By Ann Marie Szpakowska, Dignity/Buffalo
The 6th Dignity Women’s Gathering took place on the weekend of September 23-25, 2016 at the Edward House on the outskirts of Framingham, Massachusetts. The Retreat and Conference Center is a Ministry of the United Church of Christ. Warmly welcomed and given a quick tour of the facility, we were soon left to fend for ourselves. We gravitated towards the sunroom adjacent to the assigned board room. Women arrived one by one and two by two from the Boston area, Buffalo, Long Island, and Madison. Hugs, smiles, and greeting followed as we once again reconnected, but soon became conscious of those who would not or could not be with us. We marveled that we had made it, given the obstacles and detours that plagued us. Our chosen theme was “Harvesting Your Gratitude Attitude.” Honour, our emcee, pointed out that we already lived in gratefulness for all that was, is, and will be, and we simply needed to touch the memories of our blessings.
Except for Kathy Ann and Alice, we all seem to have travelled light, while they had filled their car with what we might need – lap top and tablet, art supplies and games, CDs and player. Snacks, wine and Mary Kay’s photo cards also appeared and were laid on tables. Although an outline of our time together had been generated, strangely name tags, hand-outs, or lyric sheets never showed up. After Honour located the right cable, the laptop was connected and we viewed and sang along to YouTube videos. The laptop gave us the freedom to share songs and readings that moved us. Ann Marie could not resist sharing Carrie Newcomer’s “Room at the Table” in light of the theme of the Dignity/USA Boston Conference of 2017. Soon the women sang and moved in delight, even expressing the possibility of including the song in some prayer time at the Conference.
No Dignity Women’s Gathering would be complete without singing, and Kathy Ann’s gestures to “One Woman’s Welcome,” yet even Chris was without her guitar. “I’m So Grateful” by Karen Drucker and “Sanctuary” by Carrie Newcomer were added to our repertoire. Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” video made an appearance at this retreat setting our toes a tappin’. Our evening recreation was filled with laughter as we amused ourselves with a game of “Catch Phrase.” It was new to some of us. You are given a word or a phrase and must clue the rest via other words or pantomime. There were many hilarious moments. What would be your clue for “crack a smile?”
We listened to Mary Oliver’s poem "Gratitude," and “Every Woman needs another Woman,” an essay by Carolyn Lebandowski from the website womanforone. The Gospel retold the story of the ten lepers. Our Eucharist Prayer came from our liturgist, Diann Neu of WATER (Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual). Having wine but no hosts, pita or bread, we were given Wonder Bread and the salt shaker top to create cut-out hosts.
Our time together concluded in participating in the Catholic Lesbian Queer conference call sponsored by Dignity/USA and WATER, facilitated by Marianne Duddy-Burke. The topic explored was Identifying Lesbian or Queer while in Religious Life. Becky Duddy-Burke spoke of her experiences which led to both rich conversation and the obligatory pregnant pauses. We became known as “the Women in the Living Room.” While our phone was muted, some shared that we had either considered a vocation to religious rife or spent our school years observing the comings and goings of “the nuns.” “Why must they travel in threes?” we wondered as children.
The Women of Dignity will have four opportunities to get together at the Boston Conference in July: Pre-Convention Gathering, Women’s Liturgy/Ritual, Women’s Caucus, and Women’s Dinner on the town. Mary Beth, a young Dignity/Boston member, whom we had the pleasure of meeting for the first time, has been “voluntold” to scope out some nearby restaurants where we could reserve a private room. Each of us will be expected to pay for our meal. While reminiscing, we gave Mary Beth a short history of our struggles as women in DignityUSA, an organization that continue to be mostly male, so it was great to see Christine again, one of our pioneer leaders when Regions were the norm and the Committee of Women’s Concern was active and trying to link women across the chapters. The other three events have not been planned, so your needs, ideas, vision, and direction would be welcomed. You can “voluntell” yourself. You may email or call Peggy at the Dignity national office to give you direction as to who to contact.
You may be wondering why I would include the resources we used at the Women’s Retreat in this article. Let me explain: It is in the hope that something may prove useful as chapters, friends, and families celebrate Thanksgiving. We are all susceptible to ruts and we think we have to do it like we’ve always done it. There is a place for old traditions, but the world won’t end if we bring something new, borrowed, or bluesy. So check out the songs, find the videos, or read the essay or poem. We began our time together naming the women in their absence and we place their names on leaves, butterflies, and apples we glued to the tree. The tree along with twigs, leaves, and acorns became our altar cloth and then travelled to Dignity/Boston’s 5:00 p.m. Sunday liturgy, where it became the altar parament (an ornamental ecclesiastical hanging).
We brought all we thought we needed. What was needed but forgotten was supplied. And we left lighter still, yet overflowing with a harvest of blessings, memory, and friendships we will revisit often, and reap when we meet again. When Jean and I got home an Amazon package awaited us and I opened Carrie Newcomer’s book, “The Beautiful Not Yet.” There a cycle poems from “Betty’s Dinner: the Musical” called “A Circle of Seasons” caught my heart and ear:
This is how we love in the golden light of autumn.
We know what is coming and so we walk further and longer.
Just to feel it and live it, and take it completely
and joyously into our hearts.
But let go we must although we resist
as surely as each leaf bids farewell to the branch,
launching and lifting into the air.
Late autumn is the season of abundance and loss,
the harvest comes in,
the gardens are made ready,
the nights are getting longer,
and every day the leaves fall like so many golden coins.
But this loss does not feel like the wailing of grief.
It is more like the final notes of a beautiful song,
when we lean into the ache of those last vibrations,
our hearts broken open,
empty hands reaching as the sound fades into soft memory.
The dark nights are coming, but they are not here yet.
So let us be grateful for what was and what is,
for the air filled with rain and dust
and the circling descent of fire colored leaves.