Before my first Hutchmoot in 2011, I received a recommended reading list that I took pretty seriously.
I read Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott
I read Acedia and Me by Kathleen Norris
I read some other writing book that talked about writing and used the word “moodling.” I don’t remember the name of the book, but I do remember moodling.
And then there was Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge. I had seen it on Audible and downloaded an audio version of the book. In the weeks before Hutchmoot, I was unexpectedly away from home with a family emergency. I listened to the audio book while I was driving.
The book was odd, to say the least. I had never read Flannery before, so I had no context and no pre-formed ideas about her work. In fact, I knew literally nothing. When the second “chapter” began, I met a whole new cast of characters. The third one, even more. The chapters were unsettling and everything felt unresolved.
I found a library and was fortunate to find the book on the shelf there. As it turned out, Everything That Rises is a collection of short stories. I ditched the audiobook and leafed through the hard copy, reading a couple more stories.
A few weeks later, I was sitting at Hutchmoot in a session given by Andrew Peterson and Jonathan Rogers called “Tales of the New Creation.” Jonathan started talking about Flannery O’Connor.
He mentioned a specific short story — I think it was the one where the woman gets gored by a bull. As he talked, I nodded my head. Yes, I had read that story.
Afterwards, he approached me. “Are you a Flannery O’Connor fan, too?” he asked.
“Absolutely not,” I said.
He stared at me in stunned silence.
It turns out that Jonathan Rogers is something of an expert on Flannery O’Connor. He wrote a book about her. He teaches classes about her. He references her frequently.
I felt awful.
Later that weekend, I tried to apologize, but I think I just put my foot in my mouth further.
This Flannery O’Connor discussion extended over years. I don’t know why I couldn’t follow the advice given to Thumper — “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” Every interaction with Jonathan just dug the hole deeper.
It hit rock bottom at Laity Lodge, a retreat center in Texas, where I had gone to the first Rabbit Room retreat in 2014. Jonathan surprised me at the coffee urn the first morning there.
We made some small talk and he said something about Georgia. It turns out that he’s from Georgia.
I said, “I’ve never really spent any time in Georgia. When we drive through going to or from Florida, my kids always think it smells bad.” This is true. There is a stinky stretch on the interstate that goes through Georgia.
Jonathan looked at me in silence and finally said, “Do you lie awake at night trying to think of ways to insult me?”
Honestly, Jonathan, it just comes naturally.
I’m really sorry.
There’s more to this story, but I’ll have to continue it in my next post — Kindness. Because, despite my interactions with him, Jonathan Rogers is one of the kindest people anyone could ever meet.
Especially to people who don’t deserve it.
For the first six years that I attended Hutchmoot it was held at the Church of the Redeemer in Nashville.
The Church of the Redeemer has a lovely building, the kind that has been added onto in stages, with ramps and hidden bathrooms, a living room with leather furniture, and two kitchens. Two separate sets of stairs lead to the dining room. Little off-shoot loops hold classrooms and nursery rooms. A playground, complete with a swing set, is ready and waiting outside.
As an introvert, I loved this building. It had havens of quiet both inside and out. It also felt like it held secrets that I could discover.
In 2017, when Hutchmoot was moved to Christ Community Church in Franklin and more than doubled in size, I was quite leery. The first day of Hutchmoot 2017, I sat in my car in the parking lot looking at the door I needed to go through. Signs clearly pointed the way in, but the long sidewalk looked intimidatingly like a gauntlet.
Honestly, I’ve never done well with change — and this was a big change in something I had come to look forward to each year. Where would I go when I needed space, and quiet, and a social respite?
My car was stuffy in the Tennessee heat. I did NOT want to sit in my car, yet there I was.
Finally, after a long mental pep talk, I got out and made my way up that
gauntlet sidewalk and into the church.
It was crowded. Strike one.
I didn’t recognize the people at the registration table. Strike two.
I was beginning to mentally walk right back out that door.
