I remember the first time I cried in front of these women, the same four women I have met with in the same place at the same time for the last two years. Not just an ordinary cry where one delicate tear streams down your cheek, the kind where Kate Middleton might lightly dab the corners of her glistening eyes. No — the kind of cry where I hiccuped and developed a stutter and I felt like my grandfather all those years ago who sat through the play Driving Miss Daisy with snot just pouring out of his nose. I must have been 10 or 13, and I remember thinking, Why in the world does he not get up and go to the bathroom?, or, Please, SOMEONE, hand this man a hanky. It felt inappropriate, scandalous maybe, to let out bodily fluids in the wrong place at the wrong time. And in front of a crowd of strangers who might notice and think, Something is wrong.
At this particular early cry, the pieces and progression of my life made absolutely no sense, to the point where if you had offered me a sugar cone with chocolate and vanilla soft serve dipped in extra rainbow sprinkles, I would have told you to shove it somewhere else because the world, my world, sucked. And, to top it off, when my snotty scene went down — I, I, I, just, don, don don’tttt understand…stand — these women were strangers.
We sound like dedicated women to meet so consistently for two years. And, we are dedicated, but also, we attended a school that required us to meet. At first, I rolled my eyes a little, plotted out how to do minimal work for a group that showed up on my transcript with no academic credits earned, and I schemed the most strategic way to hold my cards close.
I already had enough friends who knew my life story. I had leaders back home who I loved deeply enough to give them permission to warn, Ash, you might want to reconsider that [wild] decision you’re about to make. Why did I need more friends, more women, more leaders to add bricks to my weighed down backpack I carry around filled with all the hearts who I love and who love me back?
But, I’m a rule follower by nature, and, you know, I wanted to graduate. So I started showing up. And then something happened.
We met at the black iron gate outside the apartment complex at 11:23 a.m. Central time. We waited for all five of us, crossed arms turning into hugs and chitchatting over time, receiving a couple text messages admitting, Stuck in traffic! or Be right there! or Walking across campus! When I say “campus,” you probably assume we’re 18- or 19-year-old undergraduate students. Nope. We range from quarter-life to mid-life crisis women, single, married, one kid, a handful of kids.
When our lovely host from Ireland opened the gate, we shuffled together to the elevators, sharing snippets of worries and celebrations — my paper, my professor, my roommate, my husband, my friend, my child, my parents, my weekend, my schedule, my house, my trip… The snippets continued with the ding of the elevator and the walk around the corner and down the hallway. We entered, we dropped our bags of heavy books, pulled out our lunches and snacks to share, then made our way to our usual unspoken assigned seats at the table or on the couch or in the wing-backed leather chair.
“Would anyone like some tea?,” our host always asked in the most beautiful Irish accent that fairy tales are made of. I always said yes to the Irish tea, secretly hoping for the magical potion to make me dance like that fairy tale princess.
We busied ourselves for a few minutes before we settled in, snippets of side worries and celebrations turning into prayer requests sashaying around the circle.
I shared with a friend about a week ago that I wanted to write about the power of showing up and gathering in the same place at the same time, how this space shaped me. She found it interesting because sometimes that can grow stale and boring.
Maybe we can thank the magical potion of the Irish tea, or just the choice we made to meet in a cozy home instead of a white-walled, sterile classroom. We kicked off our shoes if we wanted, felt the plush carpet on our bare feet, sat on the couch criss-cross-applesauce, breathed deeply into billowing steam from our mugs as we waited for the hot tea to cool with the same patience in waiting for God to answer our collective prayers.
That first time I cried (read: snotted) felt too soon to spill it all based on my usual standards. What happened to the plan to not give my heart away to anyone else, to hold my cards close? On that day, all my cards flew out the window of the skyscraper apartment. All of my “I’m too much” or “I’m not enough”s brewed and bubbled inside of me, reaching an unexpected boiling point. I vividly remember leaving that day feeling like I had snotted my way through an entire play, recklessly and scandalously drawing the attention of the entire audience, feeling like they must have thought, Something is wrong.
And yet, I came back, learning the timing of the curriculum felt off to have us share our life stories so late in the process. These women met me in the same place, at the same time, and surrounded me in songs like the grandest of symphonies. Even when life carried me back home sooner than expected, they met me every week in the virtual world as I caught a glimpse of that space that became my home away from home.
They warned me to wait — Don’t sip the tea too soon or you’ll keep burning your tongue.
They encouraged me to go — Try the new place and the new adventure. You are more than welcome there and you are brave enough to show up.
They told me to cry — Cry out to a Father who hears our prayers and someday, someday very soon will deliver good gifts to His cherished daughter.
They repeated that I should stop — You cannot reach perfection and Ds get degrees.
They made me look — See all the beauty already here, sip the tea and catch your breath. Your life is full of beauty, if you would just look around.
They asked me to write — Never stop. You have a gift with words. Use them. Carry them to people who need them.
They showed me who I am, who I was designed to be. I am structured and cautious — not flaws, but strengths. After time passed, when I was brave enough to keep showing up, transformation happened in this cozy apartment that became sacred, a couch and tea and prayers bigger than the tiny square footage should have ever allowed.
I knew exactly what to expect in this comfortable space. I knew exactly who would meet me there with open arms, to hold me up and to hold me close, to discipline and to love.