Reunion, a Sabbatical Story

What does it mean to meet again?

After months, or years, or decades, to encounter another that we have not seen, or kept fully in touch with, especially one we once knew well, one we were close to, who knew us, who still carry in them, our secrets and our stories, our once-articulated dreams – memory offers us an almost-automatic familiarity, a nostalgic trust.  We feel at once close, and connected, like time travelers sent back, as if nothing could overcome the strength of love (or whatever it was) caught in history.

But then, time descends, stubborn, we notice changed skin, hair, the crack in the voice that was not there before, a new love hovering nearby, a certain bitterness or grief glimpsed in otherwise casual conversation – and suddenly we realize that we do not really know each other any more, that we are strangers, that we need to start at the beginning, learning each other’s names, dreams, preferred beverage, the ways we spend our days, the questions we wake wondering, the fears that we push away.

Or at least we do, if we want the reunion to be real, for the connection to be real, to be alive.

I am just past mid-way through my 44th year – which, if I’m lucky, could be something approximating the midpoint of my life.  I have lived long enough to have accumulated many stories – losses, and disappointments, betryals and terrors, and also joys, and breathtaking beauty, and even things I would call miracles.  I have left behind so many things I once loved, or struggled with, and people – some I have left, some have left me –  sometimes with relief, sometimes with regret, most often both of these, indistinguishable.  And also, places I have moved from, homes and communities and whole worlds I no longer inhabit – and within myself – whole worlds I have forgotten to remember in the process of building a life.  Picking up, settting down, sorting out, begining again, marching on.

It started in the garden, in early May, moving from tree to tree, tracing the branches that needed to fall, discovering buried perennials I never knew were there, finding order and light. There, I remembered myself before seminary, before children, in our little house on Santa Fe, where the neighbors blasted polka every Saturday, finding long-neglected and grown over-irises that would end up making big shows a few months later – and planting Pye-weed that I thought I’d killed before it turned up a few feet away strong as ever, and writing about it all in what would become a reflection I’d read in church one Sunday. The Sunday where the nice church ladies asked me after how far along I was in seminary – even though seminary wasn’t even in my view of the possible, but then, I started to wonder, and dream.

I met this part of myself again – in the sun, and the dirt, before the kids were even yet out done with school – with curiosity and an abundance of time, and a capacity to keep showing up each day to learn what this person I am today knows still about the one I was then, how or if we connect, what wisdom we each have to offer the other.  Reunions are never just a matter of meeting another again, but always include an encounter with ourselves from another time, to see ourselves then as whole, without giving in to the temptation of regret, or sentimentality.

To make it past giddy nostalgia, to the real meeting again, reunions must release all assumptions of what growth should look like, or what life should mean, could mean, and withhold all judgments of how time has served, or failed us.  We must open ourselves only to the real stories of who we have become, how we have changed, what we have lost, and gained, the choices we have made, and why.  It takes work to make this much space for the familiar to become also, at once, entirely new.

I remembered myself without children, without sermons to write, without theology. I remembered what it felt like to have dreams disconnected from community, and whole days, and weeks, and months that would pass without ever once finding my voice.  I remembered time, and choice, and solitude that is only sometimes loneliness.

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about 1/3rd of my rock-wall garden in mid-may, after 5 full days of moving rocks and pulling weeds

This early experience in my sabbatical gave me some good groundwork for a trip in early June, when my family and I drove all the way west, stopping for a few days with my sister in Portland, and then eventually heading north to Olympia, Washington, where my sisters, neices, and parents live, and for what would become home base for an actual reunion at my undergraduate university in Tacoma.

Officially, it was for Reunion Weekend at the University of Puget Sound.  But what drew theatre majors to the campus that weekend in June was not actually some generic idea of reunion.  It was instead, the retirement of a beloved teacher and mentor, a teacher who started my sophomore year.  Which meant that we didn’t just have a students who graduated from a single year, but classmates spanning from the mid-nineties to current students – which makes more sense I think for how we should always do class reunions, because you never really just make relationships with the students graduating in the same year.

I haven’t ever been to a class reunion – college, or high school – and I was anxious/skeptical/dreading headed into the first night.  But….it didn’t take long for all of that to drop away.  Walking in, I saw the faces of so many beloveds – some of them looking as if no time had gone by at all – and felt immediately, wholly, at home.

It helped that we were in our theatre, the space where we fell in love – or tried not to, built sets, quick-changed, found and lost and found props, learned to focus lights, watched each other grow up – or tried not to.  Meeting a beloved place again is less complicated than meeting a person, though barely.  Sometimes in church we say that the walls hold the stories of all those who have ever come in to this community, and that immediately, when you enter, the stories begin to find their way to you.  Walking into the theatre, I thought the same thing – all the stories held in these walls, all the late night tech runs and the Sunday matinee duds, all the anxious auditions, and the mystery of when everything, suddenly works, and comes alive.

On the way in, my dear friend and I stopped in at the green room, and I flashed on a thousand formative moments that happened right there, and really, a few in particular.  Love notes passed.  Questions – big and life-changing, or petty and coy – all shared between two, or ten, or twenty joined in intimacy and the deadline of a show going up, at least until strike comes 8 weeks later.

We didn’t have cell phones, or social media, everything happened in the time it took to trek across campus to retrieve a note someone left for you. Which could mean hours, or even days, before you knew that your whole life had shifted. Life that could’ve gone one way, but instead went another.

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When my friend looked at me from inside the green room, I flashed on his face 22 years ago – scared and strident and sad and filled with so much longing.

