Confession of an AFS Mother: The First Shall Be Last and The Last Shall Be First


In Matthew 20:16, the apostle writes that Jesus said, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  I am confident that when Jesus said this, he had neither the American Field Service (AFS) nor a white middle-aged woman crying her eyes out in a parking lot in mind.  In my pea-sized Catholic-trained, Baptist-leaning brain, I believe he was talking about important VIPs and little people . . .  you know,  Democrats and Republicans, the Yankees and the Red Sox.  (Sorry, couldn’t help myself — it is September and it is convention time you know.)  Further, it sounds like he was talking about who would get into Heaven and who wouldn’t — humble shepherds, peasants, and modest folks would earn entry and those of us who are prideful, accomplished, with way too many possessions just might not score a ticket to the biggest show above earth.  Now, this is a really great thought and one of those go-to passages that stops me dead in my tracks.  Today it came to mind for a completely different reason.

Cheerleading at a T. C. Williams Titans Football Game, September 2011.

Yesterday, we dropped our 16-year-old daughter, Megg, off in New York to join a crew of other teens from all over the US who will be studying in Europe next year with AFS.  Ours will be living with a family in Ponferrada, Spain in a family with a mom, a dad, a sister and two brothers plus a cat and a dog.  It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?  She is very excited about this opportunity and we are, too.  For the past 11 years, she has been studying Spanish, starting with kindergarten at Mt. Vernon Community School.  She spent half her days in English and the other half in Spanish.  From about fourth grade on, she has wanted to study abroad during her junior year in high school.  This dream started to come into sharp focus about a year ago, well almost — about 290 days ago to be exact.  That’s the day that Megg submitted her application to AFS and the day she started counting down the days to today — the day she gets on a plane and flies to Spain.  Some of those 290 days have flown by and others have been excruciating like the days waiting for our official documents to come from the State Department or waiting for her visa application.  The rest has been a blur of parties, thank you notes, and blog posts.

Starting in about June, we all started realizing that we were about to embark on a series of last things — last time I’ll celebrate my birthday here, last time I’ll see this aunt/uncle, last time I’ll get dropped off at high school, last this, last that, etc.  Yesterday morning was a kaleidoscopic series of lasts — the last time I’ll hug my sister, have a bagel with my best friends, last time I’ll hold my new nephew, etc.  And, like every other time, I was just the chauffeur.  I watched every interaction and cried along with the best of them.  Every once in a while, Megg and I shared knowing glances, but most of the time, I kept my eyes on the road and just drove.  I drove to Zoe’s house.  I drove to the Bagel Bakery.  I drove to the gas station.  I drove to Alex and Shawn’s house.  I dropped by Erin and Jessica’s houses.  I drove to T. C. Williams High School.  I drove home.  Around 9am, we packed everything into the car and we drove to New York.

This would be the last time we would chauffeur her around for 10 months and it was like every other trip.  We chatted about politics and gossiped about our small-town lives.  Megg listened to music in the backseat and every once in a while told us who was where — Paige was on the Pennsylvania turnpike, Erinn was at the airport waiting for AFS to pick her up, Lauren was at exit 10 in a silver Honda – did we see her?  It was like every other trip except that it was the last one we would be making with Megg for a while.  It was hard not to attach meaning to everything, but we all kept it light.

After we parked the car, we opened the back of the suburban and she got her own luggage out of the car.  She didn’t ask for help, she just grabbed it, and started lugging it into the hotel.  Hmmm . . . that was the first time that had ever happened.  Every other time we’ve traveled, Megg was the first to moan and groan under the weight of all of her stuff.  She’d wheedle and cajole anyone and everyone into carrying just one thing for her.  Not yesterday.  She carried that luggage — all 88 pounds of it into the JFK Hilton by herself.  This was our last image of Megg  . . . and the first time we’d seen the person she is becoming — the self-confident, happy, excited 16 year-old heading off on the biggest and scariest adventure of her young life.  Wow!

