Recently I attended one of the several Mormon Feminist retreats that happen around the US. I have been to different retreats off and on for twenty five years now, placing me somewhere in the middle of women who pioneered such programs and women who are just discovering them. In each, the first guideline is to keep the details of what is shared in trust, drawing a kind of sacred circle around the discussions and personal moments. This allows everyone to participate with openness in a safe environment. I have no intention of breaking this promise, but I do want to share some general reflections on why I love these experiences and how I believe they propel me forward throughout the year, at least to the next one when I get filled with energy once again.
Telling people I am going – For many of you, telling people you have signed up for one of these retreats can result in the “tut-tut” of disapproval and fear for your wayward soul. For me, it is an opportunity to share a part of myself that I don’t express very often. I do have to endure the inevitable “Mormon Feminist” oxymoron joke (I weather this with the patience of a girl who has lived with the juxtaposition of “Pandora” and “Box” for fifty years), but after this ritual of obligatory chuckling, we often begin a more multi-dimensional conversation than we may have had before. I reveal my continued affiliation with remarkable women and my desire for spiritual connection. The other person will often open up about their religious activity and their desire to participate in more meaningful ways. Sharing my plans invites additional layers to the relationship and to our understanding of each other.
Seeing old friends – I have friends that I only see at retreats. After the whoops of excitement and hugs and marveling at how beautiful we remain year after year, we pick up the narrative exactly where we left off. I feel closer to the women I spend forty-two hours with each year than those I see every day. There is an intensity to our bond that telescopes a universe of affection into a walk to and from the cabin. These are the people who know me best and hold my history and love me anyway.
Meeting new friends – In my day to day life, I can be shy and awkward in social situations. I stumble around names and get butterflies approaching a group of chatting people. But at retreats I have more confidence. Most women who attend exude a level of warmth and authenticity that buoys my courage and makes it easy to find words. I can walk up to someone and introduce myself and respond when others walk up to me. I always make new friends that soon become the old friends I anticipate seeing year after year.
Thinking about new ideas and thinking about ideas in new ways – Of course the most wonderful thing about retreats is the immersion in thoughtful discussion, teaching each other from our scholarship and experience. The inherent safe space combined with a range of belief allows for nuanced conversations and careful listening. I always find myself shifting my stance, considering questions I did not know I had and being inspired to engage in the world with more positive intention.
Fun – I loved slumber parties as a girl. Telling secrets, singing silly songs, braiding hair, sort of watching movies, laughing so hard you snorted soda through your nose. After long days of discussion at retreats, it is time to play. I love the joyful hilarity of listening to stories I have heard a million times, music that makes me want to dance, and practicing human tricks I can share when I get home. This year I learned how to breath fire. My cool factor at neighborhood bonfires this summer just went up exponentially.
Seeing women shine – Women bring their whole selves to retreat. They lead and sing beautiful music, play instruments, read published excerpts from their books, display art, gift quilts, deliver research, facilitate provocative topics, promote movements for change – there is a dazzling array of expertise and skill shared among each other. I love hearing how children are growing and seeing eyes sparkle with pride at their achievements. Also freely given are the talents of asking a needed question, listening with compassion, giving advice and comfort. Even when struggling through pain or loss, I can see the strength in my sister’s eyes, and join others as we surround her with understanding and support. We see the power in ourselves and others so clearly and we take this insight home ready to act and influence.
I am still glowing a bit from my last experience, clinging to the spiritual uplift, knowing it will fade. I try and tell myself, just do one thing differently as a result, choose one change that will remind and honor what you learned or thought about. I can do this, but I cannot replicate the unique community of like-minded women. Retreats are time for me to pause, to see what could be reflected in an amazing group of people, to look inside, and move forward inspired and refreshed.