By Janis Gingermountain
Eight luminous women who shine like the sun and glow like the moon have, by turns or constantly, guided my life through the years, from the time I was a teenager till now, sixty years later. Without these eight my life surely would have taken a much different turn. Although these companions have shaped my life’s calling as a writer, workshop leader, and retreat center guide, I cannot say that their unique collective giftedness and goodness have completely rubbed off on me. At least they have left me aspiring to emulate some of their attributes.
A dancing sprite with tousled black curls and intense dark eyes, Kip, my Girl Scout camp-counselor-in-training leader, taught me the basics of primitive camping, from building an altar fireplace to baking a pie in a campers’ Dutch oven, from swinging a long-handled axe to making swung coffee in a No.#10 tin can. Kip introduced me to folk songs and dances from around the world, and started me creating a poem book, which I still have, in which we campers wrote our own poems and collected others’ poems about nature. Thus began my life as a poet.
Dia, a quirky, they-broke-the-mold world traveler, who says her vocation is “to hold the world and offer it for transformation,” once agreed to guide me on a three-day camping vision quest in Findley State Park. Each day she blessed me for my journey and sent me off to hike the park, allowing me only my journal, pen, sandwich, and water. “Just hike and be,” she advised. “Don’t have any agenda. Experience connectedness with all that is.” Each evening by the campfire she never failed to ask me, “How goes it with your soul?” To this day I love to hike, journal, and be, and I’m still wondering how it goes with my soul.
One summer day Hermittina arrived at our women’s retreat center, looking for a place to become a semi-hermit. When she saw our blue guest room, she announced with tears in her eyes, “This is where I belong.” At 80 she was a little too old to join a monastery, chop wood, and carry water, but she was ready to sit and be. Her new philosophy became Sylvia Boorstein’s “Don’t just do something: sit there.” When she asked hermit Maggie Ross for advice about where and how to be in silence, Maggie replied, ”Don’t worry. Wherever you are, your silence will come and live with you.” As long as she had her Coke and donettes, Hermittina was a true mystic, practicing the presence of the holy throughout the day. We were happy that we could be a place where a semi-mystic could “be.”
In a class on contemplative prayer that I took in seminary I experienced Sister Joanmarie, better known as Dulcie. “Touch God who saturates the world,” she exclaimed, sending us out to hug and bless a tree. “Being in the holy is the most delicious. It is enough. It washes over you. It is all gift. You can’t bring it on.” I hugged a tall white pine tree and told it I loved it. We kept journals for the class. Dulcie made us submit an article on spirituality to a publication. Thus began my career of writing about spirituality.
Esther left her life as an Ursuline nun and began her brave new calling in AIDS ministry, guiding Kamana House and Hebron House, residencies for persons with AIDS. There she created a feeling of family for those who had been rejected and abandoned by their families and friends. “Everybody is acceptable to God,” she declared, and set about helping residents to believe in themselves. She loved her work. Every day brought a new set of challenges, from picking up 62 pounds of uncut meat to creating a booth for World AIDS Day. Inspired by Esther I continued my journey of looking for and learning about the world’s poorest people, and providing a refuge and quiet space for women at our retreat center.
Going halfway around the world in the 1950s to Pakistan to work as a missionary, Evelyn became business manager of a girls’ school in Lahore. Her entire career as a deaconness and United Methodist minister involved action and adventure, from taking high schoolers on a canoe trip in the Minnesota Boundary Waters to teaching at a mission school in New Mexico, from traveling throughout India to spending time with friends in Korea. But my friend also took time to celebrate my life and work as a writer and retreat leader. She was always there for me when I needed a listening ear. She has inspired me to be just as adventurous as she.
My writing Muse is Katerina. Something magical happens when our semi-annual weekend women’s writing circle gets together. Katerina gives herself totally to the group, spending hours inspiring, guiding, and critiquing our work throughout the year. She sees something special in every writer. Amazingly, everything I write in the workshops finds a home somewhere. Katerina, on hearing my essay on chartreuse as my favorite color, gave me her beloved chartreuse jacket. I have only to wear this magical garment or even think about it, and the creative juices are flowing.
Marcia, my ever-ready partner, is always willing and eager to explore the world with me. Whether it’s Glacier National Park, Christmastime on the Seine, or Turkey’s Magical Hideaways, we look at each other and say, “Let’s go!” almost at the drop of a hat. She looks at everything in nature with new eyes, quietly celebrating the tweets and twitters, pale violets and hot pinks, smells of sage and mint, softness of feathers and lambs’ ears, a taste of the first ripe tomato or a handful of just-picked black raspberries. In a word, like Annie Dillard, she notices. If she ever worries no one would know it. She never complains about anyone or any adversity. At 79, she will tackle any huge project, such as transporting a pile of lumber or painting a house. The only qualities I have that match hers are my desire for adventure and my love of nature. But perhaps I can hope for more.
I realize how blessed I am to have been the recipient of such amazing gifts. I will be on the lookout for the next eight women who inspire me. I challenge you to name your eight women, and describe the impact they have had on your life.
Janis Gingermountain has a small cabin in the mountains of western North Carolina. She journals, writes poetry and essays, and leads creative writing groups.