We packed bags of dreams, junk food, and clothes,
and set out for Pennsylvania.
They called it a "retreat,"
but four consonants, three vowels
can't capture six days
of truly living.
We bled Mountain Dew and grass stains,
lived for running and jumping,
and being whole. Being young.
We found shortcuts through the woods
and ran through with bobbing glow sticks
under a full moon.
We covered ourselves in war paint--
mud and shaving cream
And we would always sing songs of praise,
sometimes hand-in-hand amongst
the burning spotlights of the stage,
but mostly through shouts and laughs
They asked us to challenge our thoughts,
to believe in the unbelievable.
We congregated on stone steps one night
to put faith in the unseen.
The last night brought tears as
we exchanged handshakes and
And under another brilliant moon,
I filled a glass jar with fireflies in my head.
Memories, glowing brightly.
They still burn.
--CJ, August 2012
* * *
CJ wrote this poem as an entry for the PTA Reflections competition last fall. It did quite well, reaching the Richmond district finals. But, so much more than that, this piece captured the place her heart was in upon her return from The Great Escape--a week-long Christian retreat.
For as many road trips as we had taken as a family, this was the first trip in which she would be away from us for a week. Could not imagine a more fun atmosphere into which to venture nor more wonderful people with whom to send her. Still, the worries about the little things: Would she find something to eat? Would she keep track of her stuff (as past history shows this is an unmastered area)? Would she get to know people more? How would this impact her spiritually?
Reading the draft of the poem left me nodding. I didn't want to give too much feedback; this was being written for a competition, and parental input is forbidden. But, I told her how much I really liked it and reminded her to fill out the accompanying paperwork for the awards application. Honestly, I couldn't wait to share the piece, because it had touched me so much. CJ did have a faith revelation during the retreat, and she returned to us a changed person (even if she still didn't put her clothes away all the time).
But, as happens in a journey of faith, challenges emerged. Distractions. Nuisances. Stumbling blocks. Disappointments. Pressures. The hard wall of life. Something happened--a lot of things happened--and it was as if the retreat had never happened. What she had found in her heart to be true was confronted at every turn by something or someone to make her doubt, which led to a lot of questioning, argumentation and rebellion. In middle school lies the initial years of "Who am I?" We were an audience treated to a season of discovery. (Ouch! Feel the sarcasm....)
Church-related things fell into the mix, as CJ struggled to find her place. I feared she was another piece of evidence in the growing number of analyses suggesting youth-based spiritual retreats were more "polish and glow" than "worship and go [make disciples, etc.]." She would claim on more than one occasion that this kind of retreat brought her closer to God than anything else she had experienced. The "mountaintop" experience is hard to top (pun intended, I guess), though much of daily life is spent on the hillside if not, sometimes, in the valley. Yet the more I tried to explain, the more she had reason to find fault with my
I had actually said that she wouldn't be able to go on this retreat again if she wasn't making an effort to try and take a new look at spiritual things. I wasn't trying to throw religion down her throat, but I'm sure this all would have made more sense if she had heard what I was saying through someone else at a retreat. In the end, I was the one who retreated from her statement, opening my mind to the realization that this girl doesn't take the straight path to anywhere. Several friends and mentors deliberately or coincidentally shared their own faith experiences and the challenges of seeing their kids on their paths. My own faith experience isn't exactly a straight shot of belief. I got the message.
I have taken a lot of deep breaths in this season--some more helpful than others. I booked CJ for the second retreat, leaving certain expectations and hopes behind. (I'm still hopeful she doesn't forget anything.) I might hope that she returns to those stone steps tonight and reflects back to last summer. But I know better than that. She can go back, but she is not the same. And she won't be the same, if God knows what's good for her, which I believe He does.