Saturday, March 15 was my first full day at the Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference. I left for Mount Hermon much like I left for Florida, at a quarter to 2 in the morning after just two hours of sleep (luckily there weren’t several inches of snow this time). After checking in and getting my luggage to my little red cabin, I felt in danger of toppling over from fatigue.
But here I was: a writer amongst writers.
I went to the dining hall for lunch and received my first introduction to the two-pronged line of questioning posited throughout the course of the conference whenever I sat with writers, publishers, agents, and editors I didn’t know:
What do you write? Are you married?
After the first orientation session, I reasoned my time would be better spent napping than fighting the urge to fall asleep during one of the first elective sessions. I got my nap that afternoon, but was still competing with the impulse to return to bed over the course of the next day. It was at lunch on Saturday that I was ready to reprint my cards with the answers to the two questions I had already begun to answer automatically: I write non-fiction and I’m single.
I was at the premier Christian writer’s conference and I was happy to be there. But it was during this same lunch hour that I realized that I was getting sick of all the writing talk. These mealtimes (breakfast aside) were a time for writers to talk themselves up and sell their ideas to whatever publisher, editor, agent, or freelancer happened to be sitting at the table. It was a place to secure appointments and make dazzling first impressions. I just wasn’t in that place. And while I was perfectly okay with that, I felt myself becoming a two-dimensional cardboard cutout in the eyes of those around me; I felt as though I was being considered only in terms of my preferred mode of writing and my marital status because that is all anyone seemed interested in knowing about me.
I didn’t try to reason my way out of feeling like I didn’t want to talk about writing anymore. I understood that many had been preparing for these few conference days since the previous year and were ready to be in active pitching mode. I had only known for three weeks that I’d be attending, and now I was here. No wonder my head was spinning. No wonder I felt as though I had taken up residence in an alternate universe where I was learning the language and customs by immersion.
I gave myself permission in that moment to skip the afternoon sessions, knowing my attendance would only exacerbate the feelings I was having. I dropped my bag and my three-ring notebook off in my room, grabbed my camera, and took off down the Sequoia Trail. It was crisp and chilly, but bright. I felt lightened as I made my way down the trail; I was alone, a speck in danger of being swallowed by the redwoods and sequoias that towered over me. I craned my neck back to see if could make out the tops of the trees that I imagined piercing the floor of heaven and tickling God’s feet.
I ran for several stretches along the trail, clearing thick and gnarled roots as though they were hurdles, kicking up damp earth and pulling its scent deep into my nostrils. I was unshackled, free of four hundred strangers. It was just me and Yahweh, traipsing through these magnificent woods together, talking freely and listening intently to one another. I talked to Him about all sorts of things: about the places in my heart where I so recently had difficulty remembering, and the fresh ache that pressed on me when memory came back in a torrent. I tried to speak to Him about new aches to which I was unable to give any shape with my words, so I didn’t force it: I simply exposed my heart let the ache speak for itself.
As gravity propelled me downward, the promise of stillness became closer. The place of narrow questions and big notebooks and lectures and sales pitches felt far away. I was alone but for the sounds of shallow water slinking steadily and slowly over rocks in the creek bed; I heard the low and lonely hoots of an owl. The water burbled on and I could breathe; the space around me felt limitless. It felt as though I was at the center of a circle of quiet; everything revolved around this place that was the middle of all things, motionless as the foot of a compass.
I went to the bottom of the ravine.
It was that evening that they announced there would be a hike Palm Sunday morning to the top of a hill where a 20-foot cross stood watch over Scotts Valley. They would depart from the administration building at 6 a.m.
Rising early enough to make it to the administration building by 6 a.m. was nearly unthinkable; fatigue had its thick claws embedded firmly in my heels, enticing me and pulling me toward a deep and warm unconsciousness. I had been looking forward all day to an early retreat, counting down the hours and minutes until I’d be able to trade my trail runners for my pajamas and wrap myself in the musty blue comforter on my bed.
I walked back to my cabin that night, feeling the pull between my profound and deeply visceral hunger for sleep, and the simultaneous voice insisting I make my way to the cross in the morning. I found myself unable to argue; to contend I was too tired to go to the cross seemed a pathetic argument. He was pulling me; He had hooked my heart and tethered to those two perpendicular wooden beams.
I met about thirty others in the darkness of the early morning of Palm Sunday, the stars and streetlights the only points of light on the mountain. I walked with a woman who was on the shuttle bus from the airport with me. We talked about our faith and our writing in a way that was easy and natural, in a way that didn’t make me feel hemmed in.
The sky was just beginning to release the indigo hues of night when we reached the summit of the hill. The outlines of the cross were beginning to become perceptible. Our guide began telling us the history of Mount Hermon, of the story about that cross and how it came to be there. I really don’t remember much of what he said.
The sun rose, yellow and orange flaming up from the horizon, giving way to blues that darkened on the way up. My fellow wayfarers stood around the cross and began singing hymns.
I really didn’t sing much either.
It was growing lighter with every minute that passed, the deep blues being exchanged for paler shades.
I planted myself at the foot of that cross. The others sang around me while the sun continued to crawl up the edge of the sky in the east. I sat at the bottom of that cross, at the unmoving center of a circle of songs. And I was quiet.
I went to the bottom of the ravine, and then I climbed to the top of the hill.