I realized her life and ours will be a series of such firsts and lasts, hellos and goodbyes for the next 10 months.  Just when she is starting to get acclimated to Spain, she’ll be coming home again.  As soon as we’re used to living in a house with 4 bathrooms and 3 people, she’ll be back and taking over at least two of them again.  As soon as she becomes fluent in Spanish, she’ll be back in the United States rattling off an English rap for church camp.  The list goes on and on — firsts, lasts, hellos, goodbyes.  It wears me out thinking about it — but in a good way.  As I sit in this nondescript parking lot for the first time crying my eyes out wondering what she’s doing I realize this will be the last time I’ll be sitting here.  Although I’m sure there will be many more moments just like this one, I’m going to just keep repeating Matthew 20:16, “so the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”  I’m confident this is exactly where Jesus would want me to be.

Amen.

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Amen


Almost home.

Best weekend of our lives . . .

Closets thrown open after years of careful arrangement,

Drowning complaints of not enough time or too little in common.

Exasperating family members rendered comical in the early morning light of consciousness.

Fast forward to another Christmas, another year.

Guessing who or what will dominate the dinner table commentary.

Hating the shallow thought, “Next year will take the prize.”

Insinuating that somehow this year was less authentic, not as well lived —

A jive-talking jabberwocky moment of pretense,

A kaleidoscopic collage of disconnects and scullduggery . . .

Instead of the magnificent moment of happiness we know we shared.

“Nonsense!” I proclaim to no one in particular.

“Nothing shall overshadow this special edition performance.”

Proof positive that blood is truly thicker than

Quirky history and rocky beginnings.

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An Ode to Nat King Cole


Autumn leaves drift by the window.  Autumn leaves of red and gold.

According to my faithful book index, GoodReads, I have only read 22 books in 2011.   Last year, I read 32 books by year’s end and vowed publicly that I would read at least that many in 2011.  I suppose I could hurry through 11 short novellas and meet the goal, but is that what a resolve is all about?  Is it about meeting the letter of the resolution while breaking the intent?

I see your lips, the summer kisses, The sunburned hands I used to hold.

I intended for this year to be chockerblock full of reading and writing.  Instead it’s been a year of frantic action . . . helter skelter movement as opposed to thoughtful introspection.  I did not mean for it to be so busy.  Honest, I didn’t.  The year started out so relaxed, so full of earnest reflection.  The beach in Zanzibar.  The meditative mornings.  The trip to Berryville.

Since you went away, the days grow long. And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song.

Time which seemed so abundant in January hit a patch of ice and now it is almost Thanksgiving.  What thief absconded with my early mornings, quiet evenings, and lazy weekends.  And, why was I an accomplice to the crime?  When did I start pushing away the days?  What conspiracy led me to complain nonstop about spring’s saturating rains and summer’s humidity?  Was I really in such a hurry to face my kids’ first quarter interim grades?  Yes, I am to blame for having wished away the year.  Ah, time . . . if only.

I miss you most of all, my darling, When autumn leaves start to fall.    

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Giving Thanks


I wrote this letter to my friends after reading Kelly Corrigan’s The Middle Place.  I found it to be very inspiring.

I believe in the power of women — all kinds.  Randy Newman’s short women, John Updike’s sexy women, political women like Hilary Clinton and Michele Obama, family women, friendly women.  I love them all.

Personally, I love my friends.  Yes, the ones with the double names — Nancy Bauer Collier, Linda Bauer Darr, and Mary Huber Wilker — and the ones without — Molly Sim, Jenny Heimberg, Brigid Schulte, Amy Young, Daria Cook, Jen Walker, and Sheryl Gorsuch.  I love my book club buddies — Ruth Brannigan, who should top everyone’s “fab five” cell phone list and Wendi Kaplan — everyone needs a therapist as a friend.  I love the ones who have kids and the ones who don’t, but love mine and laugh at their smart mouths when I find absolutely nothing endearing about them. I love the fun women and the serious ones and believe you need to have both in your life if only to remind you that sometimes life is not worth crying about, but sometimes it is.  I love the women who have left my life — Kathy Wilson, Elizabeth Rich, and Nancy Foil, whose passing was way too early for me, but whose divine hands I see at work every day when I pause to give thanks for the blessings in my life or take the time to find out why making the school play IS the most important event in the universe.  I love the women who have made me mad or made me cry — although  going through the eyes of those needles has left scars, I have grown wiser and kinder for having experienced that pain.

