This was one trip I was totally unprepared for. No packing list. No suitcases out a week in advance. No researching excursions. For that matter, no idea where I was going aside from a plane headed to Ft. Lauderdale to a cruise ship to head out to sea. People asked, “Where are you going?” “What ports will you see?” My answer shocked them all, “I have NO idea.” In the months before, I had been working 20 hour days, amidst what seemed like one monumental change or challenge after another, and I was exhausted. I was going to blend into the crowd, to silently learn what I could, and in any spare time, work on my tan with a good book.

Besides the leaders and spouses, there were five of us. FIVE. Five conference registrants. I wouldn’t blend into the crowd. There was no crowd. Anything I said would be heard. Anything I did would be noticed. Sure, I speak to people everyday in my office, where I am the identified expert. And yes, I get asked to speak to groups occasionally. But for me, admittedly the shyest person I know, this was the ultimate challenge. Risking the chance that the “real me,” the “normal, everyday person, me” who is not so confident, and who has been beaten down through the years, would be criticized or rejected. I had prayed about attending. God had provided. Now I was wondering why. I believed through faith, that God was preparing to do a mighty work. Perhaps in me, or in my office. I wasn’t sure, but I knew it must be true or Satan wouldn’t be trying so hard to make life difficult, trying, and exhausting.

Over the week, and in-between the seasonal Caribbean showers, I slowly let my guard down. The wall that the years had built to protect myself from rejection and hurt slowly crumbled. I started to become more comfortable. And I was learning so much that it made me thirst for more. My excitement soared. My husband could sense a change in me.

Our second to last day together as a group of five sharing the same passion, I had a chance to sit and talk with our mentor for the week. I had jumped through hoops to prepare for those few minutes. I found a way to secure a hard copy of some of my prior scribblings. Yet in those few minutes, we never looked at what I had written. He started instead with a question, “Tell me about you. What do you see yourself doing with your novel?”

I had only a blink’s worth of time to decide. Was I going to get real, get serious, be authentic? Yes. I owed it to myself, to my supportive husband, to God who had lit the match inside my heart. I didn’t care about the novel I had started. That was on a lark, just a mental exercise, to stretch myself. What I was passionate about was reaching hurting people and offering hope. Because of my knowledge, I could educate and comfort where their knowledge was limited.

As we chatted, he became more enthusiastic, excited even. “What about this….?” “You could do this…” “And then there is this…” His excitement made my heart’s flicker burst into flame. Was he implying that I had something important to contribute through my writing? “I think you’ve really got something here!” he claimed. “You’ve got to go for it!”

I hadn’t felt that encouraged in years. I was usually the encourager, the person who offered hope and a positive perspective. Yet sometimes it felt like a thankless job. No one called me when things were going well, only in crisis or with a complaint. Then at the end of the day and I returned home as the “normal everyday” wife and mother version of me, there was little encouragement there. I’d get laundry caught up to find socks already in the hamper. I’d unload the dishwasher of clean dishes to find dirty ones in the sink to be loaded. Encouragement had been slim. Yet there, where I hadn’t been allowed to blend in, God offered me uncontainable encouragement through the voice of a mentor who only a week before I hadn’t known, but whom now I will never forget.

I disembarked in our originating port ready to take on the world, with a renewed enthusiasm to write. There were many other lessons taught that week, but all of them paled in comparison to finding that my life verse was still true: Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Hope and encouragement were my souvenirs.