I hosted a small conference for Catholic women bloggers at my home last weekend, and it was just lovely. The weather, the people, the talks, the general feeling – it was all so lovely that I’m really kind of pinching myself at how well it went.
Because I was not ready for this thing.
I greeted my first guest (thankfully, someone who’d arrived early to help set up) in my bathrobe, my hair and make-up undone. I’d had three hours of sleep the night before. I hadn’t read up on the materials I was supposed to. I hadn’t put together the folders. I hadn’t arranged the flowers I’d bought or cut the lilacs I’d planned to. I hadn’t made the coffee or the mimosas or the iced tea or the sangria. (Yes, this was a fun conference.) The tables weren’t set up. The tablecloths weren’t ironed. The outdoor chairs were filthy from being stored in a shed alongside a tractor.
And all this was after running myself ragged for 48 hours, getting everything else accomplished.
So when my helpers arrived (several ladies came early to help – thank you, kind souls), I threw jobs at them like I’d known them for years. (Though I most definitely had not.) One – poor lady – ironed linens that just wouldn’t be tamed. Another, who’d spent the night at our home, had already ironed the more cooperative ones. Lovely Mary, who had brought flowers for the lunch tables, also arranged the flowers I’d bought, set them all out, put together the folders, and served as my weary brain’s go-to question answerer. One woman poured the mimosas. Another made the decaf. Several directed our (potluck) food to the table and refrigerator. They pulled out the cups, plates, flatware, and goodness knows what else.
In short, women did what women do: they helped.
(I can’t neglect to mention my wonderful husband: By this time, Brennan was knee-deep into his third straight day of helping me prepare. He’d already mulched flowerbeds and cleaned bathrooms and taken our older boys up to my parents – thanks, Mom and Dad! Now he was setting up tables and making coffee and cleaning those dirty, dirty chairs. God bless him.)
(Nor can I neglect to mention the two ladies who helped me organize the event – Rita Buettner of Open Window at the Catholic Review, and Erica Saint of Saint Affairs. Without them, I surely would have burnt out before the conference day even arrived. Both were generous, wonderful collaborators and valuable sounding boards.)
So as this big day began – and as I grasped at every bit of help I could get – all I could think about was how badly I’d screwed up by not having everything ready when my guests arrived. I’d wanted the day to be peaceful, elegant, relaxing. Instead, we – all of us – found ourselves plunged into a confusing jumble of bodies and baked goods.
And I was embarrassed.
Now, allow me to back up for a moment.
Because the more I reflect on our conference, the more I believe that there was something important at play here – that our day was guided by One who knew what each of us needed, and who helped us to meet those needs for each other.
I’d first thought of hosting a gathering of local Catholic women bloggers a couple of years earlier. Jen Fulwiler had mentioned attending a “salon dinner,” at which guests listened to a speaker and split into groups for a sit-down dinner/discussion. Information about the guests had been circulated in advance to help people get to know each other, and groups were assigned in such a way as to introduce guests to those who might be new to them.
I thought it was a brilliant idea. It was right up my sociable/nerdy alley.
When I thought about how I might implement the concept in my own life, I landed on the idea of using it to try to get to know other Catholic women bloggers in my area. I’m not far from Washington, D.C. and I figured that there had to be plenty of such ladies around – right? So I tried, along with a couple of other local bloggers I knew, to get something going.
But the timing just wasn’t right. For a number of reasons, it became very clear, very quickly, that the idea would need to be set aside for a while. So it was.
Fast forward to a few months ago, when members of a Facebook group I’m part of began to discuss blogging conferences and what they’d like from one. Soon those conversations turned into efforts to put on regional Catholic Women Blogging Network conferences across the country.
Quick as I could, I stepped forward to host one for the Mid-Atlantic. The time was right. And just as I’ve learned so many other times in my life, the right circumstances make all the difference.
Out of the Weeds, Onto the Meat
Now, back to my embarrassment.
I focus on it because it shows where I was as our day began. I was months into the planning of the event and sunk deep in the weeds. I hadn’t actually given much thought to the meat of the conference: how the talks would go, how the day’s events would fit together, what people would get out of it. And I’d only recently – since reading re-caps of the California conference – come to realize that some of my guests might be nervous about attending. Until then, I hadn’t thought of what they might be feeling as we started our day together.
Then we began.
We started our program a half-hour late, but we started well. I gave a short welcome and had everyone introduce themselves. (And one woman hit on the wonderful idea of introducing the babies!)
