6 Women in the Woods

I rarely take vacations. On occasion, I’ll take a long weekend to go to the beach or a friend’s wedding, but the only time I’ve taken off more than two weekdays in a row was when I had the flu. So, clearly, time off is not my strongest form of self care. However, I recently came across the opportunity to go on a writing retreat with one of my grad school professors, and I immediately contacted my boss to confirm my time off before I could back out.

I spent four days at Lake Logan in the mountains of North Carolina with five other women, all at least a generation older than me, many of them mothers. It wasn’t shocking that I was spending the week with a group old enough to be my grandmothers, but what I learned from them was comforting in a way that was unexpected. I went on the retreat to write. I had been feeling stuck in my writing, both in terms of subject matter and because I had been struggling to make time for my writing. I wanted to take advantage of four days with no obligations to churn out a backlog of poems. I accomplished this, but I was offered so much more.

Each morning, we spent time writing together from a prompt, then sharing our writing and giving feedback. I’m a member of a long-standing writing cooperative, so this process was familiar to me. However, I’ve spent the past five years with more or less the same eyes reviewing my work, so the fresh eyes of these women were a blessing. They were not tired of hearing about the same three traumatic things that had happened to me, and this allowed me to find new wonder in my own story. Hearing the stories of strangers also allowed me to open up more space inside myself and shake loose some long-forgotten stories. I wrote about things I’d never written about before, mainly because I’d forgotten they had happened.

Each afternoon, we had time to ourselves. I usually spent my time hiking or doing yoga, napping, and reading. The silence was astounding. I live with two roommates and I work at a social service agency, so my life is not often quiet. At the lake, though, it was. I couldn’t distract myself from the hard things by re-watching Parks and Rec again because there wasn’t any cell phone service. I couldn’t avoid rest because there was nothing for me to clean and no roommate I could go to the next room to chat with. I was forced to sit alone, and it was hard.  It forced me to introspect in a way I haven’t in a long time.

Each night, we sat around and drank wine and told stories.  Hearing about the lives of women forty years my senior made me realize that I will never have my life together. These women are mothers, grandmothers, and retirees, but they are still figuring it all out. One woman recently decided to go back and get another graduate degree despite the fact that she will soon retire. A retired episcopal priest relayed to the group how confused she is about her identity now that she isn’t working. A woman from rural Georgia recounted her difficult relationships to us and the things she had learned. At my fingertips, I had a treasure trove of wisdom. And the wisdom, essentially, was nothing – that I will never really know what I’m doing and that’s ok. That with each stage of life I will continue to be confused and feel like I’m making things up.  We are always learning as we go.

Each of us expressed feeling tired of conforming, tired of doing what was expected. The other women told me I would care less and less what other people thought of me as I got older. At one point, someone exclaimed, “I’m so tired of being nice! I’m so fucking tired of being nice!” And I thought, yeah…same. Forty years from now I won’t care if I was nice. I will care if I sought healing, had hard conversations, chose adventures, and stood up for myself. I’m still learning how to do these things, but the women on this retreat made me feel as though I was ahead of the curve. “At least you’re dealing with your demons now,” they told me. “It took us years to get here.” So, for now, I will continue writing, not really knowing what I’m doing, but knowing that no one else does either.

On our last morning, perhaps my favorite woman on the retreat gifted me a gold necklace with a small circle charm hanging from the chain. “When I look at you, I feel like things have come full circle for me,” she said, “so I want you to have this.” Each time I wear it, I think of her and her small service dog who loved to lick my hands, and I know that I am headed somewhere important, even if I’m not quite sure where that will be.

My Word for 2019 is Brave

I’ve never chosen a word of the year before. Honestly, it always sounded a little bit corny. I feel the same way about making New Year’s resolutions. New Year’s feels like a tired joke about how Americans are terrible about following through. I have a love-hate relationship with New Year’s – I love the concept of new beginnings and fresh starts but I hate the ways we’ve turned it into a method of being dissatisfied with who we are and how we’re living.

This year, though, I decided to try the PowerSheets goal setting planner for the first time (I promise this isn’t an ad…stay with me). I’ve seen other successful women use it and love it, and I currently have a lot of dreams but need some help making them happen. Plus, I’m a sucker for a good planner, especially one with stickers. Part of the PowerSheets process is choosing a word of the year. Ideally, it’s something that can serve as an umbrella for all your goals and plans.

I looked at all the threads I was weaving together as I dreamed up my 2019. I want to be more intentional: about money, about food, about zero waste, about minimalism. I want to continue my recovery from perfectionsim. I want to take risks even if it means things don’t work out as planned. I want to keep journeying through my trauma toward healing. I want to work towards getting published. I want to clarify my vocational goals. I have a lot to manage, but a lot of it seems to come down to progress over perfection. I can spend the next year wishing that things were different or I can take actual steps toward making things happen. (I’m using a lot of PowerSheets language here…sorry y’all.) After choosing goals and focusing my priorities, bravery seemed like the thing I would need most.

At the end of 2018, I needed a lot of bravery. Politically, autumn was full of triggers of my own experiences. I had to attend an event where my abuser would be present and had to make an emergency mental health plan. Changes in my medication had me feeling less stable than I had in nearly a decade. After Thanksgiving, I took a week off from work because of an intense relapse of depression that nearly had me checking myself into the hospital. Changes at work meant I would be starting 2019 with only 1 coworker out of the 3 I usually have (and running a whole nonprofit is hard enough with only 4 of us). I did not feel ready to take on new things. But as I reflect on what all of the turmoil that the end of last year taught me, it was nothing if not bravery.

Bravery to be honest with my boss about my mental health. Bravery to speak out with my doctor about how I was reacting to my medication. Bravery to work through my memories and flashbacks with my therapist. Bravery to ask friends to come sit with me when I couldn’t be alone. Even though I’ve largely come out of the darkness that was the past few months, I still need this bravery.

I also need bravery to give myself permission to take breaks from all this goal setting – to watch TV and relax when I’m so worn out that my insides feel like sandpaper. Sometimes, I become all consumed with my new goal setting habits and feel guilty when I spend my evenings doing anything but working toward my goals. But balance is absolutely necessary. Spontenaity is necessary. Breathing is necessary. I’m still struggling to manage my time in a way that combines both working toward my goals and resting. I have to keep reminding myself that I was doing some intense healing just a few weeks ago. Being brave is both big and small and I can’t wait to see what it brings me.