Sunday, February 10, 2013

Inspired by Saturday Night Widows by Becky Aikman

Upon receiving the next book chosen for, I was pleased to see it was a memoir about being a widow. Of course, having been a widow, I assumed my post inspired by this book would be about widowhood. Not so. Becky Aikman's memoir is as much about female friendships as about widowhood. At one point I considered naming my memoir, Girlfriends Get You Through Life—not a great title but a Truth for me. I have constructed my personal group of girlfriends whose friendships consisted of strong building materials that withstand the tsunamis and hurricanes of life.

We named ourselves Kindred Spirits. Even as their pastor, I expected little beyond meeting once a month, studying spiritual material and sharing thoughts about our faith experiences. Oh, ye, of low expectations. In the following thirteen years, we fed each other’s souls and met routinely. We didn’t need to know of well-recognized research on conversation with sisters making for a happier life and we didn’t need for the sisters to be biological. We lived it out.
From the beginning we combined intense spiritual work and serious fun. One of our first outings together, we dressed up—it is an understatement to say there isn’t one unattractive woman in this group—and headed to Keeneland Race Track in Lexington, KY, for a day of racing. Seated in a box, we were having great fun when one of the guys in the box next to us couldn’t resist asking, “What kind of group are you all?”
Mary replied, “We are a spiritual life group from our church.”
His eyes grew wider, and just as I pulled my shoulders back to take my jacket off (Let’s just say I am amply endowed.), Mary responded, “And this is our pastor.”
He couldn’t get the question out of his mouth fast enough, “What kind of church is that?”
Rosemary being the comic and wit in our midst didn’t miss a beat in replying “The Church of What’s Happenin’ Now.”
We collapsed in laughter.
Three biological sisters, Rhonda, Lisa and Martha, predisposed the circle toward blood-like commitment. Rosemary, a Maryland transplant, sought a local substitute for her own remote family. And Mary’s years of broken relationships steeled her determination to “keep it real.”
We hailed from four different decades, thirties to sixties. Age mattered not. Perhaps, we would not have chosen each other as friends had we met under other circumstances. Life tossed out experiences that could have bonded us to each other or driven us apart. Four graduations, six marriages, two babies, one divorce, one separation and more deaths than any small band should have had to bear. We’ve talked through romantic relationship breakups too numerous to count and tended each other through more surgeries than we care to admit—the flotsam and jetsam of six lives over thirteen years inextricably wove us together. Our raucous laughter caused on-lookers to ask, “What can possibly be that funny?” Perhaps they missed Rosemary’s suggestion we raise money for the church by doing a calendar of me, their pastor, draped over her husband’s antique Corvette. Rose, alone could have kept us laughing the past thirteen years. Tears and sorrows necessitated communal distribution; their weight too much to be borne alone.
When we first formed, Mary, a many-years-sober alcoholic, red headed, tri-athlete influenced us to select for our first study material, The Twelve Steps: A Spiritual Journey a book modeled on AA’s Twelve Steps (RPI Publishing, Inc. 1988). This nitty-gritty guide demanded we dig deep and share courageously every month when we gathered. So we did. We started by telling our life stories with truth and trust. I recommended this step for any group who decided to share a spiritual voyage and hold themselves accountable to each other.
What has made these friendships work? Trust, accountability and a fierce commitment of time. Teaching each other to live authentically required all three and more.
“Have you opened that bank account in your own name like you promised? Why not?”
“That’s not your problem; give it back to your husband, it belongs to him.”
“What are you doing to care for your health this month? Chocolate doesn’t count.”
“Are you pushing yourself too hard at work? If so, why?”
“Is this guy you’re dating enriching your life or an avoidance of something else?”
“Didn’t we commit to a full day of retreat? Why are you saying you need to go back to work? Home? Shopping? Are all calendars clear for the third full week in July next summer?”
Here’s a mini-list of what this flock has given me: Mary has taught me every day how to deal with alcoholics in my past, present and future. Rhonda has modeled a stunning example of steadfastness and introversion, absent in my own life. Lisa has shared her love of style and even shopped for the shoes to match the yellow silk suit I wore to my son’s funeral. Rosemary physically held me upright the day I resigned as their pastor after my son’s death. And Martha introduced me to my soul-mate and husband, John.
These women have been kind enough over the years to tell me what I have given to them. The list included the ridiculous and the sublime. Rhonda pointed out I taught her and her sisters not to wear horizontal stripes because they are blessed with broad shoulders. She also maintained I gave her permission to question all things sacred so as to deepen her spirituality. Passing along what we as pastors learn in life is as important as passing along what we learn in seminary. These Kindred Spirits confirmed this concept for me.
Martha, the youngest of our group, has shared in these thirteen years her graduation from college, marriage and birth of her children. She has grown from a college girl into a multi-tasking business professional, wife and mother. She shared with me at one point “You are a mentor and guide for all areas of my life. Period. You model living freely as your true self, with no apologies, unlike any person I have ever met. You nurture my spiritual life and build my self-esteem as a strong, independent woman. You offer unconditional love and compassion in the twinkle of your eye and with reassurance as if you are mother of all women.”
Rosemary, the artist among us, reminded me I gave her a book about using the visual arts in worship which freed her to worship in a way that reached her soul as nothing else had. She delighted in reminding me I gave her permission to be an imperfect Christian and not beat up on herself about sin. Her sleepless nights as a teen and young adult were spent worrying she would burn in hell for sins she has since learned have nothing to do with God’s love for her and are probably not worthy of the word sin.     
The Kindred Spirits taught me to accept my role as leader even when not leading. I experienced in this group the difference between being wise and being right. I told my biological sisters what to do and assumed I was right. In ministry, I learned I could have all the answers for others but a wise leader allows them to come to their own truths on their own time.
Girlfriends in community give and receive. As I struggled in relationships with my biological sisters, these women helped me see I was a leader and could lead without imposing my will on others. I could be wrong and still share wisdom. The diversity in this group reminded me of the richness which comes from being friends with people who have walked very different journeys—economically, socially, educationally. Two of us have Master degrees, one has a high school education. Our salaries in range from minimum wage to six figures annually. Our differences which became our strength taught me to be myself and I would not feel isolated or responsible, I would just be me.
I give thanks for the difference all girlfriends have made in my life. I know this much is true—when I die, my list of honorary pallbearers will be the girlfriends who have carried me in life. In addition to the Kindred Spirits, there will be Linda, Rachel, Wendy, Vonda, Boog and Laura.