Some moments in life feel like they are so big, there’s no way that anything after could live up to them – that was what a lot of our time in the theatre department felt like.  To return, to see us all at mid-life with children, and wrinkles and gray hair, and regular-life jobs with regular hours – some part of me had an instinct to call it a let down.  But instead, I leaned into the sense of this huge relief, and amazement.  To see that we went on, and survived. That we had the audacity to believe we deserved life’s most regular, and daily joy.  It turns out, the stories we thought we were in when we were 19, and 20, and 21 were not, for the most part, the stories we were meant for.  Which does not undo the righteousness of our dreams, the glory of who we were, then.  It was – and we were – glorious together.  And also, there is such a sweetness to knowing how wrong we were, and what other thing was brewing that was the life we would come to call our own.

 

 

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After UPS, things got even more reuniony, as I traveled with my daughter and my mother to my hometown – Port Angeles, Washington, on the way to a few days in Victoria, British Columbia.  Because my parents moved from my hometown my freshman year in college, I haven’t been back too often as a grown up, especially with my mom, and maybe never with my daughter, who is now old enough to understand what it means to go see her mom’s hometown.

Having Gracie with me allowed me to return to my hometown with a little more strangeness, and generosity- a little more openness to its beauty, which is, I realized, incredible.  I showed her the house I grew up in, a house my dad designed, as well as the field my sisters and I played in, and the route we took from our school to our grandparents’ house.   Here is the place where I tried to teach my sister to ride a bike.  Here’s where we rented our very first video.  Here are the county fair grounds where we learned about roller coasters and rodeos. Here is the swimming pool I swam in morning and night for most of my life, and here is the cemetery where my grandparents are buried.  

We also had the chance to spend some time with my uncle and aunt, whose house I spent many hours in growing up as their daughter was my same age, and a good friend.  My uncle showed Gracie Victoria and the ferry through his telescope, and I sat in his living room remembering the hours of dos-based games I’d played there.

Before our trip I had downplayed our visit to BC, where I had grown up going often given its proximity just 17 miles across the water.  But then, going there with Gracie, with the new passport requirement, and the sometimes-strange vocabulary and the gorgeous harbor with the houseboats and water taxis – I was amazed again, and grateful in new ways.  To know this place so well, and also to realize how much I did not know it, to learn it all over again as the person I am now, and to see how we had each changed, and also how we had not, to make space for meeting again, to be fully in this time, here, now.

 

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Most of all, it left me feeling really grateful.

I carried all of these memories from my trip home with me as I traveled to the north shore of Lake Superior in mid-July for a life review retreat with the Rev. Karen Gustafson.  Another reunion – this time by way of telling the story of my life, and to be heard telling it.  To see what is familiar there, and then to encounter it anew.  To find ways to tell the story differently, to notice patterns, to imagine what is differently possible from this encounter-  both in how we understand what has been, and how we can build our lives into the future.

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In telling the story of my life, I met again the major (and some minor) characters and tried to see them not only from the perspective of the person I was when I knew them – which was, sometimes a child, or a young adult – but as the person I am now.  Sometimes this meant that I forgave them more fully, sometimes I saw that they needed to be held more accountable, sometimes I came to see that I still could not save them – and that had to be, and was, ok.

Real reunion allows for this sort of shifting to take place, this re-telling of the story, this unlodging of too-long-stuck feelings, this freedom into creation rather than destruction, an opening into possibility.  As Karen reminded me, life is not arrival, it is constant becoming.  And I would add – it’s not just becoming, it’s also constant ending, and also the constant attempts at reconciling these, making sense and pulling the pieces together – which is really still, becoming, and ending –  and then reconciling.

We always talk about reunion as a matter of meeting those we knew a long, long time ago.  But in this way, reunions are not just encounters after long spans of time apart, but are also the chance we are given each day, to meet ourselves again, to meet each other, to meet this life again – and to hold in these encounters both the trust we grant the familiar, as well as the space to discover the entirely new.

Imagining life as reunion has helped me to imagine the ways that my life is both ancient, and newborn.  That I carry with me a deep well of history – choices that I have made, people I have loved, places that have formed me – and all of these connected with other histories, other choices, beloveds, places.  This history is steady, and strong, and trust-building.  Which means it is good, and fine, and possible to believe that I know some things now, that I have traveled to this place with some intention.

And equally, that these companions of history, people, geography – all of these are living companions that can and will keep changing in the daily meeting again.  Just like the stories we thought we were in as undergraduates – everything we know now may turn out to be wrong, and something else entirely may be at work.  That there is an alternative world just waiting for us to discover it, to create it, to become it – together.

In her book, The State of Affairs, Esther Perel reminds us of a fundamental, existential conflict within us: “We seek stability and belonging, qualities that propel us toward committed relationships, but we also thrive on novelty and diversity…we crave security and we crave adventure, but these two fundamental needs spring from diferent motives, and pull us in different directions.” When we practice life as reunion, we can hold both of these impulses at once.

In so many ways, reunion has been the story of my sabbatical.  And, as sabbatical ends, the theme continues as I prepare for the reunion with the church, with the people of the church, with my colleagues, and with ministry.  It is a gift to remember that in this meeting again, we can both lean into the easy trust of familiarity and history, as well as make space for what has shifted – for growth, and change, and new life.  Not just in these first few weeks, but as a daily practice, and a gift we can give to ourselves, and to each other, and to the worlds that are just waiting for our willingness to become.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of 19 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (13) and Josef (11) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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1 Response to Reunion, a Sabbatical Story

  1. Pingback: Telling the Stories of Sabbatical | Another Possibility

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