Invitations to private islands don’t come often. I knew to say, “yes” no matter how much effort it took. As the one typically left behind for the sake of corporate trainings and “team-building exercises,” I knew what I’d be asking Brendan to do. Four kids all day, every day are no joke. There’s also the fact that when mommy is gone, mommy’s chores don’t generally get done, and she gets to do them on Monday instead of over the weekend. Then we have the context of the trip: a small group of women who’d been meeting together for a month going away to be together. I was not a member of the small group. Though, some of my favorite people on the planet were, and the inviter, one of my dearest friends, is moving to the other side of the country next month.
I needed to say “yes,” but I was scared.
After a month of nagging, tear-jerking insecurity and a couple weeks before the private island invite came, I recognized God’s latest remodeling project taking place in my heart: Operation: Be How I Made You. I got the vision, the hope of being myself at my birthday this last year, but actually doing it... Dang. I’m so afraid that people won’t like the real me. I’m convinced that I’m “too much,” my dreams and ideas are too big, silly, and unaccomplishable by someone like me. I’m sure that I’m annoying and dorky- going on about birds, plants, whales, stand-up, or writing a book. I’m certain that I’m not supposed to need all the affection I want. It's the love-needing that bothers me the most.
It’s time to put an end to all that nonsense because those are all ok things to be and to need.
My children are getting old enough for me to see those same kind of thoughts cross their minds. I would flyswat those thoughts dead if I could. When my children have them, I get so sad! “Oh, darling,” I think. “You are just fine how God made you, and I love you so much.” But, here I was telling myself all the same things and suffering alone instead of getting reassurance and hugs. To get a hug, you put your arms out. To be reassured, you waver and express your uncertainty. I’d been practicing. Well, I’d been thinking about needing to practice but didn’t really want to do it. And then I got invited to a private island with trusted, beloved, compassionate, self-aware, engaged women who love me. Why should I be afraid that they won’t accept the fullest version of myself?
I looked over the email invitation, and I immediately knew this was the practice ring I needed. No kids to distract and need me. No husband to hide behind, to facilitate retreat, to give me the pat reassurance I’ve trained myself to need. “Am I ok? Do people like me?” I ask him. “Yes, you’re ok,” he says. I needed to practice trusting my friends (* cough cough* AND GOD *cough cough*) to love me and respond to me with reassurance, hugs, compassion, and appreciation.
I had been talking about the insecurity that was hurting me. I coughed it up a few times. Here’s the number one thing people said: “You get insecure?!” Ummm, yeah. I definitely do. (They all said lots of other great stuff too.)
So, anyway, I looked over the email invitation and I thought, “aw, crap.”
Then, I put 2 and 2 together. Hat Island is in the Saratoga Passage. The trip would be in April. Therefore, I’d be in a beachfront house in the Saratoga Passage during April. Gray whales migrate to the Saratoga Passage every April to eat ghost shrimp from the rich, silty mud. And I’m obsessed with seeing whales. I had never seen one before in spite of putting myself in the right place at the right time for 5 years running.
I wasn’t fully committed to getting hugs and being vulnerable with my friends, but I was 100% invested in seeing a whale. I emailed back: “Sounds great!! I’d love to come. Thanks!” But, inside I thought, “oh, boy. What am I doing to myself?”
We women emailed back and forth about food, transportation, what to bring, and I went through the motions. Don’t misunderstand; I love my friends and was so excited to do this cool thing with them. I just was stressed with coordinating my own departure and separation from my big family. I don’t like to be away from my people. I’m not afraid of bad things happening to any of us; I just feel better when we are together.
There was one really fun distraction, though. I had decided to prepare a stand-up comedy routine. I love to perform and don’t get opportunities unless I create them and hang on for dear life. The hostess and owner of the beach house asked us all to bring something to share. “It can be anything,” she said. “A newspaper article, teaching us to make truffles, anything.” So, I decided to share a performance. Brendan helped me with the material, and I felt really good about it.
The scene in the park-n-ride lot where we met was like a backward summer camp drop-off. The mommies all got out of the minivans with make-up bags and too many bottles of wine as the dads and children waved and drove away. My daughter screamed like she needed a shot at the doctor’s office. We made our way to the marina where a passenger ferry would motor us across the water to Hat Island. On the shore, we learned about dock carts, schlepped our own stuff without toddlers pulling our hands, and boarded the boat. The silence and stunned gazes of women finally able to sit still slowly melted into relieved chatter and joking as we steadily cut toward the passage.
