Last month, I went on a 24-hour retreat with a group of women from our church.
That statement in no way conveys what a big deal this was. The last time I’d gone away all by myself was over fiver years ago. I was pregnant with our first child and working for a nonprofit. In that role, I spent one night at a camp we ran for high school students; fun, but hardly a “retreat.”
Until the second I left, I was convinced that I wouldn’t make it to the retreat. Something was bound to go wrong: a child would end up in the ER, or I’d get sick, or the dishwasher would explode. So when I found myself actually pulling down the driveway, I was surprised at just how HARD it was to drive away. I spend most days looking for any chance to take a break from my kids, but when the chance finally came, I . . . missed them. I missed my girls and my husband while the garage door was still closing. And there was something else: a little twinge of . . . guilt. I felt . . . selfish.
I’m not a clingy mom. My husband and I take advantage of generous grandparents to go on many kid-less overnight trips — although in these cases, I can easily justify leaving because I’m doing it for our marriage. I wasn’t worried about my husband’s ability to handle three little girls for twenty-four hours; he’s very competent, it was only 24 hours, and I’d be at a retreat center ninety minutes away. And I thought it was important to go. With a fourth child due soon, I figured it could be years before I’d be able to get away again.
But then it hit me: This is the biggest thing I’ve done JUST FOR MYSELF in five years.
That was promptly followed by this question: Who is MYSELF? After five years of more or less living in reference to kids and husband, is there any ME left in there?
As I left my house behind, I felt like I was tangled in a web with sticky filaments binding me to husband, children, household responsibilities, family and friends. Not an unwelcome web, but one that restricted my full range of motion. Throughout that ninety-minute drive up a mountain and down again, I could feel the filaments of my web stretching to their limits. They didn’t snap entirely, but as I parked in the retreat center lot I felt more alone than I’d felt in years.
You might say that a good part of this retreat’s spiritual work happened on the drive there.
But my work wasn’t done. After checking in and greeting friends and eating a delicious dinner (that I didn’t have to prepare), I sat down for the evening session. The topic? “Longing.” The discussion focused on the story of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar healed by Jesus in Mark 10. When Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus, Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
So that was what we were supposed to ask ourselves: if Jesus said, “What do you want me to do for you?” how would I answer? What was I longing for?
This question was an extension of my conversation with myself in the car. What WAS I longing for?
An immediate list of superficial things came to mind: A book contract. Sleep. A new wardrobe. An industrial washer/dryer. But these weren’t questions that I’d spent any amount of time seriously pondering — let alone imagined Jesus ASKING ME. I like to keep Jesus in a safe, comfortable place, where I ask Him, “So, Jesus, what can I do for YOU today?” Having Him turn the question back on me was scary; it meant I had to know who I was and what I wanted.
So there it was. That was my longing: I wanted to know who I was and what I was supposed to do. I wanted to know my calling.
I did get an answer, although not the one I expected. I recalled that Kathleen Norris, in her excellent book Amazing Grace, writes, “If a call merely confirms a comfortable self-regard, if God seems to be cleverly assessing our gifts and talents just as we would, I would suggest that it is highly suspect.”
In other words, a true calling is usually CHALLENGING. So I asked myself: What’s challenging for me? The answer: What you’re doing right now: being a wife and mother. Who you are RIGHT NOW is the person stuck in that web, connected to husband and children and household responsibilities and family and friends. And you need to learn to find joy and meaning in your stuck-ness.
After leaving my family for twenty-four hours, I wanted to go home again.
The next morning, I walked in the woods before driving home. I don’t normally put much stock in signs, but lying right in my path, atop the snow, was a tiny bird’s nest. It must’ve blown out of a nearby tree. I picked it up to show my daughters, and as I held it for the rest of my walk, I had a chance to study it. Ever really looked at a bird’s nest? They’re made of scraps; this particular one was made from strips of bark like the ones I’m constantly sweeping up around our woodstove. But some bird had spotted these scraps, seen their value, and thought: I’ll use those shreds to make a home.
As I drove back to my home, I was ready to do likewise.