Stories Around the Zoom Campfire:
A Retreat with Resonance
Preparing for the Retreat
A few weeks ago, some friends and I, longtime members of a meditation group, came together for a four-day virtual retreat on zoom. In our preparatory meeting, we decided on a daily schedule of meditations and meditators, presentations, dialogues, prayer, and evaluations. We wanted to create a Retreat in which people would actually share from their hearts, so that the Retreat would be authentic, meaningful, and life-changing.
The Retreat Begins
Thus began an intense four-day saga of sorts. As the short days progressed, our small group became even deeper companions on our spiritual path, because each one shared intimate, profound memories and experiences of life lived on behalf of their spiritual ideals. We shared many stories.
A Nurse’s Retreat Story: Building Bridges – Connecting People
Take Michelle, for example. She began her professional life as a nurse, having a deep need to serve people in as compassionate a way as she possibly could. Gradually, she discerned a new opportunity and need: to become a director of nurses, and thus mentor and support young nurses.
Over time, she developed a calling for such work.
One day, Michelle shared a simple practice she has used time and again. When young nurses have found employment elsewhere and are no longer working with Michelle, she will often send them a note with a simple question, “How are you? I have been thinking about you and wondering how you are doing.” Such a simple gesture, yet it gave the recipient the gift of being seen and valued. I decided to incorporate Michelle’s practice in my own life, reaching out to ask those in my life to ask, “How are you? I have been thinking about you and wondering how you are doing.” And, as surely as Michelle has found, I too discovered that people respond to this simple gesture of caring. More than just opening a door, it builds a bridge.
A Retreat Story: We Can Learn from All Our Experiences
We didn’t only share the good stuff, that is, we didn’t always speak about our so-called successes. We also spoke about the hard lessons we learned, when, through lack of consciousness, we caused pain in others. For example, during one of our Retreat dialogues, Michelle spoke of an experience in which she had hired a young woman of color to be her assistant. Michelle and the young woman worked very well together, accomplishing many professional goals over the years.
One day, the woman told Michelle that she would be leaving her job soon because she was getting married. Michelle was full of joy for this assistant, and decided to organize a party for her. Michelle did all the arrangements, carefully planning and executing all the details. She bought her assistant a thoughtful gift, and attached a card to it. When the day of the party arrived, Michelle suddenly developed a sinking feeling, and it only grew worse as the moments passed.
She realized that the wedding card depicted a white couple on its front. Waiting agonizing minutes for the card to be opened, Michelle was deeply mortified. It had simply not occurred to her to purchase a card depicting a black couple. Her lack of consciousness simply seared her heart. The bride-to-be never brought it up to Michelle; nor did Michelle mention it to her. Michelle keenly remembered this story despite the fact that it happened many years ago. I too have a few choice memories of my own lapses. Habits of non-empathic thinking and acting lie deep within us all. Through these Retreat dialogues, we became more open to viewing life from other people’s perspectives. We recognized there is still so much to learn, but that, no matter what happens, we always have an opportunity to learn.
A Home-Builder’s Retreat Story: Opening One’s Heart – Seeing the Bigger Picture
Brian also had a story to contribute. He joined our zoom Retreat from Central America, where he was building a house for a relative. Brian frequently spoke of his observations of and respect for the poor people who lived around him. For example, he mentioned that there were nearby families living in huts. During the rainy season, the rain pummeled these humble huts; yet, despite the rain, the children’s faces radiated joy. When he told me this, I was perplexed.
“How can they be so happy? I would be miserable in such conditions.” And yet, over the few days of the Retreat, I began to see another way of looking at this situation. Maybe the children were truly happy because when they looked out of their small huts, they could see beautiful vistas of landscape, mountains, and sky all around them. Loving family members, colorful birds, abundant fruit, natural sounds, glorious sunrises and sunsets filled their world. It was a simple life lived in the present moment, with no abiding existential dread. Such perhaps is the bliss of childhood, yet the children’s openness to life was most striking to me. It was an attitude I wished to grow in myself. So I tucked the anecdote away in my memory, to be called upon at a future time.
A Teacher’s Retreat Story: Noticing People: Expressing Gratitude
Roberto’s story came from his life as a school teacher in a congested urban city. Near the school, doing their jobs every day, are uniformed crossing guards. These are people whose role is to ensure the safety of the hundreds of children and families crossing busy streets around schools. They watch the traffic lights, and when it is safe, they enter the street and beckon the walkers to come forward.
Roberto noticed that many of them were invisible to those whom they were serving. He then decided that he would incorporate a simple practice into his life: Every day, he warmly greeted the crossing guards as he made his way into school, thanked them for their work, and wished them a beautiful day. He modeled another way of living in the world: practicing the simple art of gratitude to those around him. I think Roberto’s example is not specific to crossing guards. For me, it’s about all the people in my life I could notice and appreciate more: the clerks, the pharmacists, the librarians, the cashiers, the doctors and nurses, and so many more. Saying thank you is such a simple gesture, to be sure, but one which has potential to do much good in the world, as well as within one’s own heart.
