“She’s the water”
A sage offered a reading at half price
She knew what she was doing
I paid extra and begged for
and asked to talk to Pat.
He said to put on a kettle
I was about to serve the tea.
People underestimate me.
He always acknowledged the heavy lift
We walked together in parades
A mutual admiration society like no other
He was a safe man
Never even the glimmer of a doubt
A soul confidence booster.
I asked her for more about him.
She listened to the room where she sat.
She thought for a moment.
“People used to flood their basements to drown rats.
She’s the water.”
I am the water.
I’ll rid us of the infestation.
It’s not easy but it’s natural.
I’ll be the water.
In the next book meeting
Can the title be
The week before our writing retreat was the year anniversary of the January 6 insurrection. I watched CNN and was slapped in the face with Jeffrey Toobin’s analysis. It was bad on top of bad. I was newly ill at recycled images of Trumpers breaking windows in the Capitol. Watching videos, knowing how it unfolded, I still said to myself and the TV, “Shoot these motherfuckers. Stop them!” In my opinion and in my lifetime as an American, this was our darkest day.
And I had to listen to Jeffrey Toobin talk about it? Wasn’t he the guy who had been fired for taking out his penis and masturbating on a Zoom work call?!!?? Well, evidently, he got his job back. And now I, along with his colleagues–women colleagues–had to deal with him again. They had to share a screen with him and speak to him with civility and professionalism in front of an audience of millions. Business as usual. No big deal, buddy. Don’t we all take out our penises on work calls every once in a while? You know, the pandemic…shit’s crazy.
No, we don’t.
It was more than I could stomach.
By then, I was bursting with this book and beyond ready for a retreat. I dealt with the mixed emotions of getting a break from feeding everyone, reminding people to get dressed, and cleaning a big house, but also nervously anticipated the aching for my family. We had been preparing for me to be away for the longest I had ever been. I had done weekends or overnights, but four whole days and nights away from my six-year-old daughter? How would we both survive? We agreed that she would sleep with my robe and I would sleep with hers. She found three stuffed cats amid her collection to help me not miss our three real cats. I repeatedly told her and my husband that they could call or video chat whenever needed. As if they would be incapacitated with missing me.
It turned out she and Daddy bonded together perfectly while I was away. We didn’t have the tearful video calls I planned for. The time apart solidified a shift in her affections that I heard might be coming as a natural stage of development. I filed it away as something to look for, which sounded interesting. It still hurt more than I wanted to admit when I realized it was actually happening. The development of my career coinciding with the development of her independence from me could either be fuel for a new brand of mom guilt, or I could see it for the benefits it gave us both. She and I began to give each other a new kind of space.
The retreat was both a finish and a starting line. I had to get through the holidays and postponed school starts due to COVID. I had to keep my head down and try so hard not to be the cranky mommy or the chilly wife, all while fantasizing about only having to worry about myself for a few days. And as for the book, I had to get there to do some actual work that wouldn’t be interrupted by that same mom and wife. I knew there would still be so much more to do when I got home, but I needed this time. The blogs were written between school days and quarantines. But that wouldn’t cut it if we wanted to make real headway.
The retreat was built up and lived up to being a culmination of all the sacred space Cami and I had created for ourselves, each other, and the work all along. Since we met, we carved out and protected either spoken or unspoken agreements around the individual and team importance of respecting rhythms of work and rest.
Our work together began in May 2021. Beginning then, I insisted on walking to and from our Sunday morning meetings at SIP. I stayed off my phone to take in the neighborhood, watching the seasons. May is a great month to start a walking routine in the Midwest because you get to watch everything come fully to life in the Spring and then observe the weekly changes and timing of what comes up through the Summer and Fall. We had just moved into the neighborhood the previous Fall. This was my first complete cycle of seasons on our new street. Observing the rhythms of the Earth in this specific corner we recently came to inhabit and grow roots was enhanced by this purposeful work. Meetings with Cami were such a pleasant venue to take on the ugly subject matter. Knowing we were both devoted to seeing this through infused it with joy and excitement. I felt empowered, confident, supported, and absolutely sure that we were doing the right thing the right way. I knew we would succeed.
SIP was the site of my second job between high school and college at Toledo’s first coffee shop back in the ‘90s. This corner spot in a retail goldmine called Cricket West has been many coffee shops, but the first one was Sufficient Grounds. It was the place where I learned what it meant to have a community outside of a school. We all had Toledo in common. Large groups of friends and offshoots into real lifetime connections came from Sufficient Grounds. It was fundamental to my relationship with my city. Meeting there with Cami felt full circle. I was grown up now. There had been a long and full period and experience from when I got my start there as a literal teenager to now being a middle-aged woman with much more significant responsibilities. Not the least of which included ridding the community of a sexual harasser.
My home inside this neighborhood is a sacred space. When I worked at Sufficient Grounds, one of my coworkers was the daughter of a woman who would become a mentor and spiritual mother. They and their family lived in the neighborhood adjacent to Cricket West. While the friendship with my contemporary was my entrance to the family, my relationship with Pam would take up residence in my heart and move me to send her husband letters and dinner invitations after she died in 2018. Paul was devastated by the loss of his one and only love. All four of their daughters had started their lives in other cities, and I considered myself their fifth Toledo-bound honorary daughter.