Finally, I love the women in my family.  In trying not to do me harm, my mom ended up doing a lot of good.  I love the fact that she brought me into this world and jokingly reminded that she could take me out of it. I love my Aunt Barbara who stood up for us kids when my mom couldn’t cope and my dad was too busy taking care of mom — she mopped our brows, took our midnight calls, and put us back together after a divorce or two.  I love my great aunts Bessie and Margaret who could spin a yarn or tell a tale that would make me weep with laughter.  I love the fact that they always made a great batch of Irish rum-laced fruit cake, wondering if that’s how they kept their senses of humor so alive and in tact.  I love my Nani and my Grammy.  I loved their pride as Catholics and Quakers respectively.  I loved learning to sew and learning to reap what one sows in the world — all lessons which occurred at their knees.

Above all, I love my girls — Sara, Meg, and Mattie.  I love who they have been as babies, toddlers, children, teens, and now, in Sara’s case, an adult. I love their artwork, music, and friends.  I love their laughter, their anger, and their tears even when I haven’t known what to do with any of it.  I love that they are courageous, vibrant, sensitive, independent, lively, thoughtful, wild, crazy, and probably way too sassy.  I love their voicemails and hate their cellphones.  I love their adventures and I love their quirks.  I love how they love each other and stick together even when I’m not in the mood to be scolded.  I love the lessons they’ve taught me and grovel at some of the wisdom that has come out of their 2-, 4-, 10-, 12-, and 20-year old mouths.

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Day 1: Our Journey to the Heart of Darkness


“So are you ready for the biggest adventure of your life?” Sara asked us as we piled out of the mini-van that literally limped into the Rwanda-Congo border town of Gisenyi.  Yeah, baby, the Call-Riches had arrived in Africa.  So begins our tale . . .

We left the day after Christmas from Dulles on a non-stop flight to Africa with 15 bags including 7 laptops, 17 soccer balls, a lifetime supply of bic pens, Sara’s Christmas presents, and an obscene amount of cash.  We were ready.  Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was our first stop on the continent — 12 hours with every kind of movie available you could possible imagine — Wall Street, Vampire Tales, Up — as well as more audio channels than satellite radio.  The food was great and we did not sleep despite the Benadryl I pumped into all of us.  We were way too excited and rightly so.  The airport in Addis is the equivalent of a US Airways hub — people and planes going everywhere.  The only difference was that there were no screens telling you where to go and no printed boarding passes.  Oh-oh.  I could feel Lonnie starting to tense up as Ethiopian Airlines personnel started to screech out the names of places.

“Luanda?” a woman yelled.

“No, Rwanda,”  Lonnie responded.

“Ah, Kigali,” she said with an open, welcoming smile.  “Okay, follow me.”

“Follow you where?” he asked with a wee bit of edge.

“Just follow me, please, ” she said with a confident wave of her hand as she turned and walked away.  We pursued her like lemmings, queuing up to a desk she staffed.  I was the queen of the passports with the equivalent of a portable safe on my person doling out the valuable documents with my eyes on them at all times.  After about 15 minutes of waiting, we had our handwritten boarding passes.  We then scurried up stairs, hurried down Hogwarts-esque corridors, huddled on a fast-moving Dulles-like “mobile transporter” or bus, and were led eventually to a much smaller plane that would transport us to Kigali, Rwanda — the capital of the land of 1,000 hills (mille collines in French).

The flight and arrival were exactly the way you’d want them . . . uneventful.  Our fellow passengers  signaled their approval for the pilot’s successful piloting with applause upon landing– we joined in.  Not only did we arrive safe and sound in Kigali, so did all of our luggage (see litany above!).  The next big challenge was using the mobile phone my office had given me — I think they thought I might need it for something really important — to call our hotel, the Mille Collines, to have them pick us up.

“Oh, the Rich Family?  Yes, your transport was there at noon; it’s now 2pm, ” the gentleman at the other end of the line said matter-of-factly.

“Our flight was late.  Sorry.”