An Administrator’s Retreat Story: Listening Deeply – Choosing Wisely
Carolyn also had a story that resonated with our group. She told us that a friend of hers had recently had a conversation with a colleague in which that colleague expressed approval of Vladimir Putin’s leadership. Her friend was shocked, and wondered what the best response to that colleague might have been. In the quandary of this explicit circumstance, Carolyn simply said that, in her view, it was better to at least try not make the situation worse with such a person, but simply to listen more deeply in order to probe what might be behind the words, and thus discern how to respond. Carolyn’s story made me think about how much I value that ability to put the pause button on my internal reactions to people, and take a moment to choose how to respond to life’s most challenging circumstances.
The Gifts of the Retreat – Inspiration for a Lifetime
So far I have only made mention of my companions’ stories. I have not mentioned my own. That will soon change. However, I want to tell you that when the Retreat ended after a brief four days, we five Retreatants all agreed what an enriching experience we had had, sharing stories, listening to one another, praying together, and receiving the presentations each one had prepared. Most of all, we felt inspired to live our lives, as best we could, according to our spiritual ideals.
Death in Life
And so it happened that in the few days after the Retreat ended, I had an opportunity to put into practice all the good things I had learned and thought about during the Retreat. I volunteered to help a relative move from one home into another. She and her husband had sold the house they had lived in for forty years, and planned to move upstate into his family home, which had not been lived in for a long time. And then, out of the blue, and mere weeks before the move, he had a heart attack while she was out of the house, and died alone. In an instant, my relative’s life changed. She had to mourn, make funeral plans, notify family members and, at the same time, pack all the belongings in the home, now bereft of his presence.
An Unanticipated Complication
When the buyers of the home learned of her husband’s death, they graciously allowed her to stay an additional two months in the home. Yet, even that generous extension of time and the assistance of family, friends, and a professional, my relative was not able to make significant progress in her packing.
She was four days out from her moving day when I arrived at her home one Friday evening. What a sight I beheld! Tons of stuff in piles in every room, every closet and cabinet stuffed to the brim, troves of disassembled cardboard boxes and plastic bins, all in disorder. Upon closer inspection, I discovered dozens of cans of expired food in the garage, with more expired food in the freezer. There was stuff everywhere you looked: multiple redundant holiday decorations, pens, paper, markers, cards, sticky notes by the hundreds everywhere. Piles of clothing with tags still attached, and multiple mountains of bedding, filled the space. There were craft supplies and cleaners sufficient to fill a market. I have not even scratched the surface in this description.
A Complication Doubles in Size and Scope
The most challenging part of this situation was not the abundance of stuff. Rather, it was my relative’s adamant unwillingness, indeed inability, to let go of any of it. I discovered that my relative is a hoarder. And the house she was moving into? Well that was in the midst of unfinished renovations, and itself full of furniture and possessions. On moving day, the movers used every available spare inch of space in the new house to squeeze in a box or item from the old house. When they finished their work, I looked around and felt there was no room to breathe. It began to weigh upon me. It felt like utter chaos.
Tapping into my Retreat Resources – Resurrecting Essential Teachings
All along the question of how to best help my relative had been living in me. At first, I thought that the principal help I could offer was my actual physical presence, taking on the obvious tasks of organizing, packing/unpacking, and cleaning. I realized, only gradually, that this linear way of helping wasn’t quite enough. For example, when working alone one day, I opened a box, which had her husband’s name on it, alongside the designation “desk.” Not giving it a second thought, I opened the box and placed the items on the desk. My relative became exceedingly upset when she saw that the last things her husband touched had been handled by me, and not by herself. Of course, I had only wanted to help.
I remembered the stories of my Retreat companions and their wisdom filled me. How much I want to build bridges of empathy and connect with people. I remembered the story of the wedding card from Michelle, illustrating how even the best of intentions don’t always yield anticipated results. From Brian’s story, I remembered how important it is to open to life and see the bigger picture. From Roberto’s story, I remembered the value of gratitude to whomever is before me, and gratitude to life for this present circumstance. And, from Carolyn’s story, I extracted the wisdom and value of stopping to discern next steps in complex circumstances.
A Satisfactory Resolution
My relative had moved so soon after her spouse’s death that it had robbed her of time and space to grieve for him.
His unexpected death had complicated her life, deprived her of sleep, gave her additional worries, and overwhelmed her in every way. When I thought about her life in this empathic way, I began to find the ways to truly help her. I put myself at her disposal, in a simple act of presence and participation. There was kind of a reverence I tried to embody.
When she requested that boxes be moved, I moved them. If she found a holiday ornament that needed moving, I made the trip to the basement storage box. If she couldn’t find something, I helped her look for it. I used prayer to help guide my discernment of her needs, and of my own during this transition time. And thus we came to an agreement: from that moment on, we would work as a team. We might work at a snail’s pace, but we would make progress. At least we were going in the right direction. We had struck an amical accord, and found our way. And that is my Retreat story.
Now that I am back home, I remember with fondness my Retreat companions. Likewise I remember the stories we shared together, stories which nurtured and taught us. Now, I too, reach out and say to my relative, “How are you? I’ve been thinking about you, and wondering how you are doing. Let’s talk.” And like the children happy with their world in Costa Rica, I am happy in mine. Like theirs, mine, too is full of wonder, natural beauty, inspiring sunrises and sunsets, and possibilities. I continue to practice feeling and saying thank you to the people in my life. And, when faced with challenging circumstances, I take a moment to pause, and listen for a deeper understanding and response. Indeed, all the stories around the Zoom campfire, and the storytellers, resonate in my soul. They bolster my spirits, and inspire me to continuously unfold my love.