears she might have that I’d flip into batshit political provocateur. She did not. I prepared a slideshow of my art work and two dozen little glass reliquaries for the participants of the retreat to fill with treasures and even had to switch planes in Chicago without incident, careful to leave the underwires in my carry-on so I wouldn’t set off TSA.
The participants were glorious. Within minutes we were sharing stories, hugs, kisses on the cheek. This is the warmhearted south, not the reserved and disengaged New England I now call home. Politics were not the focus, but when they came up I was sweetly surprised, kindness and decency prevailing. Throughout the weekend each presenter offered creative, professional information about how we as older women can find ways to bloom on, second/third/fourth times through as many decades as we have health and energy for. Despite the losses–the oh so similar losses–we have all faced. How creativity and encouragement will drag us forward.
I wasn’t in the retreat center ten minutes before I heard someone say, “I just love her. She’s not bad for a Yankee.” I turned to find Kathie, a woman my age with the mischievous affect that, had we grown up together, we’d have raised some hell. She’s laughing and already embracing me, my anxiety turning to humor.
And so it goes.
Linda confides. Jeri drums. Pam and I practice wrapping her hair like a gypsy with my scarf. A different Susan and I talk shop. Alison leads yoga. Another Kathy reads. Wanda’s eyes are non-stop beauty. Another Susan throws out one liners we wish we’d thought to write down. Patricia lists our emails, Corinna connects to rebuild. Brenda drinks it in. Everyone of us offer up jewels, bring us to tears. We all eat.
My red state experience is red like a cardinal. Red like heartbeats and intoxicating berries. The group is always greater than the sum of its parts.
The book: “A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We are Meant to Be,” is edited by Susan Cushman and published by Mercer University Press.
My piece, “A Couple of Bad Nights in Brindisi,” talks about rebuilding after a close call, “a night that can change a person,” about diligence and trying to age with grace.
The Homestead Education Center, Starkville, Mississippi:
And the presenters were:
A SECOND BLOOMING, introduction – SUSAN CUSHMAN
USING GROUPS TO SUPPORT YOUR CREATIVITY – ELLEN MORRIS PREWITT
LITTLE ALTARS EVERYWHERE – NINA GABY
HOW OUR STORIES SHAPE US – JENNIFER HORNE
PUSHING UP THE SUN – KATHY RHODES
Closing drum circle-Jeri Van Winkle Mangum