Updated: Jul 29
A beautiful thing started to happen for me in the spring of last year when I was invited to my first women’s retreat in Arizona. It was the kids’ spring break, so I drove them out to my parent’s house and then headed south for four days of open spaces with a group of women I didn’t know. It was something I always wanted to do, but between young kiddos, my unrelenting work schedule, and a skewed attitude about money spent on self-care, I never found an opening on the calendar.
My friend, who was hosting this particular retreat, offered an open room and a seat in the circle of women gathering from all around the country. We spent the week in a historic home in downtown Tucson making collages, writing, sitting quietly, and sharing together some of our deepest and longest-held struggles.
Most of these struggles, it turns out, were universal. Evidence that women, as a population, are good at letting our powerful and capable minds believe things that might not be true about ourselves. Beliefs around worth and value, capacity and surrender, priority and sacrifice. It was a powerful weekend of acting as a mirror for each other as we found more in common than different.
I had, of course, gathered in the company of women before, just not like this. This wasn’t the bachelorette, rose-all-day kind of weekend one might imagine when women gather. While there was some decadence and plenty of wine, the reason we came together was really about matters of the heart. Foregoing the poolside retreat, and seeking instead the tending to our inner landscape, and the well-being of our souls.
My participation in this retreat was significant because, in full disclosure, I’ve gone through most of my life not trusting women. That’s a strange thing to say when I am, in fact, a woman. But growing up with two older brothers and a dominant father meant life was much easier when aligned with the boys’ team.
The boys, it turns out, have more fun. Our house was full of them and their goofy, spontaneous nature held little mystique for me. Boys were light and easy, and less complicated to navigate than girls, who often operated in angst and drama.
The angst and drama were not the root of my distrust, however. Family dynamics and church messaging were compounded by a cultural disregard for women that was alive and well in the 70s and 80s. It created a belief that my gender really was unpredictable, at times unhinged, and not to be trusted when there are more capable men around to lead the way.
Of course, in my limited understanding, I didn’t know that much of this evidence was viewed through the heavily filtered glasses of a status quo, once again at risk of being disrupted. In the 80s, that disruption looked a lot like shoulder pads, pumping breast milk in the office bathroom, and divorcing the husband that may or may not have a vision for a woman in her full potential. It was angsty times, and per usual, the people in power weren’t on board.
Ergo distrust, from this girl who found it safer to align with the boys who held all of the obvious power, and certainly had most of the fun.
Fast forward a few decades to Tucson last spring. I arrived in the swell of my very own disruption of the status quo. I arrived with the cracking facade of a woman who had just recently resigned from her job, was giving up her whole career, and preparing to jump into an active and ongoing trust fall. I felt raw. My throat ached from the fear and grief of my own making. If you went in for a hug, I was likely to end up with a tissue, needing a moment to get composure. I was at my most vulnerable, and this group of women I didn’t know, met me there.
This is our gift as women, to tend to one another. And I was learning how to participate, with open arms and an open heart. In more recent years of my adult life, I have fostered just a few close friendships that have taught me what it looks like to trust and be trusted. To lean in and ask for help, even when it doesn't come naturally. And then at these retreats, I was learning more fully how to see women differently - as allies, and the most trusted tenders of our sacred gathering spaces.
Much of this learning was happening internally, as I became the watcher. I gave up the need to be the first to speak, and the one who always had the answer. The one who needed to be heard. In not trying to always get to the finish line first, I listened, waited, and allowed myself to be held and cared for in a way that I had never experienced before.
As the year unfolded, I was invited to more retreats. Invitations that felt like perfectly placed gifts, with just the right mix of setting and participants to reveal something new in its perfect timing. Revelations that took me deeper into understanding my place in the sisterhood that I always craved but never really felt I deserved.
In the Fall, I joined a Four Chambers women’s circle and we walked together through the stations of our mind, body, heart, and energy field. It was a beautifully unfolding journey into remembering that the most important person in my life is me. The following Winter, I drove across the California desert to Palm Springs where a gathering of professional women taught me that even in heart-led endeavors, consistency, and perseverance are critical to whatever I choose to make a success. In the spring, an invitation to gather on the seaside bluff in Cambria for a journey so deep into my heart space that I felt lifelong chains of my own oppression spontaneously dropping away, and in their place, the earth swelled up and embraced me in new freedom.
And then, on the cusp of this summer, a short but eventful backpacking retreat into the backcountry with one of my dearest friends. A retreat for just two that led us to a sandy bank on a river where the spirit moved me so deep, I felt compelled to bathe in the river. Plunging like a baptism into the cold water, I held fast to the mossy boulders as my body ebbed with the river’s flow. Transcendent flow, washing away resistance, fear, resentment, and shame. And in that flow, I stepped ever deeper into the bravery required to claim what I want for my life. Not what I’m told I want, but what I really, really want.
Those are big words, but absolutely fitting for what turned out to be a big year. Those are big words that still fall short of capturing what was happening on the cellular level of transformation. Those are big words that refer to what is still happening as I let go of trying to be strong like a man and discover instead the real strength of being soft and vulnerable like a woman. A woman who sees herself as unstoppable in her vision, unapologetic in her desire, and unwavering in a new kind of love.
Where once I had been numb with the stress and effort of trying to do it all alone, I could feel the tingle coming back to my fingers and toes, and a new hope coming alive as I took my place shoulder to shoulder with my sisters. As each gathering unfolded into its own kind of gift, it was my new sisterhood who met me there in my deepest and most vulnerable awakening. At times, complete strangers showed me the gift of being held and seen in the full light of day, without judgment. I understood how surrender looks and feels. And in the witness of my tribe, I practiced the art of allowing my spirit to sing her song.
Those with whom I gathered are extraordinary medicine women, simply because they showed up just as they are, ready to push into whatever it is that needs tending. They walk among us - those who have bravely taken their place in the sacred sisterhood before me, so that I could find my own place here, too.
And to the women still arriving, there is plenty of space here for you. The fire is warm, the sky is wide, and we wait patiently to hear your spirit join the song.
Lost Canyon, Los Padres National Forest, CA