Halfway into the boat ride, a boat-hand walked past and casually informed: “There will be some whales up here on the left.”
“I’m gonna die! I’m gonna die! I’m gonna die! Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!” I. Clutched. My. Invisible. Pearls. I patted my hand over my heart and took deep, nasal inhales. “I am gonna die!!” Brenna, best friend that she is, has listened to me lust and pine for whale-sighting for years. She turned the camera on me instead of the water.
I champed at my watermelon flavored Extra and searched the surface like I was looking for a life-preserver. “THERE IT IS!” The face I made was… I don’t know. I’m sorry for saying this, but it was embarrassing and basically orgasmic.
The entire weekend was INSTANTLY worth it. I saw a whale. Spout and gray back. I’ll TAKE IT! And, thanks to my incredible, beloved friend I also got to see my own hilarious face, and that made the whole thing even better. We watched the video a hundred times. Everyone learned how obsessed I am with whales. The whole group rejoiced with me over the dream that finally met satisfaction.
Now we were talking. Weekend on Hat Island! Let’s do it! (and I still had my stand-up routine tucked up my sleeve.)
Blythe mentioned something about reading from Job, about Leviathan and how only God could control him. I’d never thought of Leviathan as a whale before.
Samantha and some others were in charge of beverages: coffee, wine… is there anything else? She exhibited mock offense at the fact that pretty much EVERY other woman had brought wine. As I stated: “I’m not going to trust anyone else with my wine needs.” Don’t get me wrong: I’m pretty (very) anti-drunkenness. But I’m pro-wine-gladdens-the-heart-and-warms-you-up-for-my-stab-at-stand-up.
I agreed to contribute to a snackie dinner of cheese, baguette, roasted veggies, pickled things, and charcuterie (essentially the best meal anyone can ever have). After everyone was full, warm, fuzzy, I let slip to a second friend that I had a little show planned. (I’d told Brenna already because then I’d have to go through with it.). Sarah was stoked and immediately wanted to get everyone ready.
Here’s what happened:
I loved every moment. I loved my friends’ kindness and willingness to play along and to value something about me that I like but often feel ashamed of. Later, in my bunk room, Samantha said, “That was great.” And I said, “I wish I didn’t need to do that stuff.” And I meant it, but what I really wanted to say was, “I wish I could believe you.”
After everyone had gone to bed, I went over to the great room to get a glass of water for taking my pills. The house has two wings: fellowship and sleeping. All my friends were in the sleeping wing, and I had the great room and kitchen to myself in the dark. I turned on a light to get my water, but then turned the lights out and carefully felt my way down the two steps to the half-bath to pee. I totally forgot about the two steps on my way out and full-on, slapstick-style fell UP the stairs. I managed not to break the glass but bruised my arms and shins and sprained my thumb. I cried real tears and marveled over how funny and tragic it was that some of my very dearest friends were just two doorways away on a trip where I came to try to share my vulnerability, though I lay alone on the ground sobbing and laughing over my fall. I dried up the water spill and went to bed thinking, “WHAT IS LIFE!?”
Saturday morning I emerged from my lower bunk having had a completely crummy night of sleep. But, I knew breakfast would be good. My friends can cook, y’all. I asked Libby if she could find and make me a cup of tea. I burdened her with my morning need, my special case status. I cannot drink coffee. My poor little post-cholecystectomy, POTSy body cannot handle it. She worked hard for that cup of tea. Questions had to be asked, tea-balls needed finding. I had a lovely pot of Assam all to myself.
Brenna found me after our lazy morning. “Sarah and I are going to do a 10 minute Barre3 video. Do you want to join us?” Uh, YEAH. Barre3 is our jam, you guys. It has taken me from NO physical activity to strength, energy, and noticing my own forearm muscles in mirrors. “Of course!”
“Great. And do you want to lead it?”
Ah, I get it.
Turned out: everyone. Literally, EVERYONE felt that “10 minutes” (we did 30, much to Sarah’s terror) of Barre3 would be a wonderful part of a weekend vacation. We went out onto the beach front deck. Some stayed up, some came down to the lower deck, and I set myself up out in front on my own little “teacher” stage, the dock path down to the water. We did 3 10-minute videos, and I was so happy. Samantha emailed later to say, “I did not know doing barre on the beach was a dream of mine until it actually happened.” Sister, I AGREE.
I waffled a lot about the planned perambulation of the island. Those would be 2 hours that I could be writing. But, then again, those were two hours in which I could face a challenge and walk alongside Brenna and the other women. Brenna walks. She is my Barre3 buddy, but she has a whole ‘nother life as a psycho-level walker. Sarah decided to stay, so I decided to go because then I could borrow her jacket and shoes. I managed to forget reasonable footwear and my wool hoodie.