I recited a special Prayer for Peace issued by the Archdiocese of Baltimore in light of the riots there last week. Then I introduced our first speaker.
Meg Hunter-Kilmer, of Held by His Pierced Hands, was terrific. She (I’m stepping into my emcee role here) has two degrees in theology from Notre Dame. After five years as a middle and high school religion teacher, she quit her job to be a “hobo for Christ,” traveling the world speaking about the love of Christ.
I was still moving around the house a bit, making sure things were set up properly and that my guests had what they needed. (I was also grabbing my own coffee and breakfast, thankyouverymuch.) So I didn’t catch Meg’s entire talk, called “Living an Examined Life.” But I was blown away by her enthusiasm, and what I heard from her renewed my desire to set aside some daily quiet time in which to just be – to listen, to pray, to simply sit in the presence of God.
Besides providing us with some general encouragement and commiseration on that front, Meg taught us about the Examen – a daily form of prayer that encourages one to examine his life and pay attention to how God is moving in it. It struck me as a beautiful and useful exercise, and I’m eager to put it into practice in my own life.
After Meg’s talk, we welcomed our keynote speaker, Leah Libresco, of the Patheos blog Unequally Yoked. Leah grew up as an atheist and started studying Catholicism “in order to have better fights with the most interesting wrong people she met in college.” She ultimately conceded the fight and became Catholic herself. But she still likes to argue: On her blog, Leah discusses anything from dating ethics, to approaches to almsgiving, to ways to forge communities in cities. She runs a monthly debate group in Washington DC and hosts sporadic Christian forums.
Leah says that she likes to find ways to have fights that turn into friendships and she makes sure to infuse disagreements with charity and love.
Boy, does it show: I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about arguments with as much light and joy as Leah did. She spoke on “Sharing Our Faith in Secular Spaces,” giving us plenty of smart, insightful strategies for making arguments that are not just compelling, but also life-giving.
Maybe that sounds strange. First, that we had a talk on arguments at all, and second, that arguments could possibly be life-giving. (My label, not hers.) But consider our lives since the advent of social media (and indeed blogging): how many of us witness our friends and acquaintances snipe at each other over politics or current events or parenting practices? How many comment boxes have become so nasty, we don’t even bother with them anymore? Which sort of radio and television programs thrive most today? The running theme to me, at least, seems to be: conflict, conflict, conflict…
And not the constructive sort.
Leah works hard to counter that culture – not by acting like disagreements don’t matter, but by respecting them enough to encourage them to be aired openly, respectfully, fairly, and in good humor. She remembers what so many seem to have forgotten: that behind every disagreement lies real people with (usually) honest motivations. Not one of us is a caricature of our beliefs. We’re individuals who deserve to be viewed as such.
So Leah said things like this to us:
- Learn what your opponent loves about his argument and re-direct those goods to a better cause.
- Discern what the strongest argument is for the particular person you’re arguing with.
- It is more important to keep people dialoging than to “win.”
- Leave things a little unsettled, because settling a debt exactly implies the closing of a relationship.
She also told us a story that, in my mind, somehow has come to represent our whole conference:
Leah said that she once had a couple of friends who were having quite the argument on her Facebook wall. Eventually she popped onto their thread with a suggestion: “How about you guys come over to my place and have this argument in person? I’ll make cookies!” (Leah seems to pair many such challenges with “I’ll make cookies!”) They – smart guys – took her up on her offer.
When the debaters arrived, however, Leah (deliberately) didn’t have everything ready. The cookies were still in the oven and she was scurrying around in a (manufactured – shhh!) rush. She tossed out a few directions: move this sofa there, those chairs here, carry these glasses of milk, please.
Leah took two people who’d been duking it out online and not only did she bring them together to resume their argument in person, but she made them work together on common, non-controversial goals beforehand. She brought them together so they could stand shoulder-to-shoulder and see eye-to-eye, literally. In doing so, Leah was “restoring reality” to the situation, as she put it. Working together, sharing food – these are things that bond people to each other. And when people are bonded, their arguments are more likely to be respectful and fruitful.
As you might guess, Leah’s story struck me for its similarity to our day’s beginning. Though my own rushing was genuine and my guests had not come to argue, their helpfulness served a similar role. Before many of our ladies had even met each other, they were working together. They – we – were building bonds through service, which would then be strengthened by sharing prayer, food, and conversation. So as I scurried through the jovial chaos that morning, embarrassed and a little panicky, I was unknowingly playing my part in the day’s success.
