I am one grateful woman, to be able to live this extraordinary life.
This past weekend, I gathered women once again for a Gaian Soul Retreat at our beloved Aldermarsh Retreat Center on Whidbey Island. I invited them to come away and drink of the sacred well of nature, spirit, creativity, and connection. They came from British Columbia, Seattle, New Jersey, Florida, and Texas. They came from Lopez Island, Lummi Island, and Bellingham. They ranged in age from their 30’s to their 70’s, and came in all shapes, sizes, colors, and life experiences. Each one had something to give to the circle, and each one had something to take away.
We were healers and artists and writers and taroists and dancers and gardeners and food alchemists and mystics and teachers and leaders in our communities, and we even counted a rocket scientist as one of our number.
I was especially grateful that my soul-sister Nora Cedarwind Young was able to join us, embodying Persephone for us as She Who Returns from the Land of the Dead.
We held circle council, we danced the Dance of Life, we made gorgeous Spirit Boxes.
We played with tarot cards, we sweated in the sauna, we sat in the hot tub under a full moon . . .
We laughed and cried and ate scrumptious to-die-for meals, prepared by my soul-sister Elaine Nichols of the Radical Rolling Pin.
We held a ceremony, celebrating Spring and our own beauty, and owning ourselves as Woman Whole Unto Herself (thank you, Artemis). Our wishes, prayers, hopes and dreams were embodied in the shining candles on the Spring Equinox / Full Moon altar.
Each time I host a retreat, there is a new energy that grows from the roots of past retreats. One-third to one-half of the women return from previous retreats, and the rest are first-timers. So some already know the magic of Aldermarsh and hold it in their hearts all year. Others get to discover it for the first time — the serpentine bridge across the marsh, the alder/fir woods, the labyrinth, the meadow, the garden and fruit trees, the beach at Useless Bay, the cordwood hobbit-hut sauna, Grandmother Fir (that noble being).
The content of the retreat changes according to the season and the intuitive promptings of my heart as I prepare. But the structure of the retreat rarely changes, and the circle always holds us.
We come together, strangers at first, asking for what we need, offering what we can (thank you Christina Baldwin). Within a very short time we are a circle of sisters and friends, who witness each other’s joy and sorrow, and who have each other’s backs. The circle is the container that holds us all.
In Morning Circle, I asked each woman to share one insight, image, or experience she’s had since the day before — and the stories came tumbling out. Stories of rediscovering one’s inner artist, of the sound of frogsong and hoot owls at night, of being moved to tears when hearing a song to the Blessed Mother Earth sung in Spanish, of never before truly believing in one’s own beauty, of a profound conversation with a driftwood log, of the warmth of brilliant sun on our faces and the roar of incoming thunder.
One morning of each retreat is set aside for a Nature Practice. At past retreats we have stayed on the Aldermarsh land. I usually give a set of simple instructions, and each woman goes out to spend an hour in silence, having conversations with Other-Than-Humans like fir trees, slugs, or nettles. This year, inspired by the women who got up extra early each morning to visit Mama Ocean before breakfast, I decided we would go to Useless Bay on Friday morning for our Nature Practice.
Now this is the Pacific Northwest in March — so when it comes to weather, you never know what you’re gonna get. Pouring rain, icy rain, light rain, mist, clouds-and-sun with the likelihood of rain . . . Each day last week I had one eye on the weather forecast. I’m not one for weather-witching — I think it’s rude — but I will admit to making supplications, praying, and outright begging this time: “Pleeeeeeeze let there be no rain on Friday morning! Clouds are fine, but please no rain! It can rain the rest of the weekend. Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeze!!!!!!!”
As late as 9:00 AM on Friday, it was pouring rain, and I said to Mary Montayne (a retreat veteran), “I think it’s raining too hard to go to the beach.” Mary agreed and I was glad I had a backup plan. But by 10:00 AM, our appointed time to leave, the clouds had literally parted and the sun was dazzling on the waters of the marsh. We made a beeline for our cars and headed for Useless Bay. It was utter perfection, a sunny spring morning at the beach.
As I meandered down the shoreline, my heart was overflowing with gratitude. I cupped my hands in the waters of the bay, traced a crescent moon on my brow, and lifted my arms to Mother Sun, salty tears flowing down my cheeks, as I gave thanks. I heard Her voice with my inner ear: “Why wouldn’t I give you what you ask for? You are doing My work, gathering the women, calling the sacred circle. Why wouldn’t I give you a sunny morning on the beach?” I was humbled and awed, especially when dark thunderclouds rolled in just as we were leaving. By the time we were settled in with soup and salad back at Aldermarsh, the dark rain was coming down in torrents once again.
And that was only the second day. Later on . . .
“Persephone returns!” we greeted each other in circle.
“She returns indeed!” came the ritual response.
One of our first-time retreatants, Arwen Lynch, had this to say about the retreat:
“I was terrified to come. I thought of several ways I could bow out at the last minute. I worried that I would be the weird one, the one that talked too much, the one that everyone tolerated. Instead I was accepted, loved, cherished right along with everyone else. It honestly felt like I was coming home to a family gathering rather than meeting people I’d never met. From the intimate chats to the encompassing circles, it felt like family. And I don’t use that term lightly. It’s a sacred word for me. But that retreat felt like family. The benefit was what I took away. The feeling that I now understand the meaning of “slow down” on a cellular level.”
We left Aldermarsh in rain and frogsong, with full hearts, dreaming of returning next September.