Happily traveling, I forgot my pain.
I looked forward to this retreat for weeks.
By midday Friday I was happily travelling alone, listening to an audio recording of my favorite Jane Austen book, Persuasion, munching on snacks I was not required to share, and happily anticipating meeting new writing friends at the Grunewald Guild (a retreat center for faith and art and community) nestled down in the eastern Cascades.
As I navigated off the interstate and up past the fruit orchards near Wenatchee, through Quincy and just beyond the alpine Bavarian village of Leavenworth, I began to feel the creeping pains radiating along my left side. I absentmindedly rubbed the knots in my neck, shifted my weight to alleviate my hip flexor muscles and stretched my arms.
I had forgotten what the long drive might do to my sensitive-to-stress body. I like to think I have a high pain threshold (don’t we all?) but since the car accident that rendered my left leg badly fractured, tore my diaphragm and spleen and smashed my stomach up into my left lung cavity, I’ve experienced more pain that I’d like to discuss. I am amazingly recovered and praise God for it.
I attempted to focus on the beauty of the fall colors as I journeyed down the winding rode into the canyon where the retreat center buildings were clustered near the Wenatchee River. I arrived, made the customary greetings, received my nametag, found my room and decided that I’d ignore the pain. But first: ibuprofen.
I dissolved into the pain.
Then I realized I had forgotten any kind of medication. I would be without painkillers, lavender oil, heat and ice packs…. Ignoring the pain got me through the evening meal and our first meeting, but I knew I was in for it. My head was in a vice-like grip, my left hip burned, my shoulder pinched. I found I was forgetting my thoughts mid-sentence, too.
I dissolved into the pain somewhere around two in the morning. I repositioned myself over and over while trying to make little noise – my roommate might have wanted to sleep, too!
At first light, I donned my sneakers and sweats and started running down the winding road, hoping to pound away the pain. I began to see the scenery come into light around me as I slowed to a brisk walk. Mist and wood smoke smoothed with the canyon air so the rising sun’s light shone diffused and soft. I breathed in the fall morning. Finally, the pounding on the pavement had pushed out the pounding in my head.
When we gathered for breakfast, my pale complexion and puffy eyes displayed my sleeplessness. Everyone at our intimate retreat—all strangers to me the previous night—knew I’d spent a sleepless night fighting pain.
I wanted to leave my pain at home.
I was weak and needy.
I didn’t want my accident story to be all these women would remember about me. I wanted to make a decent impression and instead I was weak and needy, my suffering overt and pronounced.
But I think God had other ideas.
I showed up powerless and punched-through, holey and flat as a leaky air mattress. God showed up in the prayers and encouragement and grace these women showed to me, to each other. The grace shared through our day of writing and walking in the woods, of sharing meals and back-stories and offering ourselves in vulnerable friendship filled up my leaks, strengthened my spirit.
This retreat was never about the individual strengths we all brought to the circle, but our collective need.
I don’t need to make a good impression or be a brilliant writer or even be capable. He wants me to remain open to receiving his love through the compassion and care of his people.
As I crawled into bed on the second night of the retreat, I repeated my “breathing prayer.” Inhaling, I pray: Yes. Exhaling, I pray: Lord. Over and over, “Yes Lord.” I slept. The vestiges of the previous night’s pain clung like mist in the pines, but I remembered the real purpose of my pain: God’s power is made perfect in my weakness. And the sun rose and I slept right through it.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 2 Corinthians 12:9)
Alyssa Santos: Working with words has been a passion of mine since I was in single digits. I was very proud of my poems and stories when I was a girl. I could entertain, thrill, teach, cry, think and sing through words. Then I grew up. I fell in love and got busy having a brood of babies and wrote stories in my head, crafted sentences while sorting socks, styled my syntax as I scrubbed tile grout. Words drove me crazy and kept me sane. Then I found a scribing ecclesia — a group of writers who drew me in, breathed prayers and encouragement over me, shared their own stories in their own words and validated my story, resurrected my dream. They told me the truth. I can write. I must write. I do write. I have found healing in the craft of writing, grace in the art of words and hope in storytelling. I have a small voice and a big God. I blog at www.alyssasantos.com and I also write poems and grocery lists on odd bits of paper around my house.