Some call me Timothy. I’m a creative polymath, or an artist with ADHD. I have dabbled in the visual arts, written the occasional novel and play, and even been found in a theater telling the people on stage what to do. I’ve learned many things and taught a few them. I hold degrees in worship, theology, and French cooking, and I still don’t entirely know what I want to be when I grow up. I have often felt other in my skin, but discovering I am an Enneagram Four has made that less so. Let’s talk about our feelings . . .
“New growth” was the theme of this, my first YOB retreat; slightly ironic as fall was slowly putting the world to sleep. The sun felt defiantly hot that first day, beating down on tall trees that simultaneously clung to summer green while shedding autumn red and gold.
I was exhausted from a stressful week and travel delays. Now I faced a weekend of interacting with virtual strangers. Literally. Aside from a handful whom I had met in person, my fellow YOBBERS were tiny faces on a screen.
I had discovered YOB some months prior. I was desperate, starving for some kind of connection with other men who understood my journey.
Twenty years ago, when I walked back into the church, the only option was a shame-filled ex-gay theology that left me isolated and alone. As I looked for a connection now, I turned to Google, the oracle of the modern age, and I discovered “Side B” and Your Other Brothers.
My first virtual steps into YOB felt like walking into a new school with no friends. Everyone online was kind, but connections of any sort always take time.
I felt a lot of the same trepidation entering this camp retreat weekend, surrounded by fifty living, breathing faces. There were friendships and circles already established, shared tears and funny stories, and I desperately wanted to be part of that.
New growth? I wanted old trees, relationships of depth and maturity. I wanted twenty years of loneliness back. I wanted a forest around me.
I love being around people, but I also have a limit, a point when I need to withdraw and recharge. I was a shy, introverted child with crippling social anxiety. I eventually learned what innocuous questions to ask to stimulate conversation with new acquaintances, how to use humor to break tension. I engaged those skills now with everything I had.
Our group of fifty was broken into eight tribes and mine, Kinship, ended up being the smallest with just five of us. We wandered off into the woods to talk and get to know each other. In that first meeting I mentioned feeling anxious and vulnerable. I explained that whatever outgoing, comedic front I may be presenting was a mask for my anxiety.
The more anxious I am, the funnier I become, and I was positively hysterical that weekend.
Evening worship helped me refocus on Jesus and shed the stress of the preceding days. Still, I felt disconnected in many ways, vulnerable, anxious.
Despite my exhaustion, I trudged up a hill with a fellow tribe member to a bonfire that refused to stay lit. In the darkness as we all hoped for a blaze, we had deeper conversations. The trip back down the hill with yet another of our tribal five was an exercise in trust. My phone was dead, and I had forgotten a flashlight. I was completely dependent on someone else to make sure I didn’t fall and break my neck.
Compounded exhaustion made a blur of that second rainy day in my memory; a parade of faces, meals, and conversations punctuated by a few highlights I can clearly remember: discussions about art, politics, theology, music, food, and a thousand other bits of minutiae that revealed shared interests . . . connections.
I often draw to keep my ADHD occupied, so I can listen while people speak. For weeks I had been playing with the colors of the Pride flag in my art, reclaiming those colors and the rainbow from the place of shame I had shoved them into twenty years prior.
That rainy Saturday I drew a single white tree flanked by other trees in red, orange, yellow, blue-green, indigo, and violet:
I thought of the white tree, solitary in the center, drained of color, perhaps not knowing it was surrounded by others more than willing to share their colors. I think many of the men around me probably felt that way during the retreat. I certainly did at times, if I’m being honest.
Sunday came all too soon with a string of sad goodbyes, and I felt sorrow at returning to normal life. Between exhaustion and a tumult of emotions, I wasn’t sure where growth had happened for me, and I needed solitude to unpack it all.
Some of the things I’d hoped most for, I did not get. But the weekend had also been full of the unexpected. I might not have a forest or a new flourishing garden sprung up overnight, but I realized I did have seeds, planted and waiting.
I thought of that blur of smaller moments: a laugh, a hug, a cup of coffee. There were the larger moments in prayer or deep discussion over shared interests and shared pain. There were the seeds planted within my tribe: five different men, five different paths, and yet many common threads.
There were the soul-baring conversations I had with my traveling companions, punctuated by red-eyed delirious laughter. Each of these interactions from fleeting to heartfelt were seeds dropping into the ground, full of vast potential to become my coveted forest of friendship and connection.
There were new shoots already, grown from seeds planted with those YOBBERS I had previously met in person. A promise of what could be.
I finally broke down the following Tuesday as I got ready for work. It was the first real moment of waking solitude I’d had since returning home from the retreat.
I wept for the connection I felt in those three short days, and what I knew could be if I put in the work. I wept for the work, I wept for what might have been. I watered my seeds.
I hate the dark times of the year, when everything seems to go to sleep. I know the darkness is a time for pressing roots down through cold and unyielding soil and strengthening the foundations for new growth. I love the first surprising moment of spring, when I realize the trees are budding and life is returning.
Growth takes time, but when the sun comes back, I think I may have that forest after all. Perhaps not exactly what I dreamed of, but something more unique, special and beautiful, because of the others whose growth mingles with mine.
“Look at that,” I’ll say. “New growth after all.”
How did you experience new growth at this year’s YOBBERS retreat? When have you seen humble seeds turn to mighty forests of growth in your life?