The Art of the Condolence Note

by Amy Dosser

One Thursday evening in July, eighteen women gathered at the RCWMS office to consider the condolence note. When I first signed up for this workshop by Carol Henderson, I think I was hoping for a lecture on the science of writing to the bereaved. But, alas, as Carol demonstrated, writing is an art, and one needs a compassionate pen when communicating with the bereaved.

As usual in the workshops she leads, Carol brought in her own life experience. To discuss which kinds of condolence notes are more helpful than others, Carol drew from losses she has suffered, including the death of her first child (which she wrote about in her first book, Losing Malcolm: A Mother’s Journey Through Grief).

Carol shared several notes that she had received over the years to help illustrate specific wording that is helpful – and some that is less so. The problem letters were too general or contained too many clichés and platitudes. Also problematic were those that purported to know just how the bereaved felt or what she should expect. (Although sometimes it can be comforting to hear these things from someone who has been through a similar situation and is offering possibilities rather than certainties.)

More comforting are acknowledgements of the death and using specific language: specifics about what the deceased meant to us, about things we remember about the deceased, and about ways that we might be helpful. Rather than writing, “Call if there is anything that I can do,” one might say, “I can take you to lunch one day next week,” or, “I go to the grocery store every Wednesday; let me know if I can pick anything up for you.”

Before the workshop, I went through a group of letters that I had received after my daddy’s death. It was interesting to look at them and find the ones that really meant something to me – and still do. They were the ones that mentioned specific things about Daddy and his life: memories they had of my talking about him or things that had stood out to them in his obituary. It made me happy that a friend would take the time to read about my daddy’s life and comment on it to me.

Carol emphasized that the most important thing is that we find a card (or a sheet of notebook paper, for that matter!), sit down, and write a few sentences from our hearts. And so at the end of the workshop, we took what we learned and each wrote a condolence note. We found that taking the time and energy to write a note is a concrete way to let the bereaved know they are surrounded by love. Just this small act conveys volumes.

Carol Henderson and Participants in The Art of the Condolence Note

Tuesdays With Tillis

by Savannah Lynn

Tuesdays With Tillis

Photo Credit: Savannah Lynn

Bodies were scattered across the sidewalk outside of Thom Tillis’s office on New Bern Avenue in downtown Raleigh on Tuesday, June 20th. A news van was parked across the street. Bystanders stood vigilant nearby on the sidewalk, alternately looking over their fallen comrades and up at the dark, glossy windows of the federal building.

RCWMS board member Karen Ziegler, from her position prone on the grass, called the okay, and the “dead” arose.

In a gruesome premonition of the lives that could be lost should “Trumpcare” pass the U.S. Senate, sixty-odd citizens of the Triangle and surrounding areas gathered as part of the ongoing “Tuesdays with Tillis” series of protests. They staged a “die-in,” a nonviolent/civil disobedience tactic; holding tombstones reading “KILLED BY TRUMPCARE” and “R.I.P. MEDICARE,” folks used their bodies to occupy space (“dying” on the ground) and send a message to Senator Tillis. The die-in was added into the usual Tuesdays with Tillis programming: a brief introduction, a round of chanting and circling the building with signs, a reading of letters and an airing of grievances, a few songs, and an opportunity for folks to go two-by-two into the building to speak with Tillis’s staff and write comments in the visitor’s log.

Tuesdays with Tillis has been filling this space from 11:30am to 12:30pm every Tuesday (rain or shine) since the presidential inauguration in January. It was started by a group of citizens and is kept going by Karen Ziegler and Nancy Jacobs, who email out the week’s issue and program faithfully. Every week, protesters focus on a different topic, usually one that is imminently relevant in the landscape of U.S. politics. What with the debate raging about the possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act and replacement with what is being called “Trumpcare,” healthcare justice has been the Tuesday topic for the past couple of weeks. Past topics include reproductive justice, Russia’s potential interference in the U.S. election, the release of Trump’s tax returns, and the refusal of Sen. Tillis to meet with constituents. The day of the die-in, however, was one of the best-attended Tuesdays since the event’s inception in January. CBS News and other outlets ran coverage on the protest.