We set out to circle the island. At about 2/5ths of the way around, the forerunners, Brenna and Blythe, came upon a couple walking the other way. “Did you see it?” they said. “A whale! It was just 30 feet off the shore!” No. We didn’t see it. As they so aptly put it we “just missed it!” Oh, did we dither. Do we go back? Do we follow it? Ultimately, Brenna, Blythe, and I, jogged back in the wrong direction to try to follow the boats. But, nothing. My heart pounded as we worked to catch up with the rest of our group. The conversation topic sucked too, frankly. We spoke about Blythe moving to New York. I love New York, and I love Blythe. But I don’t really want them to be together. I want her to be with me.
We did catch up to our group, and we saw a bald eagle. He was maybe 30 or 40 yards from us. His wing on his left side could not fold in correctly, and I was worried about him. I love eagles the way I love whales, but I’ve been around LOTS of eagles. They never let you get as close as we were. I’ve watched enough eagle rescue youtube videos to know that something was wrong. We left it there, and I knew that trouble and death come to all things. And I am usually powerless.
Twenty minutes later we came upon an old looking dock covered in cormorants, creepy like witches caught at a coven meeting. “This feels so apocalyptic,” Heather said. And she was right. In a bit longer, we all tried to name the very large bird perched on the beach. An eagle for sure, but I wasn’t sure what kind. (I spent 30 minutes researching when we got back. I’m 90% confident it was a Golden.) The wind was hard and in our faces. The pebbled Northwest beach proved difficult. We all started complaining of dizziness. Conversation slowed to intermittent comments about the travail and “are we there yet.” Finally, the house appeared. Almost there, I sat down on a log for a moment and right away thought, “GET UP!” My hips and (truth be told) pubic symphysis were SUFFERING. Sitting meant I might not get up again!
Stumbling into the great room, we seemed crazy to Emilee who had stayed behind. “I feel motion sick,” we all said. Great advertisement.
After stretching and eagle research, I went to take a nap.
Dinner was a 5 course delight produced by Libby with assistance from Emilee. Libby went to cooking school IN ITALY. Nuff said. There was wine for every course and tiramisu for dessert. The conversation was PRECIOUS.
Then, we moved into slumber party mode. Blythe had been UV-Gel-painting toenails all afternoon and continued into the night. (Right now, my toenails are still a perfect, shiny red. All ready for her dissertation defense tomorrow.) The story sharing began, and Blythe did her thing and asked out-loud all the things the rest of us were thinking. Late night arrived, and those left sitting heard about divorces, lost babies, abuse from men and the other kinds of pain women share. After midnight, I didn’t want to, but I had to tear myself away and go to bed.
For our Sabbath, we planned worship. Brenna had a simple liturgy of prayer and reflection prepared, and Sarah brought song sheets, her guitar playing, and her singing.
Before we even began, I let everyone know: I’m gonna cry a lot. You know when you need love and someone offers you the slightest kindness? You know how that opens the floodgates? That’s how singing worship songs works for me. Sing about God’s amazing power, faithfulness, and loving-kindness while I’m needing all a that and a bag of chips? Sure, but I’m gonna cry.
I’d shown my cards. I hugged a lot. I told bird facts. I did my stand-up routine. I told stories. Everyone knew my whale obsession. But I hadn’t yet said, “You guys! I’m consistently, constantly afraid that I could lose your approval by being to needy, too flashy, too JESKY! During the worship time, my tears flowed. I knew what the tears were about, but I wanted other people to know too.
We had 20 minutes for an alone time of reflection. Brenna set us up well to go away and think about who God REALLY is, what He’s like, how He sees us, and what He gives us. I went down to the water with my favorite pen and my notebook and began to write out every thought that came to me regarding what God is like.
I had so much I wanted to ask God to do. “Show me some more whales! Cure this insecurity! Make my friends grasp that I’m not as brave as I look!” But, I didn’t ask any of those things. I asked one thing and thought of all the Psalmists who came before me. “Just let me know YOU, God. Show me what you are like.” I walked down to the water, found a wishing rock (one pure band of color running all the way around it), and hurled it into the water with the words: “Show me what you are like.”
Then, I went back inside and made sure I had tissue to use for our final time of singing together. We prayed together, and even though I knew I would blubber (get it??), I prayed honestly. I prayed aloud that God would bless and progress all the painful stories we told that weekend. And I prayed aloud that God would help me to be truly vulnerable with my friends. I confessed that I’m terrified of rejection.
