I’ve returned home from the fifth Gaian Soul Retreat I have hosted at our beloved Aldermarsh Retreat Center on Whidbey Island. I love, love, love this work. This weekend I realized that creating retreat experiences is one of my three art forms, along with writing and making art. On retreat, I hold the container for women to have depth experiences, co-creating the cauldron of transformation with the spirits of the sacred land, the women who answer the call to be present, and the Blessed Mother Herself.
I am so grateful for this life of mine. So privileged to do this work.
I chose a theme of Mermaid Magic for this retreat, honoring the Ocean Mama to whom I am dedicated, known as Yemaya, Salmon Woman, Aphrodite, Mari, Morgan, Tiamat, Thalassa, La Diosa del Mar, Stella Maris Star of the Sea, She Who Watches, and a thousand other names. As I gathered material for the retreat, I remembered the very first retreat I ever led in September of 1996 at Doe Bay on Orcas Island — a Mermaid Magic Retreat! I have been devoted to the Ocean Mother for a long, long time. I was reminded that we each walk a spiral path, circling back to things we knew in years past, but at another turn of the spiral, adding depth and nuance to what came before.
We visited Mama Ocean one morning, going off in search of our own siren songs in a silent contemplative walk. (The kind of siren song we were seeking is defined by Kim Antieau in her book Church of the Old Mermaids. It’s “whatever you do that you love completely, or that you think is really you. Something fluid, beautiful, all yours — and something that contributes to the community in some way. Every Old Mermaid — and every person — has her own siren song.”
Back at Marsh House, a bowl full of seawater anchored our altar. I placed the cards of the entire suit of water from the Dark Goddess Tarot around the bowl. I was happy my friend Ellen Lorenzi-Prince, creator of the Dark Goddess Tarot, came to the retreat. In Saturday night’s ceremony, each woman chose a water card, and Ellen spoke with the voice of each Dark Goddess, giving each woman a personal message. Such a gift.
There was scrumptious, delicious food, created by our kitchen priestess Elaine Nichols and her sous-chef Colleen. One of the women brought us wild Alaska salmon that she and her partner caught themselves. She brought pears too, and Elaine gathered apples from the Aldermarsh garden for pear-apple crisp. We were in heaven with so much succulent food.
There was the land that welcomed us in so many ways.
There were massages and tarot play and dancing and story circles and sweating in the hobbit hut sauna.
There was sacred art-making. This year, we made Ojos de Diosa — Goddess Eyes — in honor of She Who Watches. As always, the works of art the women make at these retreats knock me out with their power and beauty.
I had three moving experiences in the medicine wheel stone circle in one day.
The first time, I led the women in dancing the Dance of Life. I had planned to dance in full sunshine, but because one of the women asked for what she needed (shade), we moved into the shady stone circle instead. And it was profound. Seven rounds of dancing to each of the four directions in turn took about a half hour. It left us all filled to overflowing with peace, spirit, and full hearts. Some of us wept and had to lie down, whole body on the earth, to ground afterwards. That medicine wheel is holding a lot of powerful magic!
Later that afternoon during quiet time, I wanted to take a nap because I had only slept about four hours the night before. But the weather was so lovely I didn’t want to be inside. So I lay down in the medicine wheel for about an hour. I never fell asleep, but I experienced such deep rest that my fatigue completely vanished. When I rose, I felt a kind of post-massage bliss.
Near midnight, after sweating, singing, and sharing in the sauna, a few of us went out to the medicine wheel one more time. Under a canopy of stars, cloaked in darkness, we dropped our towels and danced again. Sheer magic.
These are the kinds of things a retreat host cannot plan — it is enchantment woven by the sacred land itself, the women who answer the call, and the cauldron of transformation.
Here’s what Karen Karlovich, who has attended all five retreats, had to say after returning home:
I love everything about this retreat! The land is magical, it pulls you in and nourishes and grounds you. You feel safe and protected from the outside world. The instant sisterhood of the retreat participants is difficult to explain without being there. A group of kindred hearts all beating together. The atmosphere of acceptance and non-judgement is like being surrounded in a big hug all weekend. We laugh, we cry, we laugh some more. We come from all over, from all walks of life, yet find so many common connections. The conversations are deep and soulful, light and bawdy, and everything in between. There are many of us who keep coming back and it’s like a family reunion, a family of the heart.
And if all that isn’t good enough, we have an amazing chef who spins magic out of vegetables and fruit. We eat like pigs and then come back clamoring for more. I never eat so well as I do at the retreats.
And Latisha Guthrie, who came for the first time, added:
I was concerned I would not fit in. I am not super pagan or witchy, really. And I don’t know much about goddess spirituality. But the space that is created is so warm and comforting those fears were set to rest right away. Joanna calls women who embody kindness, generosity and love.
The women she gathers are experts in the art of welcoming. Each hostesses in their own right, they are empowered to take up space to share leadership of guiding new folks into the mix with ease. She leads in such a way that asks and encourages others to lead as well. She doesn’t sit at the head of the table, us her humble students. All are welcome to contribute. The community that is created was a new experience for me. For the first time, I felt completely, utterly invited.