Tuesdays with Tillis protesters are asking for Thom Tillis to hold a town hall with his constituents in order to discuss some of the issues that have been on the minds of North Carolinians recently. Though asked by CBS to comment on the day’s protest, Tillis gave no response.

Resource Center staff members have been attending the weekly protests regularly; look carefully at the videoclips and you can spot Jeanette Stokes, as well as interns Colleen and Savannah. Come out and join us every Tuesday morning at 310 New Bern Avenue!

Welcome Interns!

We’re thrilled to have two Duke student interns working with us here at RCWMS this summer! Welcome to Colleen Sharp and Savannah Lynn!

Colleen is a rising senior from Raleigh studying African & African American Studies and Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies. She spends her after-class time working on sexual violence victim survivor advocacy and workers’ rights on campus.

Savannah is a rising senior from Raleigh, North Carolina, studying Psychology and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. Her spare time is filled with her dogs, her books, her tea, and her journals.

Dolphins

Every January, May, and September we host a week of quiet and writing for women at the beach. This essay, written by one of the participants at a recent writing week, gives a glimpse into the careful observation and deep reflection that can occur during these workshops.

Dolphins
by Linda Denton

Pelicans, in a long, low-flying line, skim over the splashes and spouts of the pod. Dolphins, at least thirty of them, separate into three groups to feed. They look like diners choosing food at a long buffet, then going back to their familiar tables.

Other seabirds are feasting as well, on a huge school of fish running in the shallows. The air is full of cormorants and gannets, mature and immature differently colored. One brave gray-feathered chap drops into a swirling circle of sleek black skin and white froth. There’s a pause in all activity as birds and mammals reassess. Then all begin to eat again, in silent agreement, or perhaps just concession; there’s enough for all, and time should not be wasted in fighting.

I watch the dolphins jumping and blowing for nearly an hour as I write by a crow’s nest window at Pelican House in Pine Knoll Shores, North Carolina. After saying goodbye to two of the good women I’ve met at this weeklong retreat, I return to my perch to find the dolphins gone, but the birds swirling above. I type for a few minutes, and when I look up again, the black dorsals are again visible, rising up, sinking down, as the amazing animals swim gracefully through the cold waves. As the free dolphin show continues, I see within one curling green translucent wave two dolphins riding the surf. They are completely still, perfectly balanced, supported and carried as if on an invisible waxed board. I lose sight of them behind the foliage of the dune.

I am amazed at their nearness to shore; if the water were warmer, I could easily walk out to where the closest ones feed, barely beyond the first breaking whitecaps. How would a human’s legs change the age-old circle of life, were I able to enter their world? No doubt the fish would depart in fright as my twin towers of flesh wandered out. And as the fish changed course, I assume the birds and dolphins would as well, even if they weren’t frightened of me themselves.

I’ve heard of wild dolphins coming close to people who need help. I don’t know if these are sea stories or truth. But I can think of nothing more wonderful, nothing that would inspire more awe, than to be approached in the ocean by such a creature. How amazing, to touch and feel connected to a sentient being whom I hold in such reverence. To feel intimacy and bonding with the beautiful beings that represent our oneness with the sea. Oh, to swim with these creatures without constraint. It might feel like…communion.

Linda Denton is a neonatal nurse living and writing in Chapel Hill.

Image: Jeanette Stokes

Coming Out of the Shadows

By Rebecca Welper

On an unseasonably hot Saturday at the end of April, sixty people, many of them new faces to RCWMS, gathered with our full queer, spiritual selves, to sing, share, and re-imagine our stories and faith journeys. “Coming Out of the Shadows: Connection and Spirituality Among LGBTQ Communities,” our first ever LGBTQ festival, took place at the Recreation Center at Lyon Park in Durham, just a few streets over from our hometown saint Pauli Murray’s childhood home.

