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

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.

Turning Points

Last fall, a group of women whose ages spanned six decades gathered every Monday evening for four weeks to write, explore, and share in a safe and supportive community. Out of these gatherings came a booklet of deeply personal and moving poems and essays. Below is one of the short essays featured in this collection. To read more, email rcwmsnc@aol.com to order your copy of the Turning Points booklet for $5.00.

If this type of experience sounds appealing to you, consider signing up for Seasons of Our Lives, another intergenerational writing workshop RCWMS is offering this October. Contact rcwmsnc@aol.com for more information. Let us know what you think in the comments!

-Rebecca Welper

Pregnant
by S. age 40

I have had three pregnancies. Each was so distinct, from the symptoms and complications to my emotional response.

The first time, it all seemed to come fairly easily. We were ready, we’d planned and hoped, and taken the right classes. Our baby was small but mighty and made her way into the world through a C-section, because, despite my best efforts, from the traditional to acupuncture needles in my toes, she wouldn’t turn around. So, three weeks early, angry, skinny, and precious, she came into our lives.

Three and a half years later, after much anticipation, my second pregnancy was utterly uneventful. The boy was head down, developing nicely. He was fine, but I was exhausted.  This time, being pregnant while keeping up with work and a three year old left me ready for him to come on out and join us. My labor was stunning and fast, and although he was “on time,” we couldn’t keep up. I was relieved that I didn’t deliver on the highway. Twenty minutes after arriving at the hospital, he joined us, tumbling toward the center of the universe amidst blood and screams and complete disbelief on our part. He was a little small, (but) perfect, and very real, despite our incredulity.

My third pregnancy came as a deep blow to my gut, panic and tears and a complete fraying of all my edges. I spent a week talking and weeping with my husband, trusted midwives, and closest girlfriends. I imagined and researched the size of an embryo at five weeks. I drew a little dot in my journal. I felt connected to a relatively silent sisterhood across time and space that faced this same reality. I called to make the appointment for a medical abortion.

Between the time of the phone call and my scheduled appointment, still wracked with raw nerves and bewilderment, I miscarried. I relied on the same allies and loved ones as before.  I felt the loss, but I also felt powerful relief that my body had ended this early pregnancy… gratitude that my body was aligning with my spirit.

Maura Wolf May 2015 East Coast Book Tour: What Matters Most

Maura reading croppedAt the end of May, Maura Wolf will be touring the East Coast for intimate and lively readings from her new book What Matters Most: Everyday Leadership at Home, at Work, and in the World.

About the Book
What matters most today? In the midst of striving for success and reaching for fulfillment, how do we deal with the issues that emerge in our day-to-day experiences? In What Matters Most, Maura Wolf uses forty-two vignettes from her own life to find meaning in the ordinary. She presents specific practices and asks intriguing questions, inspiring readers to consider the choices they make every day.

“Maura Wolf is as thoughtful and earnest on the page as she is in conversation. Here’s a book for anyone who has ever longed for purpose and clarity and greater meaning in every day.” — Kelly Corrigan, New York Times bestselling author of The Middle Place, Lift, and Glitter and Glue

About the Author
Maura Wolf has spent her adult life being curious about how people and groups can change for the better. She brings this curiosity to her teaching, consulting, and coaching work as well as to her home life. Currently, she teaches leadership at Saint Mary’s College of California and coaches people through Inbalance Coaching. She lives with her husband, son, and daughter outside San Francisco.

Click here to order What Matters Most from RCWMS.

Find the reading closest to you:

Princeton, NJ
Wednesday, May 27, 7-8:30pm
Home of Diane & Bobby Hackett
Click HERE to RSVP.
Please join us for an informal, fun evening of conversation and reading with Maura Wolf, author and leadership coach from San Francisco. Short stories will be read and guests will be invited to do their own reflection and storytelling on themes like Getting on the Balcony, Presence and Working with Conflict.
Feel free to bring a friend.

Washington, DC
Thursday, May 28, 6:30-8pm
Home of Ann Zim
Click HERE to RSVP.
Come enjoy a casual evening of conversation, reflection and connection with San Francisco-based author, Maura Wolf.  Maura will share stories on topics like – Getting on the Balcony, Working with Conflict and Transitions – and invite guests to share some stories of their own.  The crowd with be a rich mix of interesting people.

University of Richmond
Saturday, May 30, 2:30pm
Tyler Haynes Commons, Room 305
As part of the alumni weekend activities, alumni and guests are invited to join Maura Wolf, W’90, for a special interactive reading and signing of her book, What Matters Most: Everyday Leadership at Home, at Work, and in the World.
Advance registration is requested: https://uronline.net/rw15/alumni/non-reunion

Durham, NC
Sunday, May 31, 2pm
Okun/Stern loft
Click HERE to RSVP.
Join Julia Scatliff-O’Grady in a lively conversation with author Maura Wolf, who will read from her new book, What Matters Most: Everyday Leadership at Home, at Work and in the World. We will take on issues such as what gets in the way of living out our deepest values, how we use storytelling to get to deeper wisdom, and what we want to remember in the present moment. We anticipate a lively and meaningful dialogue.

