I hosted my first Gaian Soul Retreat last week, and I have to say that it was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. The land, the women, the food, the sauna!, the way the Spirit Dolls came together into extraordinary works of art — everything surpassed my expectations. And my expectations were pretty darned high.
When I first conceived of the event last year, I decided to design the kind of retreat I wanted most to attend myself. I took the best parts from a few retreats I’ve attended over the last couple of years, and put my own twist on them. I wanted:
- Sacred land
- Comfortable rooms
- Superb, healthy food
- The “just right women” to come
- A mixture of structured time and downtime
- Spaciousness in the schedule
- Content designed around three things I love: nature, art, & tarot
- An emphasis on experiential, creative practices
- And a jolly good time!
Later I added massage and yoga to the mix, so that we would be encouraged to nurture our bodies as well as our spirits.
So I set my intention, designed the retreat, scouted out locations, decided on the luscious Aldermarsh Retreat Center on Whidbey Island, and hired my soul sister Elaine Nichols to create the scrumptious meals.
What I didn’t really expect was the kind of gracious, easy energy that would emerge. As one of the retreatants wrote to me: “Because of the woman you are, you attract others that resonate with you. Together, a synergy is created that makes the circle, the community, greater as a whole than its parts.”
Not one person complained about anything, which is remarkable. I decided early on not to worry about a darned thing, and that everything would unfold as it should, which is exactly what happened. Even when dinner was a bit late on Saturday night, no one got cranky. We just broke out the wine and had happy hour.
Every single woman there had a transformative experience of some kind. Dana, the manager at Aldermarsh, was so impressed with the quality of women who came, and how they interacted with each other and with the land, that she started thinking of ways to make it easy for me to host regular retreats there. (Yes! There will be more Gaian Soul Retreats! The next one will be in February, and another one next September.)
So let me share a little bit about what went on . . .
Elaine and I arrived the day before the retreat started, unpacked bins of food and art supplies, and got settled in. We had that perfect kind of September weather we often get in the Northwest — still warm and sunny, but with a crisp hint of fall in the air. The gardens were teeming with produce:
And the sun set through the alders in the magical marsh.
Aldermarsh is alive with nature spirits. If you open up your senses, you can feel the co-creation between the land, the people who live there and tend it, and all the people who come there for soul-restorative retreats.
On Thursday afternoon, the women started arriving. They came from the Seattle and Bellingham areas, as well as North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York City, Colorado, Ohio, Oregon, California, and Ontario, Canada. Some knew each other from previous events, some had only known each other online, some came with friends, and some were brave enough to come all by themselves. During the course of the retreat, hearts were opened and shared, and fast new friends were made.
After a delicious dinner, each woman put a sacred object on the altar as a way of introducing herself during the opening circle.
Then we returned to the kitchen for a yummy dessert of Blackberry Sonker, made with blackberries that Elaine had picked that morning.
On Friday morning after Morning Circle, I sent everyone out onto the land to encounter a Nature Being and bond with the land, giving them fairly specific instructions. I loved the stories they shared afterwards. As for myself, I communed with Grandfather Douglas Fir, embracing his rough skin, and found myself remembering these beloved lines from Mary Oliver:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
This became a mantra for me for the entire retreat, as well as for many others.
We started making Spirit Dolls on Friday afternoon. I gave instructions as needed, but these women just took off, and surpassed my own Spirit Doll creations. Each and every one was gorgeous, and as unique as its creator. Marsh House was thrumming with creative energy!
That night dinner was wild salmon, caught by Elaine’s fishermen friends. With roasted roots, baked squash, and salad greens (all organic and locally sourced), we were in taste-sensation heaven. The women let Elaine know it, too: “We were blessed with your talents, your care and your love.” “Wish I could sit down again at that wonderful table laden with Elaine’s delectable, delicious, love-soaked concoctions.” “Your ~Heart~ was very evident in all your soul-satisfying creations. We were all so thankful to have you with us!”