“You’ll have to get a taxi.”  Bottom line — you snooze, you lose . . . even if it’s not your fault.  Note to self . . . all the trouble of trying to figure out how to dial the number the hotel wasn’t worth the effort, but it did get my Swahili brain going as I had to ask a Rwandan woman how to dial the number of the hotel.  Now, I’d have to use my Swahili again to hail a cab.   Deep breath.  Kabahita, our good friend and Swahili instructor, had taught us how to do this.  As soon as our convoy emerged from the airport, we were engulfed with offers of support.  It was a bit difficult singling out who was a driver and who was a handler, but there was one earnest fellow named Athanase who somehow caught our attention.  He didn’t speak Swahili — only Kinyarwanda and English.  Lonnie was happy.  His comrade only spoke Swahili and Kinyarwanda.  I was happy.  Lonnie and Mattie went with Athanase.  Megg and I went with Paco.  It was a 30-minute $20 cab ride from the airport to the hotel.  We wound our way from the airport, which is southeast of the central city, through the crowded commercial district, and up many hills to the Mille Collines Hotel, which is situated in the northwest corner of the city amid a lot of government offices and residences of important Rwandans and expatriates.

Mattie, Megg, Marcia, and Lonnie

I had thought a lot about what this cab ride would be like long before our plane ever touched down in Kigali.  First, I had been to Kigali, but not since the genocide so I was curious about what a place that had undergone so much violence would look like.  Second, I have seen Hotel Rwanda more times than I care to admit and we would be staying at the hotel the movie had made famous.  The cab turned a corner and there it was — the large cement sign with the signature hills on it representing the logo of the Mille Collines Hotel.  We turned into a parking lot which is divided by a 100-foot median strip with beautiful flowering trees planted in it.  There were angled spots for cars to park like I have at my local Giant grocery store.  For ease, there was one way in and one way out of the hotel.  Our taxis arrived at the modest entrance — a glass exterior with no trace of the oversized wooden doors that Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) locks with so much emphasis near the end of the movie.  Our luggage was efficiently whisked out of the vehicles and into the lobby.  We contracted with Athanase and Paco to come back the next day to take us to some sites before we caught our ride to Gisenyi and ultimately Sara.

The view off the lobby was breathtaking.  From there, you could see the main city center of Kigali as well as the surrounding hills.  Although the panorama was clear, it was not as clear as it would be in a few weeks.  The rainy season had only just begun and the air still had a fair amount of dust in it obscuring the view somewhat, according to the locals.  We didn’t notice.  As we walked over to the windows and onto the platform off the lobby, we looked down on the pool and beautifully landscaped bar area.  It was Christmas Monday and people were still in a reveling mood.  Again, the parallels to the movie were stark so I decided that it was time to abandon my Hollywood-esque vision and live the Mille Collines as I saw it that day, December 27, 2010.  I was not cheated.

Our rooms were modest by American standards and more than adequate, although I did blow out the power using a hair dryer the next day.  Wasn’t that the reason I had my hair cut before I left?  Some habits die hard.  Megg was exhausted and decided to nap while Lonnie, Mattie, and I went down to the pool bar to see what we could see.  A little girl was swimming in the pool and before her mother could muzzle her, she shrieked, “Muzungu!”  much to her caretakers’ chagrin.  Muzungu, the swahili term for foreigner, has become synonymous with white people and is often heard in rural settings whenever white newcomers enter a public square.  However, having served as a Peace Corps volunteer in neighboring Congo (formerly Zaire), I was used to it and had prepared my family for its usage.  We laughed and gave her the thumbs up sign, a seemingly universal symbol of good will in almost any land.  We’d overcome our first cultural event with ease.  I ordered a Primus, the local brew, Mattie ordered a “coca,” and Lonnie ordered juice to celebrate our arrival.

That evening we had a lovely dinner in the Panorama Restaurant on the fourth floor of the hotel.  Imagine the lobby view four stories up with all of the lights of the city below us and you have the picture.  We ordered steaks and vegetables, which were well prepared, however, I don’t know that we would have really noticed if they weren’t.  We were as tired as we were hungry.  One thing was certain . . . we were not going to die of hunger on THIS vacation.  As we were sitting there, not one but two UVA shirts walked past us.  Yes, there was a family of Virginians who, like us, had come to visit their adult Wahoo child who was doing something exotic with her post-collegiate career.  They had come to Rwanda to see the gorillas and Kigali was the perfect place to sojourn before the trip into the bush.  I sighed . . . we would have to leave that to another time as Megg and Mattie did not meet the 18-year old age limit for such an adventure.  I think Lonnie was relieved as a hike into the wet bush was not his idea of fun.