 

Moments Magnified

photo“Evocative, sensual, suspenseful.”

That’s how Carol Henderson described strong writing to 25 women who gathered on the first day of spring for Carol’s annual Resource Center weekend writing intensive. Many of the women were veterans of Carol’s writing workshops and dove in eagerly. Entitled “Moments Magnified,” the two-day workshop encouraged participants to write powerful vignettes about their lives, and leave with drafts of short pieces that would later begin to connect into a larger whole.

To inspire deep and thoughtful writing (with a dash of humor) Carol read earthy poems and threw out juicy prompts. In the light and airy Colony Hills Clubhouse, pens scratched and keyboards clicked, as participants reached into their lives for narrative themes that cut across time and memory.

A deeply personal writing journey for many blossomed into a community experience as well. Quiet writing periods were broken up by opportunities to share freshly generated writing. After finding inspiration and encouragement from each other, the writers would turn back to their own notebooks and computers for yet more writing.

The whole weekend was brought to a sweet and celebratory close with several participants’ readings, which shared beautiful, painful, and brave moments in their lives. The writing indeed turned out to be evocative, sensual, and suspenseful – moments magnified into something greater.

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Masks & Mirrors

IMG_20150315_140226What happens when you bring together a yearning at RCWMS to showcase someone’s art, a gorgeous venue, and the idea that a day should be designated to celebrating women in the arts? “Masks & Mirrors,” that’s what. “Masks & Mirrors: Works By Mary Jane Rivers & Friends,” which opened on March 15 at Cassilhaus, a home and gallery between Durham and Chapel Hill, NC, is sponsored by RCWMS and Cassilhaus.

Mary Jane’s abstract forms reflect a vibrant conversation between the conscious and unconscious. Her paintings portray the dialogue between the masks we present to the world and the vulnerabilities that peek out from behind those masks. Her works are mirrors of an interior landscape. This exhibition features a selection of her work, along with paintings by Marcy Litle and wildlife sculptures by environmental artist, Bryant Holsenbeck.

IMG_20150315_174210During the planning stages, and inspired by the model of SWAN (Support Women Artists Now), scheduled each year in March, Mary Jane determined that this celebration of her work should also showcase the work of local artists in other media. To include more friends, as it were. This decision blossomed into a series of associated events, including a rousing concert featuring Randa McNamara on March 19, an upcoming evening of readings by local writers, and a participatory jazz improvisation during the show’s closing.

The opening on April 15 and performance on the 19 brought out lively and enthusiastic crowds. You can find photographs from the exhibition and some of the events on the RCWMS Facebook page.

The exhibition runs through April 19, with gallery open hours on afternoons of March 19, 26, April 2, 8, and 16. (Please contact masks.mirrors@gmail.com if you need directions.) Mary Jane Rivers and Marcy Litle will be present during gallery hours, happy to chat or to leave visitors alone to contemplate the artwork.

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Art Weekends at the Beach

IMG_4911During the last week of February, a large beach house on Emerald Isle—with a magnificent view of the sound in one direction and a one-block walk to the beach in the other—was filled with pencils, pastels, acrylics, watercolors, charcoal, pens, and blank canvases. By the beginning of March, a revolving cast of women had explored, rediscovered, and deepened artistic expression and soulful connections. Inspired by the sometimes icy views, the women filled sketchbooks and canvases under the warm and wise guidance of veteran artist and teacher Sue Sneddon.

IMG_4929Some participants were returning to the beach for the advanced “Making Your Art” workshop, and some ventured out the following weekend for their first RCWMS event, “Finding Your Medium.” After the workshop, one of the first-timers, Kate, shared her joy in re-connecting with an important part of herself:

What a gift! “Finding Your Medium” with Sue Sneddon was magical for me and helped me to recover my artist soul. I have been yearning to learn how to paint, but I have been carrying within me the discouraging reactions of several art instructors who had convinced me that I was no good at it. Several weeks ago I stumbled onto the RCWMS website and discovered “Finding Your Medium.” What drew me was the first line of the course description, “I can’t draw a straight line.”

I am an introvert and have always felt intimidated making art in front of other people so it was a HUGE leap of faith to sign up to spend an entire weekend with a group of strangers at a beach house making art together! I had to talk myself into going several times before the weekend started. I told myself I was going to give up painting if I came home feeling discouraged.

