We are sitting in our closing circle, 10 women who have come together for a weekend of connection and celebration in a cabin in West Virginia. It is the end of the pilot program organized by my friend T, who is launching her own business specializing in women’s retreats and girlfriend getaways. Given the hum of contentment in the room, the familiarity with which we tease and encourage each other and our general reluctance to leave, it’s safe to say she can claim an early success.
Moving forward, there will, of course, be kinks to smooth out, ideas to cast off and new ones to try. And given the ever-expanding scope of her vision — including international travel and customized getaways — the process of building her business is likely to be a fluid one, as she explores the fullness of possibilities before her and gets more specific with her plans and goals.
But for now, it is enough to sit and savor the sense of community she has fostered. We didn’t all arrive as strangers when we wound our way, having traveled from Philadelphia, Johnstown and northern Virginia, along dimly lit mountain roads to get to our gorgeous weekend abode in Berkeley Springs. Mollie, T and I have known each other for years, my own friendship with Mollie dating back to the sixth grade. There is T’s mom and two other women, whom I’ve met before, and they have each invited one of their friends, while the final twosome joining us have been longtime pals, as well. Yet after only two days together, it feels like we have been a part of each other’s lives for so much longer.
We have laughed and chatted and traded stories over meals together, and while lounging around the house. Some of our revelations have been deeply intimate, cut loose in the safety of an easy acceptance and warmth. They have also been inspired by the atmosphere of vulnerability woven by Holly, a photographer and yoga and meditation teacher who leads us over the weekend through several exercises intended to remind us of our beauty and worth.
But our time isn’t all geared toward introspection and intentional nurturing. We play games to learn more about each other, we knit — well, those of us who have the aptitude for it do (I bumble along with T’s pattern until I give up in a fit of confusion and sleepiness) — we wander the streets of the historic spa town, browsing the antiques and artsy stores and lingering over impromptu cocktails and, later, dinner. We’re even treated to a mini-concert from T and Mollie, who used to perform in the Philadelphia area as The Rogue Angels.
And all weekend long, I feel an overwhelming joy for T and a deep pride in watching her heart’s desire unfold. For years, I have listened to her talk about her dreams for such retreats. We have envisioned them together, exploring details and vague concepts, pondering the needs of women and how they could be filled in a communal and welcoming space. I have been there when she’s entertained her doubts, listened as she hovered between futility and possibility and cheered her on with every connection and experience that steered her boldly forward.
As excited as she was for the pilot, I know she also worried: Would the women she’d invited all get along? Was it the right mix of planned activity and unscheduled time? Would everyone willingly participate in all the group activities, even if it stretched them beyond their comfort zone? Had she taken on too much or not enough in her role as organizer? It doesn’t all flow perfectly. But there are no major catastrophes, nothing that taints our time.
We are all appreciative of the chance to come together and grateful for all she’s done to create that opportunity. For during those brief days, we have not only learned from each other, we have discovered and embraced much that is similar, despite our varying ages and backgrounds. And we have also gifted ourselves with a precious rarity: the decision to put ourselves first in busy, demanding lives where what we want and what will feed us are often relegated to luxuries at the bottom of a towering list of priorities.
On Sunday, as we sit together one last time following a writing exercise T invited me to lead, I am amazed by the richness of our sharing. As each woman reads the piece she’s penned, it’s like witnessing the reclamation or retrieval of a silent, or perhaps abandoned, part of self. Their words are celebratory and affirming, with gifts of awareness glimmering even from recollections of more challenging times.
One woman, however, tosses the weight of her life into the circle. She doesn’t want to ruin the mood, she says apologetically, or take away from so much that is positive and uplifting. But there it is, the heavy, painful burden of her existence raw and real before us. I think she expects us to be disappointed, uncomfortable with the apparent puncturing of such a harmonious moment.
But we welcome her honesty and acknowledge her bravery. Perhaps her words are a blessing to another woman in the group, an echo of her life, a permission-granting to loosen her hold on what hurts. Regardless, the sadness of her story is as vital to our experience of her as the joy she’s shared with us all weekend.
And this, for me, is the true beauty of what T is creating: Yes, her retreats will be fun and inspiring but they’ll also be a place for women to gather to be seen, heard and appreciated for exactly who and where they are.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times