With visions of internet connections and facebook chats in their heads, the girls politely asked to be excused after dinner.  Abandoned, but not at all unhappy about that, we sat and marveled that we were now in Africa.  After months of logistics — renewing passports, soliciting letters of invitation, paying for visas, reviewing itineraries, undergoing shots for every disease known to man — our dream trip was unfolding in front of us.  The biggest adventure of our lives was NOW!

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Restless in Berryville


God shops at Costco! He has the same tupperware cereal containers here at Berryville that I am using at home. It’s a sign . . . I am forgiven.

I have never actually witnessed the movement of wind through trees until this weekend. I first heard something on Friday night. It was as if someone was moving through the brush. I caught a sense that something was happening, but turned towards the source and only then was I treated to the full breathy, expansive fullness of the sound. Yesterday, the same experience, however, I wondered why I’ve never felt that before. Such a common phenomenon . . . On my way back from Compline, I felt the same thrill. Why was this such a new thing?

This morning I have been restless since 3 am. I was sorely tempted to go to Vigils at 3:30 am but rolled over instead. I tossed and turned but not at all unpleasantly until the clock glowed 6:30am. With that, I realized it was time to emerge from my cocoon. I stripped the bed — this was our last day at Holy Cross Abbey — as requested in the ‘dear friends’ note on the desk, balling up the sheets and shoving them into the pillow case. I pulled off my pseudo-pajamas — running shorts and a t-shirt — and traded them for a white pants skirt and a black polo. I took one more minute to brush my teeth and grab a sweatshirt, even summers in Berryville are chilly, and headed off for Lauds.

The chapel is about a half-mile from the retreat house. The road is paved, but the adventurous may take shortcuts through the unfenced fields. Leaving the premises, a modest yellow brick building that houses 16 rooms, kitchen, dining room, foyer, library, and chapel, I am greeted by two cats. There are several that inhabit the grounds, but are not allowed inside. The fat yellow tabby that is queen of the brood is nowhere to be found. Instead her lord and maiden have come to greet me and are glad for the gentle touch of my hand. They, too, appear to have been roused recently from sleep, but are not at all unhappy about it. In fact, we all seem quite content and pleased with ourselves to be up before most of the others. There is no hum in the air, no buzz of activity as I round the garden of zinnias and sunflowers — the bees and butterflies have not yet woken. There is a slight chill in the air and I am glad that I have worn the West Loudoun Vikings hoodie I purchased on Friday.

The road winds past the pasture. There are cows grazing, but nowhere near the number that were parked on this plot of land last evening. Lupe was so entranced by them she took pictures of every one of them that would come to the fence. They were as curious about us as we were delighted to meet them. Most were black with tags in either or both of their ears. We assumed they were beef cows, but again someone who reads this will confirm or deny the fact. Today, none of them are even close to the pathway. Having satisfied whatever curiosity they had, they have moved on. So have I.

The next patch of road is a straight stretch that passes the monastery gift shop. This is my favorite part of the walk. It is bordered by the cow pasture on one side and farmland on the other. I love the wire fences, the random trees, the abandoned stumps, the hay ricks, etc. I wonder if I came for a week would I see a whirlwind of activity? Would I be waving to farmers on tractors? Would there be threshers and irrigation machines? There must be some activity on these lands.

Regardless, I am content to walk on the road between the fields. As I approach the trees that have entertained me morning, noon, and night, there is no sound. Perhaps they will not talk to me today. I am not unhappy but curious about where the sound is made and why I have only been allowed to hear it so richly in my 52nd year. I pass the copse and move on to the gift shop corner.

Cool Spring Mansion

There is a sign as I round the corner that points the route to the retreat house, the chapel, and announces my arrival at the gift shop. The sign is gray — painted wood with black calligraphy. I wonder, do the monks create and maintain all of these signs? There must be a hundred of them on the property. If they do this is there anything they don’t do? Do they mow? Do they weed? Do they mop? Do they sort socks? Do they clean bathrooms?