I looked in the folder they handed me and found this map:
It made me smile. I immediately recognized the artist — Jennifer Trafton — even though she hadn’t signed it anywhere.
Spying the literary references and the names of beloved authors helped me breathe. This was familiar. This was homey.
Then, I saw it — the Introvert hiding place. Yes, they had thought of everything.
It was still bigger. It was still a little intimidating. But Hutchmoot is a place that embraces the Introvert and thinks about their comfort even when making big changes.
Mary and I have been traveling this past week. We drove past a business last night called Auto Spa.
“Do you think they give your car a massage?” I asked.
“I know a massage is supposed to be nice,” she replied, “but the thought of a stranger touching me bothers me.”
I’m with her. I had a pedicure once and even that bothered me. It was actually the whole experience. This foreign woman kneeling at my feet subserviently just felt wrong. I know that she was trying to make the ugly beautiful, and that in itself is a beautiful thing, but for me — no.
Hutchmoot is about creating beauty. In song. In written word. In visual art. In community.
And beauty is healing.
Being in the midst of beauty for a whole weekend is not unlike someone pumicing away some of the callouses that have built up — not on the feet, but on the heart.
It’s like relaxing into a warm bath with the most luxuriously scented bath salts — and feeling the whole experience take away the knots — not in weary muscles, but in a weary soul.
To go once a year and immerse myself in that has been a lifeline for me.
In 2013, we created something beautiful as a group.
Each person got a random square with some pre-drawn lines on it and a color palette for those lines. Some squares also asked the artist to write a word that had been meaningful to them that weekend. People creatively filled the square. Then, while we were in our last session, sharing and finally singing the Doxology, little elves were assembling those squares into a great picture.
Oh! The oohs and aahs when we walked out and saw it! We all signed the rabbit.
I had to scour Facebook to find a picture of the whole thing. I hope Jeremiah Lange doesn’t mind that I’m using this one that he posted.
And that, my friends, is about the best representation of Hutchmoot that I can think of.
It is visually beautiful.
It was created by a community.
The act of creating it was healing.
At Hutchmoot 2013, I took pages and pages of notes for the talks I attended.The notes have arrows pointing to other sections, and words written in the margins on the vertical axis, scribbles, and single word entries — like just a name with no further explanation, e.g. Poincàre.
Honestly, most of my notes are crap. Half the time, I have no idea what I was trying to say. I know why my notes look like that though. So much good stuff was being said that I was trying to write it all down, and, as a result, got very little written coherently.
One thing that was said, though, that has stuck with me for years in a talk by Nate Wilson. N.D. Wilson has written a bunch of books: The 100 Cupboard series, Ashtown Burial series, Outlaws of Time series, as well as Notes from a Tilt-a-Whirl and Hello, Ninja. He gave a talk called “The Case for Craft,” and I actually took notes I could read.
The first section of that talk was about technical value. Are we competent at what we’re doing? This part was life-changing for me:
It’s okay to be a widow and to give a widow’s mite.N. D. Wilson
It’s okay to be bad at something on the way to being good at it.
God gives everyone grace to create beauty with their life.
Honestly, I wish I could write like John Steinbeck, but I never will because I’m not John Steinbeck.
I’d like to write like Annie Dillard and once even had a professor compare my writing to hers. But I’m not Annie Dillard.
I love Thomas Merton’s contemplative writing — but I’m not Thomas Merton either.
I can only write like me.
And that’s okay — as long as I continue to work at making my writing the best it can be.
It’s okay to be bad on the way to being good. I hope I’m on that path.
What! You, too? I thought I was the only one.C. S. Lewis
I daresay this is quoted every year at Hutchmoot.
Muppets from Space is also oft-referenced. That’s the movie where Gonzo (in a dream) is denied entrance to Noah’s Ark because he doesn’t have a partner of the same species but where he eventually (in real life) finds others just like him.
Some of my closest friends are people I met at Hutchmoot.
At my very first Hutchmoot, they had a storytelling evening. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite things ever that they have done. Great stories told by great storytellers. I’ve asked if we could do it again and the answer was something like, “I don’t think we could ever top that one.”
