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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Keeping company

jenmichel@me.com

An unexpected surprise of this past week's writing retreat was the company I shared around the table and in prayer with men I had only just met and the friend I'd come with from Toronto. We were four of us, this small band of writers committed to the week of writing and keyboard dance. Chris, Andy, Wendy and Jen. I tell my children about each of them at the breakfast table this past Saturday, and they learn to love them, as I did, through the stories I tell, their eyes wide as they do their wonderful work of imagining. I tell them about Chris, whose beard is wiry and full, his horn-rimmed glasses giving hint of his bookishness. He is smart and quiet, his voice slow and punctuated: he carefully keeps ahead of his words, like any good academic does, demanding of them rigorous coherence. He is so ruthlessly quiet and thoughtful that it's not until Wednesday night that we learn how the years have done their painful beating against him and his family. A baby born stillborn, a child diagnosed with cancer, a parent's death.

I tell them about Andy, the man who's only recently seen fifty and feels keenly his responsibility to get down some words for the next generation of leaders. We listen to him over the course of the week surprise and entertain us with his words of ornamental flourish. Andy teaches us about phonesthemes, talks about the "attitudinal soup" served up in Muslim-Christian dialogue, and wins handily the group's challenge to a conversational use of "eructation" and "humid." But he isn't only smart: he's also a man of deep affection for his family. By the end of the week, he's written three chapters of the story of Mr. Lizard, better known as Gecko Sahib, who makes his home behind a bedroom light fixture and wears a smoking jacket. These are the stories with which he had delighted his own children during their growing-up years. Andy also tenders a beautiful poem about Sophia, his first grandchild born without breath.

My children know Wendy, at least in part, because we've shared time together as families. But they like learning of how funny and feisty she really is and how it is we lost hours and roads together and would have missed our flight had it not been that our husbands who had wisely suggested we leave earlier than we had originally planned. Wendy is a woman like and unlike me in so many ways, and by the end of the week, we're using our effeminate Jesus voices (which we imitate from a video we watched together this week) to unmask our deep-seated fears and self-doubt. However we begin, Jesus always concludes by reminding, "You are very selfish. And that is wrong." When we see each other at church yesterday, my husband comments later how we are like longlost sisters reunited.

Chris, Andy, Wendy (and this week I'll tell you more about Dave, our leader): I didn't expect to love them, didn't expect their stories to kindle my imagination and curiosities as they did, didn't realize how good it would feel to laugh with them. And cry. I would remember by the end of the week that the best stories we write are not those we write in our silent cells of solitude. They are the stories we shape in our communities and around our tables.