It’s my last morning at Danielle’s house. I wake, meditate and go for one last run along the Eno River, slower than I’d like. I do pull-ups in the master bedroom. I feel heavy and weak and irritable, but I am determined and I get them done. Pixie the cat paces around me while I do core work.
Then I talk myself into the car and drive to ERUUF–the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. There is no one I know here to sit with, so I choose a place at the back wall quickly as the service begins. The congregation is standing and singing; I rapidly open the hymnal, find the page and read the music. I’m still quite anxious from the drive but once I’m singing I focus.
I have loved the music here since the day I arrived for the first time. The songs aren’t the stodgy Catholic ones from childhood memories–they’re about hope and community and justice. Sight-reading them is an old familiar pleasure, and though I am impaired at many things now singing is not one. I feel a sense of joyful competency, helping to create music among kind people in a beautiful place. Reverend Brett leads the service. She is elegant, warm and motherly, with a clear voice and a benevolent passion. I liked her from the moment I laid eyes on her. She begins the service;
“Whoever you are, whoever you love, wherever you come from, whatever your race, national origin, your gender, your immigration status, your political affiliation–you are welcome in this, our beloved community.”
I tear up, smile, and applaud with others. Reverend Brett lights a candle for a congregant who has died. The sadness in the room is palpable, so I feel the loss of a loved one who I did not know. This makes me agitated and I drift off briefly into my feelings about love and loss and groundlessness.
I return to presence when Braxton, who I do not know, gathers the children at the front for the story of a rainbow fish who is lonely. I’m utterly charmed by this young man with his melodious baritone, enthusiastically coaxing the children to attention. He has a big, beautiful smile and he laughs sometimes as he speaks to them. He is completely unpretentious and I find myself smiling along, craning as though I might see the pictures in the book all the way across the sanctuary.
I love how we sing the children out to their classes, where I understand they are treated with respect and encouraged to have their own enquiries in their search for truth and meaning. I love their sweet smiles and how an older girl leads a younger one by the hand.
Some sound behind me causes me to startle and I feel my sore neck tense painfully as I turn to identify it. This hurts, and I feel how very much not relaxed I am. I hear the voice of my therapist Lisa in my head;
“Is it ok to feel safe when you are safe?”
I am in a place where people are gentle with each other–that’s why I’m still coming more than a year after I first wandered in with a restraining order in my purse. This congregation has no doctrine or dogma, no stricture, no scripture. I notice how we are invited to do things if we choose–to stand up, to sing, to consider membership. It’s the same type of approach I use in my own teaching. It works. I haven’t been pushed to do or say or think anything in particular. There is a comforting sense of being led gently. This is a rare place where I’m at peace sitting with the emotional equivalent of an open wound which needs air and balm and re-bandaging before I go back out to try and walk around with it. It’s a relief to feel my feelings without needing to articulate anything at all, and to have the space held by others with love. I let Reverend Brett’s hopeful words and the kindness around me give a structure while I let out some of what’s been building up. The spirit of the congregation is a balm for my loneliness.
In February, a year after I left my abuser I stood one Sunday before the congregation during the time for sharing joys, sorrows and milestones. I told them I’d left an abusive marriage and that I was still struggling with grief and PTSD. After that service, people found me to shake my hand and hug me, to thank me for being brave, to affirm that I am loved and held with compassion–and in some cases to tell me they’ve been through it, too. I felt so loved and supported.
The summer choir sings “Rhythms of One World”. It’s upbeat, with lyrics about unity. There is clapping. I feel disconnected from the optimism of this music; my optimism seems often on hiatus. Joan stands up spontaneously at the front of the sanctuary, swaying and clapping along. I can’t actually see her face beneath her pretty grey Sunday hat, but I know that she is smiling. Moments later, a handful of others leap to their feet too. I’m moved by the joy and solidarity. Laughing, I stand too.
Unitarian Universalists affirm:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning
- The right of conscience and use of the democratic process
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part
I look around the sanctuary where, against the backdrop of lush green forest out the big windows, these people are becoming increasingly familiar. My friendships are taking time to unfold, yet I feel held in this community.
Is it all right to feel safe when I am safe? I am safe here. These are my people. I make a mental note to figure out how to become a member. Gently, deliberately, I ease myself back on the bench and relax against the backrest. I take a breath in…and let it out.