Next week is my first ever "Writing as a Pathway Through Grief, Loss, Transition and Change" retreat. I was inspired to create it after my mom died in July of 2014, when I was awash in grief over her death and the launching of our last child from home. They say that teachers always teach what they need to learn and that seems to be the case for me--I write about what I need to write about and I teach what I need to learn. In a couple of days, one of my co-teachers, Nancy London will be flying in from Santa Fe, and I'm working through my long list of logistical pre-retreat preparations before she arrives--making nametags, figuring our roommates, finalizing the schedule, getting back in touch with Commonweal for final arrangement, starting to pile my personal gear in a stack in the living ... [Continue Reading]
BUILDING THE CONTAINER One of the most important things about creating a powerful, transformative retreat is building a safe environment in which the work of the retreat can unfold. That's why for an intensive writing retreat--one whose goal is deep writing and internal work--the setting is so important. It's one of the reasons I love teaching at the Commonweal Retreat Center in Bolinas so much--it's the perfect container. The most critical aspect of building a safe container is confidentiality. I have a very specific confidentiality policy that goes beyond, "What happens at Commonweal stays at Commonweal." Writers need to feel that their words will be respected, that they won't be judged or given unasked for advice, feedback, praise or critique, and that they have complete control ... [Continue Reading]
OVERPLAN, THEN LET GO Over the past two days, Nancy and I have sat and talked through the different phases of our upcoming retreat. We've divided the retreat into three sections: Grieving, Uncertainty, and Transformation, since these are the rough stages involved in integrating major life changes. During the first two days, we'll do everything we can to normalize grief and loss as natural parts of life. The middle days will be devoted to the dark night of the soul--the time our lives come undone and we feel adrift, lost and uncertain. And the final days will focus on integration and the birthing of something new out of what has been lost. We will stress to our participants in the opening ceremony that things are never that tidy in real life. People coming to this retreat are ... [Continue Reading]
Today is a day to do last minute errands, to put a vacation message on my email and to do the same on my phone. This afternoon, Nancy and I will have to figure out how to fit our suitcases and all the materials I like to bring to retreats in a car far smaller than the big old Mommy van Karyn and I finally unloaded this fall. I'll be getting a necklace repaired, my car washed, paying a few last bills. So I do have some things to check off my list--not of them essential, all optional--and we already had a magnificent walk to the beach this morning. After dinner, we'll probably kick back and watch a movie at home tonight. I like to have a day of rest before I teach a big retreat so I come into the space feeling refreshed and grounded. Now the preparatory phase is over and I eagerly ... [Continue Reading]
It takes 3 hours to drive to Commonweal from my front door. It’s a beautiful drive really and Nancy and I alternated between talk and silence on the road heading up here. But every time I turn onto Mesa Road, where a huge bow of eucalyptus line the road, I go silent. That last mile to Commonweal means we are entering sacred turf and I can feel it in the air. There is something wild and vast and embracing about the land and the wind and the ocean here and just as the workshop participants go through a change as they approach the start of the retreat, so do I.
Much of today was spent writing stories of grief and bearing witness to each other. In the morning, Nancy talked about the difference between grieving and mourning, a distinction I hadn't really understood myself. I've always considered them synonyms. Grieving is our own private experience of loss, the way we experience it in our own bodies and minds and spirits. Mourning is the experience of sharing that grief in a public way with the larger community. Having your grief held, witnessed and met in a public way is a critical part of healing and moving through grief, though in our culture there is little of that public sharing of grief beyond the initial rituals of the funeral or memorial service. After that people grieving are left to founder on their own or to "get over it."
This morning at 7 AM, I asked Nancy and David to meet me in my room. The question on the table, "What do people need this morning? What do they need today?" We looked over the plan Nancy and I had made last week and threw most of it away. It was too much. It had become irrelevant. Our original plan no longer met the group where they were or would take them where they needed to go. And so we regrouped. We simplified--vastly simplified our original plan. We pulled things from other parts of our agenda. We tossed around some new ideas. David came up with an idea for a movement exercise. Twenty-five minutes after we sat down together, we had the skeleton of a new plan. I felt so grateful to them for being part of this team--for helping me evaluate, assess, feel into what is needed. Above ... [Continue Reading]
We are at the heart of this retreat--the time when the writing gets real and down to the bone, when true words are spoken, when risks are taken, bonds formed, when we become a living, breathing creative community. We are tracking each other hour by hour. Laughing and crying and hiking and eating and writing together. Every day, I see breakthroughs and breakdowns. Everywhere I walk, people are writing and reading, engaged and connected. And when they're not writing and reading, they're outdoors, savoring the glorious sunny/windy majesty of Bolinas, nature absorbing the intensity of the words that have been written and spoken. At this point in the retreat we are ending our focus on uncertainty. Every transformation includes a time of uncertainty, limbo, unsteady ground. We leave behind ... [Continue Reading]
This morning I led everyone on a long guided meditation where they went on a journey and received a gift they needed to move forward in their lives. The writings that emerged were powerful and strong. I told everyone in the workshop how proud I was of where they started on Day 1 and where they are today. Faces that arrived guarded and tight have grown relaxed and open. The power of mourning--sharing our losses, pain and uncertainty--in the midst of a loving, accepting community has worked magic. As facilitators, we see a direct relationship between everyone's willingness to risk and their degree of vulnerability--and the change emerging as we enter the final days of the retreat. It is a deep honor to watch a room full of people come to terms with grief, wrestle with difficult ... [Continue Reading]
In our last full morning of the retreat today, we started what would be a day of integration and celebration. We wrote about where we were heading--and how--and we expressed our gratitude. Tonight we are having a party and sharing the culmination of our week's work together. The was the poem I read for one of this morning's prompts: