Last year, I joined a women’s coffee and religious devotional meet-up group to replace a secular women’s group of which I was previously a member . The initial group was run by a counseling center, for a fee of $35 per meeting, every second week. I often left the group feeling worse than I arrived, but I really believe that this feeling of anguish was reliably helpful and probably cathartic – or would have been had I remained in the group! I must mention that I have trouble with being part of a group and have made my life going solo, being a hermit, seeking solitude, or making the most of solitary life.
The other women in the counseling center group were of various ages, married and divorced or single. Some had children, and some did not. The thing that they all had in common that I did not is that they were all African-American. This made me the “outsider” for all intensive purposes, by “race” and by culture. Everyone was very nice, and I truly liked each and every one of them – the issue I had to work on in myself is feeling comfortable being myself in a group.
Trust, abandonment, belonging: these are all areas where I have struggled and still feel slightly uneasy around to this day. So when I open up and share with others on certain subjects or certain experiences, there is a backlash. I share the volatile material, hoping for acceptance and fearing rejection. I make myself as tender as a newborn kitten, as vulnerable as a fetal panda – then I curl back on myself like an unfurled fern, hopeful and waiting. I can be spiny and defensive in such places, or grieving and heart-heavy, my chest lined with stone. Tending to keep these emotions inside my own inner sanctum, for the most part, I feel pretty good about myself and my life – until I get closely involved with other people. Friendships are fine, but intimacy and intimate relationships – in friendships or romantic relationships are more challenging. I always believe it is best to work through things, but I have been known to run away too soon as well. My excuse for leaving the women’s group was that my finances were too tight. Which is reasonable and very much true. Still, it was an excuse.
And so I told myself it was time for me to find a “free” support group – a meet-up group where women could share personal experiences in a safe, gossip and judgment-free environment – or as much as is reasonably possible among female human beings. I searched the meet-up web-site for women’s groups in proximity to my home base, but I couldn’t find exactly what I was seeking. If I were to start my own meet-up group, the monthly fee is $50, which would invalidate my initial excuse from opting out of the first group. So I signed up for the coffee group. All of the women in this group are also African-American or Afro-Caribbean, and all of them are Born-Again Christians. I capitalize that appellation because it is foreign to me, and because it is such an important part of their identity as individuals and as a group.
The reason I have stuck with this group is because the founder is such a wonderful, kind and open-hearted woman. I really love and admire her, and I enjoy the group, even though I am not a born-again Christian, or a Christian at all, for that matter. My spiritual reachings are of a personal nature, and I am not affiliated with any religious organization of any kind. However, I do take my mystical and spiritual path seriously in that I want to live my life fully and to understand the nature of life and being – from the heart and from the mind. Ideally, I would prefer to be part of a group of women with similar inclinations and interests, and perhaps that will come in time.
It has taken me a while to express to the group that I do not share their religious beliefs – which took some courage on my part. I must say that no one in the group has tried to convert me or made me feel badly about living my life differently than they do.
The theme of the last meet-up was a challenging one. The organizer chooses a theme for the devotional at each monthly meeting. She reads a text that she has prepared, then asks a question or two, requesting that each person share some personal thoughts or experiences related to that question. The theme was “unmentionables” – something that has happened in your life that you are afraid to share with others – for fear of judgment, out of shame, guilt, or whatever reason one might offer in order to keep some thoughts or experiences in the dark space under one’s own wing.
As I did not know what the theme would be before the meeting, I had but a few minutes to bring forth from the recesses of my inner self a situation that fitted the problem. I wrestled with myself – should I share this story, or continue to keep it to myself. Being a risk-taker on emotional fronts, I decided to plunge ahead, keeping my trepidation behind my teeth. When my turn soon came to share, I intook my breath and started to talk. My story was very personal and painful, involving multiple betrayals of trust and a terminated pregnancy. I want to be more specific here in the blog, but unfortunately, I don’t feel very safe doing so. When I paint, I can feel free to express the most personal truths, but in writing, it is scary to be so naked as others can recognize, judge, and offer repercussions if they happen to be somewhat connected to my personal circle.
Inside of myself at the moment of revelation, I was both serene and afraid. I knew that I had made the best decisions for myself at the time, and that I had learned to grow in self-esteem from that situation, deciding to stay away from future relationships until I was healed from my self-doubts and grown into self-love. Yes, I harbor some regrets, but I do earnestly and deeply believe that the souls that come into our lives, however briefly, do so consciously and purposefully. That child who came knew that she would never be born into this world – at least not this time. She came to help me to learn to love myself and to embrace myself, and to respect myself, no longer to choose relationships with people who are not worthy of me.
The ladies in the group were not judgmental, at least not overtly. Later in the meeting, some of the women shared personal concerns over people in their lives – in one case an employer / manager, in the other, a son – who were not “saved”, and their feelings and concerns over that. I think these unrelated comments somehow made their way under my skin thinned by my previous personal revelations. In the days following the meet-up, I felt myself going into a “fix-it” mode. When I feel “attacked”, I try to find control or comfort in figuring out things, situations, people. Of course, no one was really attacking me. I was just cracked open like a melon with all of my seeds sticking out. After speaking with the organizer, I came to my senses and realized what was actually going on. The embarrassment was annoying but helpful. I needed to take off my pride and realize that no-one needed fixing, including myself. Acceptance of them and of myself were most needed.
Over time, I have worked on weaning myself from the desire for love and approval from others – especially authority figures. Still, being part of a group, member of an extended family or community has eluded me. I have visions of ideal communities – of transforming my low-income neighborhood into a place where people of all ethnicities, cultures, and backgrounds come together and embrace the connectedness of all life. In order to get to that place, I must conquer my fear of belonging. I must stop judging and excluding myself.
And so, the meet-up group has been working over the course of the last week in transforming my heart. I cannot obviously control the hearts and minds of the other women in the group. What I can do is assert my right to belong without debate, and accept that to be who I am is important within the context of that group or any group of my choosing. Growing myself up so that I can be family.