I think they would be surprised. It was amazing, but the world is full of amazing people who experience amazing things. The folks who attend Hutchmoot tend to be attuned to the amazing that’s all around them.
Apparently, before Hutchmoot 2011, they had run some sort of contest where people could submit stories and then they chose two to read that night. I still remember one — a tender story about two trees and about the writer’s grandmother. (“Two Trees” can be read here.)
The woman who wrote it stood up shyly afterwards to receive applause. I watched her and felt her discomfort right along with her. Also, I was in awe at the beauty of her words. Oh, I wished I could write like that!
The next year, she was there again, and she spoke to me. I’m 99% sure that I said something stupid.
I thought that was the end of that until, a few weeks after Hutchmoot, she reached out to me via Facebook. I’m 99.9% sure that I rebuffed her overture of friendship. I didn’t feel like I was in the same strata as her.
She called me out. She wrote back saying something like, “Who decides who I can and cannot be friends with?”
And, with that, we began a long correspondence.
I told her things I had never said aloud to anyone, but somehow, it felt okay to tell Alyssa.
We wrote back and forth, sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, but rarely letting much time pass without one of us checking in on the other.
We prayed for each other through challenging times. She’s been with me through three deaths in my family. I was with her through a foreign adoption and some health issues.
A few years later, I was at a retreat put on by the Rabbit Room (the same people who put on Hutchmoot) at Laity Lodge. In a Q&A session, the question was thrown out to the audience that was something like, what do you appreciate most about the Rabbit Room? Or, what is your best takeaway from the Rabbit Room.
I timidly raised my hand. I don’t usually like to speak, but I knew the answer to this one. “Alyssa,” I said. “The greatest gift of the Rabbit Room has been the gift of a close friendship of someone who truly understands me and loves me.”
Do you think I could find a picture of Alyssa for this post? Of course, not!
But this is Leah. We met at Hutchmoot and we traveled to Bosnia together. I love Leah! I could stories about how she has been a huge encouragement to me.
And this is Kim. We met at Hutchmoot. She is such an encourager! She came to a Zaengle wedding. We text frequently. We can’t wait until we can see each other again.
Speaking of seeing each other again — I got to see Alyssa last night. I’m traveling with one of my daughters to look at colleges and were not far from where she lives. It was such a treat to see her, to talk face to face, to laugh together and to share burdens.
Why didn’t I take a picture? Probably social distancing. And the fact that photos weren’t at the front of my thoughts. Just seeing her.
Friendship is the greatest gift of Hutchmoot. Truly.
Hutchmoot does not predetermine a theme for each year, but every year a definite theme emerges. That theme, though, may be different for each participant. Once, when a friend was asking me about Hutchmoot, I said that Hutchmoot meets you where you are.
I was reading through all my notes for 2012 and noticed a definite theme that I don’t know that I picked up on at the time. Here are some quotes:
It doesn’t matter what you think of me. It doesn’t even matter what I think of me. The only thing that matters is what God thinks of me — and He loves me.Russ Ramsey — Friday chapel devotion
How did you become you? Pain.Jason Gray, Recovery Through Song
I need to show up in my own life.Andrew Osenga, Recovery Through Song
…to be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else.e.e. cummings, quoted by either Lanier Ivester or Sarah Clarkson, The Art of Spiritual Subcontext
Over and over, I was reminded to lean into my own story and that who I am is known and seen by God. The pain in my life shapes me. I need to be present. I need to be me.
Looking back, I remember the horrendous year I had had leading up to my second Hutchmoot. I had started this blog in 2011, I think, but by mid-2012, I had acquired a most un-welcome follower. The verbal attacks caused me to really question who I was and ask myself if anybody could possibly love me. I had stopped writing in this blog.
The ego is a person’s sense of self-worth or self-importance. Mine was beaten down.
Yet, there were the words spoken by a variety of people that were a balm to my soul.
Yes, Hutchmoot met me where I was that year. And it was good.