Fr. Mark and Ruth

These thoughts preoccupy me as I head towards the Cool Spring mansion house. It was once a residence, but now serves as a meeting place and houses Brother James’ collection of prehistoric arrowheads and civil war artifacts found on the property. How can they maintain all of his? Their numbers are dwindling. This summer they lost Father Mark to complications after surgery and Brother Michael to a massive stroke. I will count them again this morning, hoping that overnight their ranks will have swollen to accommodate several hearty-looking thirty-somethings. There were four of them in a back pew last night — maybe they were the four new recruits reporting to duty. I will look for them.

I am thinking this as I mount the stairs to the chapel. I am alone. None of my fellow retreatants are visible on the path behind me. I will have the monks to myself. I am happy. I take my seat in the first pew behind the velvet cord that announces the separation between the monks’ worship quarters and the cheap seats. I am not put off by this restriction. To pass beyond that rope is to swear fealty to a life of unlimited otherness and I know that I am not ready for that. It is 6:50 am and the chapel is dark. I am alone.

A bell tolls and a monk appears in a walker. I wonder if, he too, rose at 3:30 am for Vigils or if like me, his first appearance before God is now. This thought is designed to make me feel better, but I know the truth. He was here even though he had to physically struggle to do so. I am humbled by this fact. This is a good sign. I am in their realm — humility is one of the virtues they preach. The work on me is already starting and the office has yet to begin.

More monks file in — there are four on the left, one in the front pew (Brother Vincent from the gift shop) who has a cold, four on the right plus one young man in street clothes. One of the new recruits, perhaps? None of the others from last night are with him. I can’t help myself; I contemplate the recruiting statistics — one out of four. Not bad, but at this rate the place will be in ruins before long. We need more troops, God.

Finally, my fellow retreatants appear. There are now four of us behind the cord. More bells. No more monks. Lauds is to begin.

Knock.
Knock.
Knock.

The abbot has signaled that it is time to start. The cantor begins. His voice is strong and beautiful. His colleagues join him and the sound surges towards the middle of the chapel. Facing each other in two pews, their voices entwine naturally and lift us all. The music hangs in the rafters — yes, there are rafters. The crucifix and statue of the blessed Virgin Mary seem to glow. The light is sparse and I realize belatedly no one has turned on the lights in our section. In fact, we’ve been sitting in the dark all weekend. I never noticed until now.

The service continues and I wonder how long these rituals will continue. I pray they will last forever. Everyone should have the opportunity to worship like this. The simplicity of the words, the purity of the emotion, and the basic adequacy of the surroundings amount to a glorious experience. The service is over quickly. We are out of the chapel by 7:20 am. I do not feel cheated. I have received more than I ever expected and am grateful that I pushed myself out of bed. I remember reading that Thomas Merton observed privately these liturgical offices for many years before being claimed by the Cistercians. The rhythm and discipline of it are appealing. Starting one’s day with a heart full of gratitude is the most attractive part.

I am the leader of the pack. I pull ahead of my fellow worshippers so as to avoid conversation. The path from the retreat house to the chapel and back is open for quiet talk. I want none of it this morning. I am actively engaged in worry about the size of this monastic community. We need these men and we need all that they bring to our world.

Prayer Trail

Then I felt it.

The hair on the back of my neck rose as I drew parallel with the stand of trees on the corner of the path. There was movement and my body sensed it. I turned to the trees and I could hear them. I could hear them brushing gently against one another — the breeze was light. I heard their trunks creaking and I could see the leaves clapping each other as if to provide applause for the sudden rush of wind. Suddenly, I was a part of it. I could feel the air on my cheeks, my bare legs. It was a beautiful moment . . . one that I’ve waited 52 11/12 years to experience.

But then again what should I expect? When have I ever really stopped to see, feel, and hear the magnificence I witnessed this Sunday morning? I am reminded of this quote from Haruki Murakami.

It doesn’t matter how old I get, but as long as I continue to live I’ll always discover something new about myself.  No matter how long you stand there examining yourself naked before a mirror, you’ll never see reflected what’s inside.

Daniel, I thank you for all you’ve taught me about myself this weekend. The retreat house at Holy Cross Abbey is in good hands — your hands. I wish you well, my new friend.

This is the final in a series of three meditations written at Holy Cross Abbey, Berryville, VA. This entry was written on Sunday, August 15, 2010.