The women’s writing retreat in Scottsdale adjourned one week ago, and I’ve assimilated back into my everyday life. Still, a part of my heart remains in the circle of women who quickly bonded and became a working community. Here are some things the desert taught me.
- The desert is a place of profound beauty. Our meeting room was perfectly situated at the outer edge of the retreat campus, separated only by the width of one driveway from the desert with its delicate ecostructure and towering saguaro, flowering ocotillo, mounds of prickly pear and feathery cholla. There were small structures planted everywhere: a pavilion here, a lean-to there, a gazebo over yonder (with an upholstered couch, no less) and plenty of benches and tables scattered about in artistic groupings. The labyrinth made of stone was off to one side. Camelback Mountain soared above us across the valley, feeling close enough to touch.
- “The formal group begins when the facilitator says so; the informal group begins when the first two women arrive.” This bit of brilliance from feminist-relational therapist and women’s group process expert Caroline Marvin was gifted to me about 25 years ago, and its wisdom has held true over hundreds of circles. The first woman to arrive was Phyllis, from Singapore; we both arrived early, on Sunday afternoon. Although we were meeting for the first time, we fell face-first into a sweet friendship. All day Monday women arrived and wandered over to the meeting room as I was setting it up. They promptly pulled chairs from the art tables into an informal second circle (my rule: no messing with the big circle until we formally begin) and lost no time diving deep.
- Compassion is a decision as well as a quality. As I waited for Phyllis in the dining room on Sunday night, I was approached by a woman who asked if she and her husband could join me for dinner. I hesitated for a a split second, first running a scenario in which Phyllis, exhausted from travel, might not want extra stimulation, then intuiting it wasn’t a random request. I welcomed her to the table, and she immediately briefed me. On the last day of a short vacation, her husband had a medical event that required a 911 call and emergency transport to the hospital, where he remained several days. Now in their third week, they were awaiting results from diagnostic testing and had ordered his medical records from their small midwestern hometown. It was clear that they were in need of emotional support. They joined Phyllis and me for breakfast and lunch the next day, and when our full group met before dinner I mentioned their situation. The group immediately decided to invite them to sit with us at mealtimes. This decision to be collectively compassionate eased the burdens and brightened the days of two lonely, scared people.
- All you need is poems. Well, not quite — but, having done “Women’s Circle, Women’s Story” writing retreats since 1995, I’ve internalized a few dozen writing processes that reliably work, and I reliably make up stuff spontaneously, so the retreats are like jazz–a baseline of melody/theme and a bass line of structure with large amounts of improvisation. When I’m in the zone the choices make themselves. Therefore, about ten years ago I released my attachment to a curriculum and started just showing up with a bunch of poems from my poetry therapy files. I took about 50 poems this year and brought copies of the 10 that I thought we might use. The rest I had on hand and could make copies during breaks. As I’m preparing for the next session, and as we are in process, the work will organically suggest a poem, and that poem organically leads us to the next process.
- I love this work. I love the desert. I love doing this work in the desert. I spent six post-college years living on the north side of Tucson, on the edge of the Sonoran desert. It is a landscape infused with a lonely and desolate grace, and I’m always somewhat fearful of that. It also has a stark beauty and deep peace. There is nothing like the stillness of the desert air or the smell of creosote after a hard rain. I loved the retreat center, and it loved us back; I’ve been invited to return. I think we’ve found Center for Journal Therapy Southwest.
Thanks to the women of the 2018 circle. I miss you, and our connection lives within me.