Hutchmoot has grown substantially.
For the first few years, it was limited to 100 attendees. Then, through a weird glitch in 2012 or 2013, it expanded to 130 attendees. In 2017, it moved from Church of the Redeemer in Nashville to Christ Community Church in Franklin, TN where, I think, they could accommodate 300. Last year, when COVID forced Hutchmoot to go virtual, they had over 3000 people “attend.”
But, back in the old days, when it was small, the meals were coordinated by a multi-talented woman named Evie Coates. She is an art teacher and a visual artist. Her Hutchmoot food was delicious and beautiful.
On the first day, a sign-up was available to help in the kitchen. There was absolutely no pressure, just a quiet here’s-an-opportunity-to-serve.
I pounced on it.
On my schedule, I wrote “dish duty” next to lunch on Saturday.
I remember going down to the bustle of that kitchen and trying to help in whatever way I could. I wanted to give back in some way. I wanted them to know how grateful I was (and am) for what they do.
Since growing and moving to Franklin, the kitchen crew became a well-oiled machine. They turned out amazing meals. But they didn’t ask for volunteers from the general riff-raff. I couldn’t volunteer there.
Not that they would want me, of course. I don’t remember being especially helpful when I volunteered for dish duty. I wanted to be helpful — but, you know, sometimes lost people just get in the way.
Don’t get me wrong — no one made me feel like that at all. I remember feeling lost, though, in that unfamiliar kitchen, and wishing I knew my way around it better. I see now how it makes so much more sense to have an actual kitchen crew.
Still — I’m glad I had the opportunity that I did in 2012.
Good conversation is a hallmark of Hutchmoot.
We eat our meals together. At my first Hutchmoot, we ate in the basement of The Church of the Redeemer at long tables lined with metal folding chairs.
I actually wrote a cheesy poem about my experience that year.
In a metal folding chair
At the end of table two
I met some friendly people —
Could one of them be you?
For every single meal
My chair was there for me
Always just the same
At table two, not table three.
’cause a moot of hungry rabbits
Can be a daunting sight
For one who’s always awkward
And never fits quite right.
For a timid little bunny —
Oh dear! What will I say? —
My chair at table two
Gave me comfort every day.
So if I didn’t meet you —
And there were quite a few —
It may be that you never sat
And dined at table two.
As hungry as I am for good conversation, I’m also terrified of saying something stupid that reveals the fool that I am. That first year, I chose to sit at the same chair for every meal. It gave me comfort. It was a decision I didn’t have to make again. I just got my food and headed to “my” chair.
The food was amazing. I should write a post on that. Maybe I will.
But what I loved most about the meal times was the conversation. Even when I wasn’t engaged in conversation, I was listening to the buzz of fascinating talk going on around me.
Sometimes friendships begin with a commonality of something that both people love, and sometimes they begin with a common dislike or pet peeve. CS Lewis’ quote — “Friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one!'” — is oft repeated at Hutchmoot. When conversations — really respectful conversations — occur between people with different viewpoints, each person leaves better and wiser. Sometimes friendship is born of that, too.
That first year, I didn’t know it was what I was looking for, but I found the conversations to be a highlight. It’s been that way every year since. The conversation is substantive. It feeds me. While the food is nourishing my body, those words are filling my soul.
I think it was at Hutchmoot that I learned to be a true lover of good conversation.
Malcolm Gladwell did a fascinating two-part episode on memory in Season 3 of his Revisionist History podcast. He began with memories of 9/11 and how, if you ask someone today where they were and what they were doing, they can recount precise details of that morning. However, sometimes those memories are incorrect. When shown written evidence — a journal entry or an email that they wrote that day — saying that they were actually in a different place or with different people when the planes hit the towers, people will say, “I don’t know why I wrote that. I remember that morning so clearly.”
I had one of those moments this morning when I was getting ready to write this. I have a few crystal clear memories from that first Hutchmoot, one of them involves a session Ben Shive gave called “How to Smile: the Fine Art of Loving Brian Wilson.” Brian Wilson, the creative genius behind the Beach Boys, struggled with mental illness. As soon as I saw the write-up about the session, I knew it was one I wanted to attend.