What happened was the opposite! What I experienced was a group of kind women who were supportive and non-critical, and in this environment I discovered that art is fun, joyful, and a gift that all of us possess, including me. I gradually began to relax, and as I got lost in the various art mediums, I discovered that my young artist inside has lots to say and express. I am very excited to continue painting and to allow my artist soul to flourish.

Sue Sneddon is so much more than an extremely gifted and accomplished artist. It is who Sue is as a person–her warmth, her “realness,” her gentle encouraging spirit, and her unique ability to draw out the “vulnerable child artist” in each of us–that makes her a really great teacher.

At RCWMS, we so are grateful to work with talented artists and teachers like Sue Sneddon, and open-hearted women who are willing to risk, explore, and grow. We hope you will join us for a workshop or program soon!

Rebecca Welper has an MFA in Playwriting and has taught writing workshops at RCWMS

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Befriending Death

What would it look like to befriend death?

That was the question presented to a circle of women on at the first session of a series of workshops sponsored by RCWMS on January 18th. Titled “Befriending Death,” the series seeks to explore how we may spiritually, mentally, and emotionally grapple with the realities of death – our own, and others’.

Led by Anita McLeod, Betsy Barton, Stacy Grove, and Jocelyn Streid, the group met in the warm and sunny living room of a private home in Durham. This past Sunday, twenty women gathered together over tea and treats. The workshop opened with the lighting of a candle and a reminder that when women circle around a fire, they participate in a centuries-long tradition of wisdom-gathering. At the beginning Stacy Grove centered the group with a simple flute melody, and Anita McLeod asked participants to honor the community they formed—by maintaining confidentiality and withholding advice and judgment, each member would contribute to the creation of a safe space.

Over the next three hours, participants shared their own experiences of illness and mourning, fear and acceptance. The afternoon included poetry-reading, silent meditation, journaling, and conversation. In small groups and as a whole, the women discussed how previous encounters with loss shaped their perception of death and how they hoped the workshop might allow them to reimagine their relationship to this final transition. Several spoke of how personifying death as a female figure offers a new way of thinking, and explored the use of the term “Sister Death.”

As one leader explained, “You can’t befriend what you can’t imagine.” As such, the group engaged in an activity that had originally been conceived by RCWMS board member Jehanne Gheith for a class she taught at Duke University. Participants took a few minutes to sketch their ideal death, thinking about where they would be, who would be there, and how they might feel. The session ended with a communal reflection on the truths, questions, and challenges the women had encountered during the afternoon.

Participants lingered after the closing of the workshop, chatting with old friends and exchanging contact information with new ones. They will convene again in a few weeks to continue the conversation. Good things take time, it seems; befriending death isn’t just about facing it—it’s also about learning how to be in relationship with it.

Jocelyn Streid is a graduate of Duke University and an intern at RCWMS.

Epiphany Labyrinth Walk, January 6, 2015

IMG_20131003_155551In the Christian tradition, Epiphany is the celebration of the visit of the three wise people to the baby Jesus.  Epiphany comes from ancient Greek meaning “manifestation” or “striking appearance.”  We use the work in English to denote a striking revelation.

We invite you to walk a labyrinth this year on Epiphany and to let the experience reveal to you whatever it might.  You may want to carry a question with you on the walk or simply be open to whatever appears to you.

We have checked with a few of our favorite labyrinth locations and have listed them below. You may find others through your own networks or at: http://labyrinthlocator.com/

January 2-8, 2014, 8:00 am-10:00 pm
St. James Room, Trinity Center, 618 Salter Path Rd.,
Pine Knoll Shores, NC 28575
Canvas Eight-Circuit Renewal Labyrinth created for an Eagle Scout
Project by Ben Brake and gifted to Trinity Center in 2010.
Contact: 888-874-6287

January 5-6, 2015, Thursday, 6:00-9:00 pm
and Friday 9:00 am-4:00 pm
First United Methodist Church Cary, 117 S. Academy St.,
Cary, NC 27511
This is a modified medieval 7-circuit 24′ Octagonal Canvass labyrinth. Enter the church thru the West Templeton building entrance (educational building) and take the stairs to Room 200 on the second floor.
Contact: Rev. Judy Stephens, Judys514@nc.rr.com, 919-815-8836

January 6, 2015, open all day
Millbrook Baptist Church, 1519 Millbrook Rd., Raleigh
Outdoor 11-circuit Chartres labyrinth. This lovely outdoor labyrinth will be available all day for individuals to walk. Inspirational materials will be available.
Contact: Carolyn McClendon, 919-247-4240, office@millbrookbaptistchurch.org (Groups may use this contact to arrange a designated time.)

January 6, 2015, 12:00 noon-8:00 pm
St. Francis United Methodist Church, 2965 Kildaire Farm Road,
Cary, NC 27518
Outdoor labyrinth will available for walking during daylight hours.
Contact: Joan Purcell, joanpurcell4@gmail.com