Longtime fixture of the Durham dance community, Tony Johnson, opened the day with a moving solo dance to Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up.” Music was interspersed throughout the day, with Randa McNamara’s soulful rendition of “Old Devil Time” and Kathleen Hannan leading everyone in singing her original creation, “Fathomless Pull.” In her invocation, Marilyn Bowens, pastor of Imani MCC, invited everyone to honor our LGBTQ ancestors and bring them into the sacred space with us.

Workshops celebrated Pauli Murray; offered prayer as movement with dance and yoga; and provided queer perspectives on the Hebrew Bible, our activist forebears, and how to heal from spiritual trauma. Other offerings included free Tarot and Reiki sessions and a panel discussion on disparate faith journeys.

Workshop leaders and panelists represented a variety of faiths and backgrounds, ranging from Dr. Anathea Portier-Young, professor at Duke Divinity; to Saba Taj, founding member of Durham Artists Movement; John Paredes, who serves on the board of the Chapel Hill Zen Center; Karen Ziegler, former MCC minister; and Noah Rubin-Blose, who organizes with Jewish Voice for Peace.

The day was rounded out by a delicious lunch provided by Cris Rivera and Beth Stringfield at CMR catering, talking circles for processing the day’s events, and a closing circle dance and thread ceremony to remind us of our ongoing connection to each other.

Being Mortal

Over the course of the past few months, Duke professor Jehanne Gheith and Duke student Katherine Zhou facilitated a workshop on Dr. Atul Gawande’s best-seller, Being Mortal. A group of seventeen members participated in the biweekly discussions, generously hosted at the beautiful residence of Dot Borden.

By delving into the book, the discussion group focused on discovering individual end-of-life priorities, bringing up death in conversation with loved ones, destigmatizing death in society, and developing personalized plans for end-of-life care. To support this process, the facilitators guided participants through targeted exercises, including working with Go Wish cards, writing prompts, and mini clearness committees.

Throughout the discussions, the group members shared many vulnerable and intimate moments together, talking about some of the things that scared or worried them the most. There were heartbreaking occasions where some of the participants’ lives reflected the intense topics covered in Gawande’s book. Through it all, the group was a transformative and healing place, where participants could feel safe and grow together.

Wishing to extend their time together, several members of the group met the week after the group ended to see Gawande’s Frontline film, Being Mortal. They are now are sharing haikus they wrote in the group and considering other ways to continue this discussion.

Mother May I?

On March 10-11, 2017 thirteen women gathered for “Mother, May I? A Narrative Leadership Workshop.” Reverend Jan Gregory-Charpentier, DMin and Senior Pastor at First Congregational Church in Westbrook, CT, came back to Durham for the second year in a row to lead this popular seminar.

During this year’s weekend intensive, the women explored their relationships to their mothers through three lenses: 1) the genogram; 2) personal mythology; and 3) the Myers-Briggs personality indicator. Dr. Gregory-Charpentier had participants write the “Ten Commandments” of their mothers (everyone knew what these were in about three seconds!). The group delved deeply into the mother-daughter relationship, looking especially for how it had shaped their sense of themselves and how they relate to, manage, and inhabit their own sense of authority. By the end of the weekend’s intense and gratifying work, the group of women had bonded with each other and came away with new insights about how they carry themselves in the world.

 

 

Art as a Spiritual Practice

Sue Sneddon approaches art as a spiritual practice. That’s why anyone who takes one of her workshops can feel safe trying something new and embracing the joy of creation. We’re so thrilled to spend two weekends every February at the coast, on beautiful Emerald Isle, playing with water colors, pastels, and acrylics, under Sue’s gentle guidance. Many would-be artists start with the beginners’ “Finding Your Medium” workshop and come back again and again for “Making Your Art.”

While getting inspiration from the natural beauty of the beach, everyone gets to stay cozy in a lovely modern beach house. We are deeply grateful to Julia Batten Wax and Emerald Isle Realty for their hospitality and for helping make the workshops possible.