When I opened my notebook to read what I had written during the session, I thought, That’s not right.
There on the page, in my scrawly handwriting, it said, “- walked with one hand covering his soul.”
For nearly ten years now, I’ve thought of it as one hand covering his heart. I thought he was afraid his heart would fall out.
In fact, when I’ve been near the bottom, my hand finds its way there, over my heart, feeling its rhythm, reminding me that I’m still alive. I first remember doing it after that session.
Because there were times over that weekend when I thought my heart was falling out.
If it fell out, and I fell apart, everyone would know.
And that couldn’t happen because it wasn’t my story.
It turns out, though, that it wasn’t my heart after all. Or rather, it wasn’t Brian Wilson’s heart. It really was his soul that he held in — confirmed by my notes and by the handout Ben Shive had given us. Ben had been doing some serious research on Brian Wilson.
I probably changed it in my head because I was less worried about my soul — I knew it was in safe hands — and more worried about my heart that weekend.
On another page of notes, I had written short summaries of each of the sessions I attended. For How to Smile, I wrote three words — “Grace, grace, grace.”
Grace for those with mental health struggles.
Grace for myself.
Grace for all.
Hutchmoot planners don’t come up with a theme and tell their presenters to focus on it. The theme comes on its own, and may be different for each attendee. Grace was my theme that year. It began with Ben Shive talking about Brian Wilson.
Then, either Russ Ramsey or Justin Gerard, in a session called “Interview with a Dragon Maker,” said, “I called you to your story. I didn’t call you to perfection in your story. My grace is sufficient for you.”
And finally, Thomas McKenzie, in morning chapel, said, “Grace flows from the hard places.”
I really shouldn’t be here.
That thought ran through my head over and over during my first Hutchmoot in 2011. It was a two-pronged accusation:
My first fear was quickly laid to rest. Hutchmoot is put together and attracts a very warm, friendly, accepting group of people. I felt encouraged. I felt challenged (in a good way). I felt like my cup was filled just by virtue of being there, hearing the music, sitting in the sessions, eating delicious meals in a church basement on a metal folding chair, being surrounded for a whole weekend by loving people who longed for substantive conversation the same way that I did.
My second apprehension was a little harder to allay. Mental health issues are tough. They are private. They are scary. They are misunderstood. They carry a stigma. They hit too close to home sometimes.
But I think that I’m getting ahead of myself. Some of you are probably wondering what a Hutchmoot is. The short answer is that it’s a conference.
From my notes from that first Hutchmoot: “Hutchmoot is the intersection of faith and folks.” And that’s about as good a definition as any of them, but go ahead and google it. Hutchmoot is famously hard to explain. That’s partly why I decided to do my A-to-Z Challenge on it. Maybe enough little stories will help someone understand it in a bigger way.
So, back to September 2011. Early in the month, I had gotten one of those phone calls that parents dread. I had a child in crisis. It upended my life. Most of that story isn’t my story so I won’t tell it, but about two weeks before my flights to Nashville, I was sitting in a counselor’s office and had this conversation:
Counselor: What do you have going on for the next few weeks?
Me: When I get home, I need to cancel some flights for a trip I was planning.
Counselor: What was the trip?
Me: I was supposed to go to this thing in Nashville, but I don’t feel like I can go now. [I think I fumbled around with words trying to explain Hutchmoot.]
Counselor: Why aren’t you going?
Me: Ummm. I can’t. I need to be here.
Counselor: No. You need to go. You need [child’s name] to see that life still goes on.
And, with that, the decision was made.
Sometimes, what looks like a selfish decision — going off to a conference — is actually a selfless decision. Honestly, I didn’t really want to be there. At the counselor’s insistence, and against my own heart, I went.
It was the best thing ever.
More on that tomorrow, when B is for the Beach Boys. Aren’t you curious how they play into Hutchmoot?