During “Be Thou My Vision,” I spied from the very corner of my left eye a splash out in the water. It looked like a whale spout. In absolute prairie dog sentry imitation, I drew myself to my full height. Everyone turned toward me as they sang and I said, “We may have a whale situation, but keep singing.” I saw it again. I still wondered if it might be a wave crashing on rocks, but I stood up on the couch in front of everyone anyway. My friends kept singing but moved toward the windows. When we finished the song, I said, “ I think it was a whale spout,” but I did not intend to go out after it. We had more singing planned. Leslie, the hostess, said, “If you saw a spout, we need to go.” “YAAAASSSSSSS, QUEEEN!” is what I thought, and I ran for my Birkenstocks.
Blythe joined me at the head of the pack heading out onto the beach. As we rounded the corner, Blythe said, “There it is! I see it!” We started to run, and I was ecstatic! “I’m peeing my pants,” she said. “ME TOO!” But we kept running, and I hadn’t seen it yet. Then, I did. I saw a spout and the whale’s back, like we’d seen from the boat.
She took my phone from me, and we ran as close as we could. I could feel in my heart and bones my other friends running toward us from behind. Sarah and Brenna arrived first. “Where?!” Sarah demanded. “THERE!” we said. And the whale put up it’s fin and tail fin. At one point I saw its head. There was much clasping of hands and clapping of shoulders. Our whole group arrived bunch after bunch. We sang the doxology. We marveled. We fell silent. We walked with the whale (and possibly another in the distance) for half an hour. It stayed about 30 yards from the shore the entire time. We commented about how many of our families were down in Seattle RIGHT THEN in worship service. I cannot speak for everyone, but I think many of us met the Lord in that time with the whale. I felt like a daughter of God in the best, best way. When the landscape prevented us from walking any further, SHE, Lucy the gray whale, spouted, raised her back, and then flashed her tail at us before disappearing.
The whole way back walking to the house, ALL I could think was, “So, THAT is what you are like, God. I love you.” Blythe said, “I prayed God would bring us a whale.”
At the house, we sang about God’s steadfastness, and I danced like I always want to at church. I poured everyone a sparkling wine toast, and it was freaking awesome. I told them how meaningful it felt to me that God brought us that experience together and that we would not have known about the whale’s presence if I wasn’t the whale obsessed dork that I am. I hate that Brendan wasn’t there, but it just needed to happen with my friends. I needed to be myself, share it, and not need or have Brendan to reach out to.
Blythe shared again from Job, and I carry this image of us, His daughters, taking that Leviathan for a walk:
Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook
or press down his tongue with a cord?
2 Can you put a rope in his nose
or pierce his jaw with a hook?
3 Will he make many pleas to you?
Will he speak to you soft words?
4 Will he make a covenant with you
to take him for your servant forever?
5 Will you play with him as with a bird,
or will you put him on a leash for your girls?
6 Will traders bargain over him?
Will they divide him up among the merchants?
7 Can you fill his skin with harpoons
or his head with fishing spears?
8 Lay your hands on him;
remember the battle—you will not do it again!
From Job 41
God put that Leviathan on a leash for His girls. Not a doubt in my mind. THAT is what He is like. And you know what? He doesn’t do it every time. I’ve cried many lonely tears longing for the whale to come swim next to me. But that doesn’t mean God wasn’t there. He just waits until it’s going to be really, really good or useful. Or maybe that’s not the rubric at all. I don’t really need to know.
We rushed to clean and make beds. They played Jackson 5 and disco, and I danced my way through the next couple hours. I explained myself to a few people, and that was great. I tried to teach Libby how to dance with her shoulders. I look forward to so many more lessons.
“JESSICA! A WHALE!” I was famous then for my desperation for the massive mammals. I shoulder danced to JT, shoveled leftover Moroccan Chicken and quinoa salad, and called out, “there it is!” over and over and over again as that sweet pet of God spouted and flashed it's tale in the Saratoga Passage, close to the Whidbey side. Ah, satisfaction.
I went home and hugged my family. Then, Tuesday, I went to therapy. I told her everything I just told you.
“You don’t ever try to get hugs from me,” she said.
"I didn’t know I could,” I answered.
“I follow the client’s lead.”
I got a really good hug at the end of that session.
And I’ll go back to Hat Island any time.
Thank you, my dear friends, for knowing me for loving me so, so well. I trust you.