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Perfume and Starshine

I had no idea how the weekend would turn out. I was preparing for a writer's retreat and workshop trip to California, and I felt excited, but also nervous. What if I'm not "writerly" enough? What if I'm not "natural-y" enough to be a part of the community at this beautiful, holistic retreat center? (And is "natural-y" even a word?

"Everyone there probably uses the right words because they're serious writers, and I'm showing up with my pink and teal pens just pretending to be one," I thought. I was nervous. But excited. Anticipatory.

A couple of weeks before my trip, a friend and I had been having a discussion about the line between extending grace and holding someone accountable. It's a topic I've wrestled with and have wanted to write about, but WOW that's a big one, right? Sometimes we extend grace but find it hard to hold people accountable for their actions. So we extend grace a little more. Until at last we find ourselves feeling stepped all over and resentful. Anyone else with me on this? It's a topic I've wanted to explore, but it's so daunting, I find myself solidly avoiding it. Before, I left for CA, my friend sent me off with wishes that I would "have opportunities to experience glimpses of grace." A caveat: When you ask God and the Universe for opportunities at glimpses of grace, sometimes you get Kathleen.

My reservation at the retreat was in a shared room. I thought it would be an adventure, and a great chance to meet someone I might become lifelong friends with. When I arrived at the campus, the depth of beauty jolted me. The campus kissed the edge of the redwood forest. Buildings had been thoughtfully designed to look at once lodge-like, modern, and wholly sacred. In front of one of a building called "The Sanctuary" was a babbling waterfall with a footbridge across the stream. Is this place even for real? Surely this would be a weekend like no other.

I followed the full-color map to find my building and room: Santaya 216. At the end of the second floor hallway, I held my badge/room key up to the electronic pad on the door, and watched for the the green light.

"Hello there," called a voice just a bit too loudly from inside the room as I pushed open the heavy door. The voice was deep and just a bit too forward for the reverence I already held for this beautiful space.

"Ohhhhh," she said, "So you're my roommate."

"Melissa," I said, smiling and offering a hand.

"Kathleen," she answered. "Where ya from?"

"I'm from South Dakota," I said. "You?"

"Portland. Coach. Therapist. Cancer survivor." She spoke in sharp bullet points. Kathleen had evidently been there for a while, as her four suitcases and bags had filled her closet area. There were hats on hooks, scarves draped over chairs. I wheeled my small carryon (I had packed uncharacteristically light this time) and set my things down on my bed. Right away, I stepped out onto the balcony, which overlooked the redwoods. I was captivated.

"I've only got one requirement as a roommate," Kathleen stated jarringly as I turned back into the room, "NO perfume!" She wasn't asking. She wasn't discussing. She was telling me, solid. Her words were delivered with enough force to make me feel as if I'd been slapped. Now, those who know me know that my blood alcohol level runs at about a steady .04% Ralph Lauren's Romance Shimmer on the 24/7. And THIS is my roommate's requreiment? This is the roommate I get? Did they pair up the two most unlikely candidates like some sort of humorous experiment? I mean, Kathleen. Seriously. She probably ate a lot of quinoa and had books on bird watching which she never lent out, because you just couldn't trust people to return them. Eyeroll.

"Oh," I kind of stammered, completely thrown off. "I mean, sure, that's fine. I can wait until I've left the room each day before I put perfume on."

"Orrrrrrrrr . . ." she continued firmly, "maybe you can not wear it at all while you're here this weekend? Can we agree on that? Is that an agreement we can come to?" She nodded her head "yes" as if she could coax my answer with her body language.

"Uhhh, sure," I said, feeling small. What else was I supposed to say, you know? Also, I was thinking,

"This lady is a therapist? She's the least self-aware or others-aware person I've met."

It didn't bother me at first. Ok, fine. It bothered me. But whatever. As I moved through the first day, the confrontation tickled at the back of my brain, and I found myself avoiding her. At one time when it was on my mind, I was thinking, "lady, I paid as much for this room as you did. Don't tell me what to do." I dropped it accidentally on the bathroom floor one morning, and she said, "Is that the perfume?"

THE perfume.

Not "your" perfume. THE.

As if it were an atrocity. As in, "is that THE atomic bomb I've heard so much about?"

Truthfully, at one point when I was in my room alone at a break between sessions, I took a sassy selfie of me holding my perfume and sent it to my daughter (who I had earlier told about the confrontation) and captioned it, "Eat it, Kathleen!" (A less-than-flattering portrait of my personality, I know.) I sprayed perfume on myself indignantly right in that room (Marc Jacobs "Daisy," because it's small enough for a carryon bag.) Emily and I laughed together over text. But I thought I heard Kathleen coming down the hallway, so I sheepishly dodged out of the room and down the back stairs.

I'll admit, I avoided Kathleen most of the weekend. I saw her in the event hall, flowy skirt, hat, scarf, and I noticed her walking around the fringes of the crowd looking for a place to sit. It didn't look like she had really connected with anyone yet. It occurred to me, she has probably seen good friendships and connections come and go because of the forward way she has about her. I wondered if she was lonely. I decided she probably was, and I began to develop a sort of reluctant compassion for her. Everyone deserves to feel like they belong.

Still, we were obviously never going to be BFF's.

The third morning of our stay, I was up early and out of the shower, intent on getting some writing done in the campus coffee shop. With the time zone difference, my body clock had me waking at 4:44 am each morning. I mean, I think it was my body clock that woke me, but it could have been the garbage truck that beep beep beep AIRBRAKED its way into the garbage pickup area outside my room each morning. Nonetheless, I was up before sunrise. I heard Kathleen rustling; awake. (I may have done an eyeroll, but if I did, it was an involuntary response. Promise.)

Through the bathroom door, I heard her exclaim softly, "You have to come look at this!" She was standing on the balcony, looking up. I stepped out into the dark and crisp air, my wet hair instantly registering just how cool a northern California morning could be.

It was still, not a breath of breeze. The stars were sprinkled across the still-black blanket of sky. On the edge of the redwood forest, there was no light pollution, and the stars were bright pinpoints scattered across the ceiling of the world.

"Wow," Kathleen breathed. Just the same way I always breathe "wow" when I'm hiking and am awed by creation. The two of us shared space next to one another on the balcony of our room in that crisp September air, looking up at the stars with a mutual reverence. We were mostly quiet, save for the occasional pointing and library-voice murmuring.

"Oooh, look at that cluster there. I've never noticed those before."

"Wow, look at how bright that one is."

It occurred to me that this is what grace looks like. I had been searching for opportunities at glimpsing grace, and I got Kathleen. We stood there for nearly a full minute in quiet appreciation for the beauty we were enjoying. I glanced furtively at her face, illuminated by the starshine, the lines of her features smoothed out with wonder. The two of us were sharing the reverence of this moment. We would likely never be close or lifelong friends. But, grace.

Grace was, in that moment, the ability to stand next to someone with whom I had seemingly nothing in common, and to appreciate the beauty of that precise slice of time and space. The shared moment of quiet awe was the thread of grace that tied us together.

For her part, Kathleen was quite possibly extending me graces I knew nothing about. I thought of this world we're living in. The division among people. The lines in the sand. The "for me or against me" mentality. I think reality dictates we probably won't all get along, but it got me wondering if somehow we could find ways to find threads that bring us together. If at all possible, can we literally or theoretically stand on a balcony next to one another, look at the stars, and for a moment, share in discovered beauty?

The writer's weekend was inspiring beyond what I could have imagined. I wrote. I forged new friendships. But when I remember that weekend years from now, I will most remember standing in the crisp morning air and looking at the stars next to someone with whom I had nothing in common.

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