Many of us sat around the dinner table afterwards. That was one of my favorite parts of the weekend, that après-dinner chatting. Then Elaine pulled hot apple crisp out of the oven (and this woman makes everything from scratch), and we all went into raptures of delirious culinary delight once again.
On Saturday morning, it was time for Tarot Play, and we played a version of James Well’s Tarot Circle Game for Autumn Equinox. The women were a mixture of tarot novices, professional tarot readers, and everything in between. James has a way of creating open-ended questions that allows even a beginner to come up with profound insights. The small groups allowed for a lot of intimate conversation to unfold.
Saturday afternoon was spacious, unstructured time. Some women walked up the hill to the Chinook lands and walked the labyrinth there. Some went to yoga class with Constance, our yoga teacher. Some received a massage in a little cabin in the woods from Michele, our massage therapist extraordinaire.
Some worked on their Spirit Dolls. Some went shopping in the picturesque, waterfront town of Langley. Some read, or wrote in their journals. And some (like me!) took naps.
After an unplanned happy hour and another spectacular dinner, we went outside to see a gorgeous half moon in the sky. I realized (a bit later than others) that we were experiencing two points of balance, one in the solar cycle and one in the lunar cycle: it was the day of Equinox, when night and day are exactly the same length. And the half-moon was exactly half dark, half light. I started singing to La Luna Bella, as I often do, and everyone joined in. Women singing to the moon: is there anything more magical than that?
Later, in Marsh House, we celebrated the Autumn Equinox with ritual, drumming and dancing. And then — another one of my favorite parts of the weekend — some of us entered the hobbit-hut, wood-fired, grass-roofed sauna, and sweated our prayers (to use Gabrielle Roth’s term).
On Sunday morning, we each introduced our Spirit Doll into the circle. Each woman told the story of her doll, what the doll signified, and what insights came about through making her.
Then each woman named her doll, beginning with “She Who . . .” Such insightful names emerged! And we welcomed all the dolls into the circle.
Later, we went around the circle again as each woman chose a Gaian Tarot card to help her express the deep wisdom that came to her through the retreat. Here is one woman’s experience:
“For me, the retreat culminated in the last circle when you passed cards to each of us as the card I pulled touched the place inside of me where I was storing knowledge that was stuck. Having an external confirmation of that knowledge helped me see clearly, as well as my tears and my voice, how stuck I was and what I need to do next. That experience has resulted in me wanting to take responsibility for my future where my role in mothering is changing and I have no excuse to ignore the importance of my needs as a creator. I look at my spirit doll, She Who Knows Only Truth, and realize that she appears plain and simple for good reason. The truth is plain and simple. Always.”
Here’s another woman’s story that touched me deeply:
“I brought an issue to the retreat of re-experiencing my young self who had missed out on positive loving touch as a child. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with this issue, but I had a feeling I was in the right place to work on it. By listening to Joanna’s words about Mama Gaia, I started to envision being held as a small child by the Earth Mother as I wished I been held and spoken to as a child, with words I had always wanted to hear.
I spoke of it with the other women there and I got my first massage. (Michele, the massage therapist, was so kind.) All of this focus on positive touch has opened a different way of relating to my young self, and of relating to my boys in my current life (6 and 8 years old) — like long loving hugs before bedtime :-)”
As for me? On Sunday morning, I found myself texting to Craig: “This is the work I was meant to do.” I feel it in my soul. Along with creating new artwork, I want to host more and more small, intimate retreats like this one.
I feel as certain of this calling as I did of the calling to create the Gaian Tarot. When I left the World Domination Summit last July, I knew I was being called to a deeper level of service, but I didn’t know what it was. Now I do. It’s the creation and hosting of small, women’s retreats.
And the next one? We won’t even have to wait for September. After seeking guidance all week — both worldly and otherworldly — I booked Aldermarsh for January 31st – February 3rd, 2013. This winter retreat will have a Brigid/Candlemas theme. We will be so cozy! (I’m already dreaming of the food . . .)
My heart was overflowing with gratitude and joy as we left Aldermarsh, saying farewell, but never goodbye.