Pam was an activist, educator, storyteller, and lover of trees. Now, she is among my team of revenants who keep me in constant company. I have sanctuary in this house we inherited from the family when Paul moved to Chicago. His new life brought him closer to two daughters and allowed him to become a full-time grandpa. No one doubts Pam orchestrated it all, including our home purchase. A spiritual practice that has been with me my whole life has deepened in the past decade. It is defined by communion with ancestors. Items that connect me to a powerful spirit presence are everywhere in my home. Ashes, clothes, recipe boxes, paintings, drawings, and photos. I light Yahrzeit candles and make prayers to them. I ask to be reminded of what they would have me do. I carry forward their legacies and get quiet enough to hear them cheer me on. I clean and straighten and dust and prepare and clear, so I am always ready for ideas they deliver to me. Pam sent me the concept for the short film “Evergreen,” and she still encourages me while I do what I can to make things better for everyone’s daughters.
Cami and I allowed for space inside of our respective lives. We had to make and leave and create room for our hearts to be fully present for what would be required of us to ensure we finished the job of getting The Harasser out. We had to protect ourselves and each other and our families consistently. Whatever that meant at any given time. In terms of follow-through, there was never a time I was waiting for an email from her or thought that she might not understand if I didn’t respond to her right away. I have a family and a home. Many were still living very cautiously from within a pandemic. Cami has a home and a family, too. At no point did either of us expect that this work should precede the things in our lives that mattered the very most.
We allowed space for our feelings. I was frustrated much of the time that I had found myself, again, in a position to be doing unpopular work for no money. Feminism had been so expensive for me. Cami had concerns about our safety and reputations. She could foresee us being smeared as being “anti-veteran” or trying to take resources away from unhoused people by attacking the agency that helped them. We both had strong feelings about how the media handled our many requests and interviews. We both had days when we were energized, and days we were drained.
The important thing was to accept each other where we were at that moment and know we would both have what we needed to finish this when we needed it the most. At no point have I thought that I wished Cami would do something different than how she was doing it. That is rare. I can almost always wish someone did something differently or did it the way I would. We have been hyper-aware and grateful for each other’s strengths and the understanding of weaknesses to make room for us to bring our purest talents to this.
Cami and I both have an array of advisors and healers in our community. We consulted with them regularly and kept a mind to self-care. Massages and readings took us from peak to valley and back to the peak. Cami made playlists of music that related to the work or helped to get her in specific mindsets. I can only assume she was attracted to some form of spreadsheets or charts related to the task. I listened to and followed closely the careers of my trusty handful of singer-songwriters curated by what I like to call “Pat/Pamdora.” I watched interviews and listened to new music and other media released by my idols, finding inspiration in the obsession around new lyrics to memorize or art to consume. Notably, anything Lin Manuel Miranda did, or Anais Mitchell, or W. Kamau Bell, or Michelle Buteau, kept me fueled up.
Cami gardened, filling her car with plants she didn’t have the room for in her yard.
At some point, we both realized that all this preparation needed to lead to sitting down and writing the book. We had distractions at home. At the time, she had a day job. I have a child who had just recently started school, which didn’t mean much in the age of COVID. We both intended to take bites at the book when we could. We could be seen stealing longing glances as we walked by our respective workspaces in our homes.
For the past three years, I have gone on a retreat during the first week of January. This year, I invited Cami to join me at Our Lady of the Pines Hermitage cabins so we could be together but separate as we worked on the book.
Sacred space, indeed. Our Lady of the Pines is a retreat center in Fremont, Ohio. It’s all very Catholic. I always take down the crucifix in my cabin as soon as I get there. Otherwise, I approach Catholicism like a tourist visiting from my non-organized religion/Jewish roots. I visit Mary in the grotto, walk the twelve stations of the cross, and loop around the nun graveyard on my way back to a meditation deck and an off-road path past trees and trees and trees. I contemplate the differences in spiritual practice and marvel at the idea of people being representative of other people’s God. I walk the stone labyrinth and hug pine trees. There is a newly planted baby white spruce in Pam’s memory. I visit her when I’m there and remember the day we planted the tree with her ashes and her family. The land, the cabins, and our trip were all set up to be the perfect place and time. The beginning of the year. Two tiny and simple homes with few distractions. Food and warmth and books and candles. I drank gallons of tea and concoctions made of vinegar, garlic, and ginger.
And, delightfully, Cami was there. We ate meals together and went for walks. We offered each other our favorite desserts. We exchanged tea bags. We made gifts of berries on each other’s front porches. We saw turkeys and deer and coyote decoys. All of this was provided for us to do what we set out to do. We had loose agendas, including recording some conversations and operational decision-making, with the understanding that it was all time spent between writing.
I read books by comedians and watched their stand-up specials at night. What Cami would call “dinking around.” Distractions to unlock a part of my brain which could work on the book passively. I took a long nap one day. Unheard of. I checked in with my family at least once a day and was heartened to hear my daughter was working on her Martin Luther King homework by going to her grandparents’ house to hear about when they went to see him speak. She also learned that her grandfather went to jail for demonstrating with the Civil Rights movement. My husband was in deep preparation for an art exhibition. We were all doing exactly what we should have been doing.
Writing was slower going than I would have liked. But, the weekend did the job of a reset and got me rolling.
I gave myself time to read before leaving for the retreat. I designated several weeks to a stack of books I got from the library. I joined a cross-country meditation group led by a good friend who used to live in Toledo but is now in San Francisco. I detoxed from Facebook. I simultaneously cleared out my mind and filled it with new information. Books written by other people compelled to write books. That can be a big hurdle. Why do I think I can write a book, or would anyone want to read a book that I’ve written? These other people must have said that same thing to themselves. This book had more of a purpose than others I had taken on. It felt like a beginning, middle, and end had taken place enough to encapsulate. The time in preparation to write was crucial in getting the soil ready to plant.
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Rachel Richardson is a Toledoan, community organizer, and advocate. She is a musician and a public art coordinator. She is a freelance collaborator.