Here are a few photos from this year’s workshops and several participants’ reflections. Won’t you join us next year?

         

I am art-phobic. Have been as long as I can remember. Sue kept telling me that I could do a little art. I finally gave in and asked her to teach me something that wouldn’t make me feel bad about myself. She handed me a sheet of black construction paper and sat me down in front of a huge supply of pastels. She gave me some pointers and there I went. Some colors went on the paper and I had fun and made two tiny pieces of art that make me feel good! Sue is brilliant! — Amy


Always enjoy being on Emerald Isle with Sue Sneddon for the art workshop. This year I painted a watercolor and gouache of a lighthouse, on which Sue helped me with the details. I also enjoyed spending time using acrylics and oil pastels. The beach was a fabulous place for inspiration and rejuvenation as we made art. — Amelia

As always, I so appreciated the opportunity to immerse myself in art over this weekend with Sue. When I’m there, I have (or is it take?) the time to notice the variety of colors in the sky at sunrise, the shadows of the dock pilings on the water — all of the beauty that is always around, but I rarely really notice. I had a few pieces that I’d been storing in the back of my brain to do at the beach… and having the protected time and space to do them is always so special. 
I have even, for the first time in my life, marked out some time and space to do art on a regular basis back at home!
 — Betsy

The Finding Your Medium workshop with Sue Sneddon is a fun and inspired way to learn about all the ways you can make art. Sue shares many different art mediums one at a time and you have an opportunity to try them all and discover which one makes you happy, maybe all of them. She is an attentive and encouraging teacher who really gets to know you so she can help you lose yourself in the process no matter how much or how little experience you have had making art.
 — BJ

 

 

A Tribute to Anita McLeod

In early January we lost a beloved member of the RCWMS community to cancer. Anita McLeod, RN, BSN, was a retired nurse and health educator in Durham, NC, a courageous trailblazer who will be sorely missed. During the twenty years of her association with Resource Center  she led many workshops on women’s spirituality, founded and led the Elder Women’s Project, and chaired the RCWMS Board of Trustees. We are so grateful for the outpouring of support this community has shown in the many donations you have given to RCWMS in her memory. Thank you for helping us carry on her legacy.

Here we want to share with you the remarks delivered by RCWMS director, Jeanette Stokes, at the celebration of Anita’s life, which took place on January 16, 2017.

My job is to explain what Anita was doing when she was not with her family.

The poet Mary Oliver has written:

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world. (“When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver)

Last week, in looking for pictures of Anita—on my phone, on my computer, and in old photo albums at our office—I was overwhelmed by what I found. As we know, Anita was bright, beautiful, and funny. There she was laughing, leading, and loving people, but what surprised me was that she was also ubiquitous. She was always there.

I met Anita 20 years ago in a yearlong class on women and spirituality at Duke Divinity School. Several of you were in that class. In the next few years after that, Anita and I taught a course for Duke Continuing Education on the same topic: women and spirituality. And after that, she began to design and lead circles, classes, and retreats of her own for the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South, which I direct.

As I looked at pictures of Anita, I noticed that without calling attention to herself, she was always there. She joined our board of trustees and eventually served as the chair of the board. She came to book readings, lectures, and workshops other people led. She was central to our 25th Anniversary celebration in 2002 and to our exhibition a few years later called “Art and the Feminine Divine.”

Anita’s way of being in the world was a perfect match for the vision of the Resource Center.  We are in the business of empowering women to weave feminism and spirituality into a vision of justice in the world. That is what Anita was about. She supported the Resource Center and the Resource Center supported her. We provided the platform or stage on which she could do what she loved most—teach and lead and empower others. And she did it brilliantly.

She was the group leader I trusted the most. I was confident that she could handle anyone or anything that might come up. After working in the diet program, with surly, hungry clients, a few upset women in a small group were not going to scare Anita McLeod.

