Arriving at the Mount Carmel Spiritual Centre in Niagara Falls this past January for a self-imposed writing retreat, I assumed I’d be among legions of women hungry for peace and quiet, unstructured time to recharge and remember who we were minus partners, kids, jobs and laundry.
“No, it’s just you and one other person,” I was told when checking in. Fine by me. I was talked out. Since Donald Trump’s election the year before, I pretty much hadn’t shut up. I’d become the queen of opinion and indignation. How could we have done this? As an American – granted, a dual citizen and a happy Canadian since 1989 – this felt personal.
My family – most of whom still live in the United States – is Puerto Rican, Jewish, Black, East Indian, Muslim. My brother is gay; a close relative is undocumented. Among us, as well, are the disabled and mentally ill. The united, vulnerable states of America right there in my own little family. So, yes, personal.
But now, a year in, it also felt exhausting. I needed a break. It was time to wean off the hourly checking of “breaking news, Trump;” the obsessive reading and forwarding of every New Yorker story on spineless Republicans; the daily signing of petitions from every resistance organization in the U.S. Mostly I needed a break from myself. Plus a return to the novel that had stalled back in November 2016.
I also needed to sort some stuff. The weekend before, I’d attended a half-day event in Hamilton, Ontario, where I live, to commemorate the year anniversary of the Women’s March. I‘d gone to Washington for the big march the year before and been a participant in the first Women’s Convention in Detroit last October organized by the same powerhouse team who’d spearheaded the marches.
The afternoon panel comprised a diverse group of women, but none were over forty and few identified as feminists. The friend I was with left, confessing that the day had left her feeling dismissed and dispirited. I stayed a bit longer until I realized how alone I, too, felt.
“I’m now an OWW: Old White Woman,” I told my husband when I got home. It hurt to feel dismissed after years of activism, decades of marching for civil rights and equal rights, for an end to war and poverty. “Why can’t OWW stand for Older, Wiser Woman?” my husband asked. I’d laughed but something still stung. Oww.
I’d fought off a similar sense at the end of the rousing three-day convention in Detroit. We were educated that weekend on class, race and intersectionality—the premise that we are all women, but bring multiple identities to the conversation. Still, it had begun to seem that my identity: older (70), race (white) and ethnicity (half-Jewish, half-Hispanic) might not be a necessary part of this conversation.
In short, I arrived at Mount Carmel with a mess in my head. That first afternoon I gratefully soaked up the silence of the monastery as a storm raged outside the high windows of my nun’s room. I watched billows of mist rise in the darkening sky from the falls’ pounding water. On the way downstairs for dinner later, I ran into a woman, coming back up.
“I’m lost,” she confessed and laughed one of those laughs that say everything about a person.
Together we found our labyrinthine way to the small dining room assigned us. “Where did you drive in from?” I asked as we lifted the lids on our covered dinner plates. I expected to hear Toronto or Windsor, even Hamilton. “Los Angeles,” she said. “I took the red-eye to Buffalo last night.”
“I’m from L.A.,” I said. We stared at each other, grinning.
“Two people in this whole place,” Danielle said. (I’ve changed her name for privacy.) “And it’s you and me, two Los Angelenos in the dead of winter at a monastery in Niagara Falls. How did that happen?”
We talked for hours that night, and the next and the one after that, often circling back to U.S. politics. Danielle admitted to checking many polls many times a day. I admitted to writing expletive-filled emails to the White House.
During the day we went into our separate realms—me into fiction, Danielle into the spiritual space she’d come for. A former labour lawyer, who’d gone to divinity school a few years earlier, she was now an assistant pastor in a small church. Some afternoons I could hear her singing in her room.
But every evening we had supper together and talked until one of us started nodding off. Over those four days we had the frankest conversations I have ever had with a Black woman about race and justice.
“White people need to acknowledge the privilege of their skin colour,” she said one night, adding that she’s uncomfortable when whites tell her they’re colour-blind. “I’m Black. That’s part of who I am. Why wouldn’t I want you to see who I am?”
“I do acknowledge the privilege,” I insisted, realizing also how quickly and conveniently this fact slips away. But is that enough? I asked. It was for her, Danielle said. Acknowledgement isn’t intended to keep white people mired in guilt, she assured me. Instead, that recognition is the fuel to act.
On those think-aloud evenings, wrapped in blankets against the monastery’s chill, we hit all the high notes: faith, love, family, writing, activism. “My pastor keeps telling me I can’t tackle every cause,” Danielle admitted. “‘Choose your assignment,’ he says.”
We kept returning to the issue of feminism. “What is it with young women?” she asked one night. “When I ask them if they’re feminists, they say ‘Not really.’” Danielle held up her cell phone to show me the dictionary definition of feminism: “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.”
“I show them my phone and ask, ‘Do you agree? Okay, so you’re a feminist.’”
The discomfort that had troubled me for months started to lift. We were two women sitting together, talking things out and laughing at the folly of being human. Isn’t that how so much in life gets sorted, smoothed, understood?