Honestly, I could listen to Leah’s talk all over again. Meeting her left me feeling a little resentful of the fact that I’m no longer a young single thing living in DC, with plenty of time (and the Metro access) to crash her homemade-cookie-fueled debate parties.
(By the way, Leah just released her first book this past Thursday! Consider checking out “Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer.”)
Faithful, Social Friends
After Leah’s talk, we broke for lunch. I threw more jobs at people (“Who wants to make the iced tea?!”) and we all scurried around to get the food ready. Soon enough we were settled at one of four tables, where we participated in small-group discussions with ladies who blog on topics similar to our own. I’d assigned the groups in advance and asked each attendee to submit links to the three posts which best represent what she’d like to do with her blog. Theoretically, everyone was supposed to read their group-mates’ links before arriving. (Though I’ve already confessed that I did not personally get to this!)
I can’t vouch for the other groups, but mine was great. We relaxed, we chatted, we asked questions, we commiserated, and we laughed. What more could you ask for?
After lunch we re-grouped to hear Cristina Trinidad speak. Cristina – who blogs at what was Filling My Prayer Closet, but is now, as of this week Faithfully Social – is a married, full-time working mother of two boys. Working in corporate by day, she is a blog and social media coach by night (or whenever she can get a minute).
Cristina says that she enjoys helping other bloggers get noticed, or providing just the right prescription to manage their social media. Accordingly, her talk, “Blogging Smarter, Not Harder,” was full of insights into social media and tips as to how to better engage with it.
Images, titles, search engine optimization, pins, schedules, branding, design software, videos, keywords, alt tags, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram… it all kind of made my head spin. But in the best possible way! Cristina was friendly and energetic and she left me with pages of notes and several ideas for improving my outreach to current and potential readers.
We spent the remaining 15 minutes of the conference in a lively wrap-up session, which was moderated by Rita Buettner, of Open Window at the Catholic Review.
I have to say, up until this point in the day, there were many things that made me happy. But now, as people enthusiastically offered ideas as to how we could collaborate and be helpful to each other going forward – I was thrilled.
One woman offered to host everyone for a day of quiet, uninterrupted writing. Another suggested meeting for a “write-in” at Starbucks. Ladies talked of a blog carnival. They mentioned Doodle and Google Docs and a resource page on our Facebook group where people could list their expertise.
The ideas bounced around the room haphazardly but the consensus was clear: We were excited about what we’d found here and we were eager to build up relationships with one another. We wanted to get together again soon – as soon as this summer. We wanted to offer a variety of ways for people to meet up and help out and collaborate.
(The activity on our Facebook group this week has reflected that excitement: multiple posts per day, questions, request for and offers of support. It’s been really beautiful to witness. I feel so grateful for this burgeoning community – and just a little proud.)
After our conference formally broke up, women lingered to say goodbye after goodbye. They took with them lovely boxes of delicious fudge, which was generously made by Emily Borman, Editor-in-Chief of Conversation With Women. (For the writers among you, Conversation With Women is a blog made up entirely of anonymous submissions from women who have struggled with, but ultimately found joy in living the Catholic faith in regards to marriage, sexuality, fertility and society. If you have such a story to share, stop over to Emily’s to see about submitting it.)
As the others headed home, eight of us struck out to enjoy dinner together. We walked to a local restaurant for some amazing pizza and more laughter than probably should have been allowed. (Seriously – we were the loudest party there!)
I was so happy as I looked around at our group – women of different ages and backgrounds and family make-ups, women who write on different topics, whose lives have taken different turns – we chatted (and hooted and hollered) like we were a real thing, like we were a solid group.
And, I guess that now we kind of are.
Back row: Patti Murphy Dohn, Marie Bernadette Griffiths, Meg Hunter-Kilmer, Cristina Reintjes, Laura Scanlon, Mary Lenaburg, Jamie Gewand, Lisa Mayer, Abbey Dupuy, Laura Wright, Leah Libresco, Abigail Benjamin, Emily Borman
Front row: Erica Saint, Rita Buettner, Colleen Duggan, Kate Abbot, Rosemary Callenberg, Cristina Trinidad, Nicole Cox, Julie Walsh (me), Rosie Hill
(Many thanks to Theresa Conlan for designing our logo.)