When I counted up the number of events Anita had either initiated or led for us over the last 15 years, the list kept getting longer and longer. Fifty events. She led or organized fifty events for us. She was always there.

Anita embodied feminist principles in her leadership style by trusting groups of women to learn from and teach one another without her having to be the teacher who told participants everything they needed to know. She trusted the groups more than the “experts.”

She invented classes, workshops, and ongoing groups on topics she wanted to learn more about. She began with Menopause and moved on to: Mothers and Daughters, Women Over 60, Wise Choices, intergenerational writing workshops, workshops about the natural world such as When Grandmothers Speak the Earth Will Heal, and finally, End of Life Issues and Befriending Death.

The last ones make me wonder. Did she know? Did she have some inkling that the coins left in her purse were numbered? Did she know that she needed to befriend the end of life? We will never know, but what she taught and learned served her well. She approached these last two months with an open heart and with her insatiable curiosity. And she was not afraid.

But now she is gone. Or is she? The poet Kahlil Gibran has written:

Close your eyes and you will see me among you now and always. Go back to your homes and you will find there what death could not take away from you and from me.

In the last months of her life, when reflecting on what she was learning in her dying, she said, “I don’t know how to explain it, but this is not about me! This is for the world. Please don’t let them make this only about me.”

So, if this is not just about Anita but is also about us, what would Anita want for us to do now? I think that with the prophet she would want us to do justice, to love kindness, and to be decent companions for all the creatures of the world.  

In December, she wrote her last email to the RCWMS mailing list. She said:

“The Divine Feminine is with us as lover and warrior. She is calling elder women to stand up for the precious earth and water and creatures. For ourselves. For our children.”

I think Anita would want us to walk in the woods, to keep our friends and loved ones close, to march in Raleigh and in Washington, and to speak up on behalf of vulnerable people, vulnerable creatures, and the earth.

In order to do that, we are going to have to resist some pretty strong forces in this country. I’ve been saying I’ve never been an obstructionist before, but in the current political climate, I think I’m going to enjoy being one. And I’m certain Anita will be right there: resisting, rejoicing, and cheering us on.

RCWMS and the Women’s March

I handed my phone to a tall person who was standing nearby and asked him to take a picture of my friends and me. We had ridden the biodiesel bus together from Durham to Raleigh for the Women’s March on Raleigh. As our bus pulled into downtown, we saw cars and people streaming in from every direction. It was the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States, and progressive people all over the world were mad. When we got out of our bus and joined the crowd of 17-20,000 people assembled on Fayetteville Street, we found ourselves in a sea of humanity. Men, women, children, and babies—like eleven-month-old Frieda in our small group, riding along with her mother. There were so many of us that it took almost forty-five minutes for those of us in the middle of the crowd to start moving after the folks in front began the six-block walk to Moore Square. In the photo you can see our small group, including my longtime friend, BJ, and three colleagues in their 30s—Jenny, Andrea, and Frieda’s mother Rebecca. Other RCWMS volunteers and board members were scattered through the marching throng. All morning, I kept asking other women my age or older, “Did you think we would be doing this again after so many years?”

This march came forty-eight years after the student protests against the Vietnam war that took place during my freshman year of college; forty-four years after Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in our land; and thirty-five years after the last big North Carolina march in support of the Equal Rights Amendment.

The Women’s March on Raleigh emerged as a sister march to the Women’s March on Washington DC. The DC march’s mission statement reads:

We stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families–recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.  

The DC march, like the one in Raleigh, drew many more participants than organizers expected. Organizers anticipated 200,000, but the DC crowd numbered at least 450,000. In addition, over 3,000,000 people around the US participated in over 500 locations. They were joined by hundreds of thousands more, with demonstrations on every continent. Together we were speaking up for women’s rights and protesting the new administration’s agenda on so many fronts: their cabinet appointments, their promise to repeal Obamacare, our desire to protect LGBTQ people, immigrants, public education, workers rights, and a woman’s rights to choose.

This was baby Frieda’s first march. We suspect it will not be her last.