Five days, 12 writers, 3 mentors, a genius staff who could both dream and deliver. Chefs who fed our hearts and our bellies. A castle, many missed photo opportunities and so much unbelievable talent.
I knew I was truly immersed in the moment when I received an email from my mother “just checking in” because she hadn’t seen me on Facebook in a while. (Sweet, right?)
It is only now, after leaving the “bubble” of the Rocaberti Writers Retreat, that I am able to begin reflecting on all that I experienced. All that I learned. All that happened. And all that has yet to happen.
In the cocoon of the castle, I was able to practice pitching “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” to mentors — three individuals steeped and successful in the business of movies, television and publishing — as I would for agent representation or a book deal.
I introduced my work as “Eat, Pray, Love” meets Dora the Explorer, and was immediately met with the challenge — “Why a cartoon character?”
Quite simply, because I could not think of a single happy ending for a solo female protagonist over the age of 12. Think”Ramona the Brave,” “Harriet the Spy,” and yes, Dora.
Our resident feature writer and producer, the one who had challenged me, was able to summon just one — Holly Hunter in the 1987 film “Broadcast News.” One.
In that moment I knew I was on to something. And yet, I already knew. Because of all I had experienced. All I had written. The support I had received via Go Fund Me. And the feedback from my retreat mentor — one on one — and from my colleagues in small group sessions.
In addition to learning about my own work, I received a practical education on next steps and the nuts of bolts of publishing. And opened my mind to the possibilities of film and television.
And now? More…
I’ve been asked to let go of my newspaper training and blogging terseness and to let the lushness of my language fill in the blanks. To tell the story of how I went from mikveh (the ritual bath used in a Jewish divorce) to Madrid. The experience of 52 Artist Dates and how they changed me … that when given a chance at the kind of love I had called out for, I ultimately chose myself.
The waxy brown cotton of my lapa feels soft between my fingers. Like my body. Like my heart.
I thought the African skirt would become this way over time, as I danced in it – but it remained rigid and stiff. Until today, when, in the dark and heat of the sweat lodge – Artist Date 79 – it softened, pinning itself to my body.
I roll the fabric between my fingers like rosary or prayer beads. I feel the moisture accumulate between my breasts – grateful for their small size. Grateful for the darkness to peel off my sports bra, unnoticed, and let my t-shirt from the Knoxville Farmers’ Market cover me. Given my druthers I would wear nothing. But I respect the modesty requested at this ceremonial gathering of men and women.
I close my eyes, breathe in the sweet sage, and fix my ears on the beating drum and the sound of my friend Paul’s voice.
It has been a journey just getting here.
I arrive despite a blinding thunderstorm, the need for on-the-road car repairs, and a bit of information which shakes my sense of perception and causes me to question if this is right for me, right now. And with the aid and calm of friends who ferry me to and from.
I walk about a quarter of a mile through wet, freshly mown grass to where the lodge is set up – my orange, peep-toe wedges gathering silky, green slivers.
I remember wearing these shoes through Rwanda two summers ago – collecting the red earth of the land of 10,000 hills between my toes – and recalling Patsy and Edina schlepping their Louis Vuitton bags through sand in the Morocco episode of the BBC’s Absolutely Fabulous. Dragging my rolling suitcase filled with towels, sweat and apres-sweat clothes, I feel like a bit actor in the Sweat Lodge episode.
Paul is draping blankets over the hut he constructed out of river willows – collected from his sister and brother-in-law’s property a few miles away. Rocks are heating in a pit outside of the lodge, and he has built an altar from the dirt inside of it.
Paul is the third in a line of spiritual teachers with the same name. The first being my university religious-studies professor, the second, the one who taught me to meditate – leading me through initiation with an offering of fruit, flowers (star gazers, my favorite) and the bestowing of a mantra.
Our paths have been crisscrossing for most of our lives. We agree the universe has been conspiring for us to meet.
There are eight of us, the last arriving in a John Deere Gator Utility Vehicle. She looks like an African Queen, regal in her loose batik dress with dragonflies on it, her grey hair braided at the temples and wrapped around her head like a crown. Her face is at once both sad and serene.
She reminds Paul they have been in ceremony together – with her former partner. The break-up is obviously fresh.
Words tumble out of my mouth about divorce, change and the painful nature of endings – no matter how right or how kind. How people will say all sorts of stupid things. And that she is, no doubt, on the precipice of some sort of adventure. She smiles in a way that tells me she has lived a thousand lifetimes and knows that this kind of pain is just part of it. That she has chosen this and is not fighting it.
I mention that I wasn’t sure I would make it here today. That I wasn’t sure it was right for me, right now. “Until now. You are why I am here.”
Paul smudges each of us with sage and we enter the lodge on our hands and knees, proclaiming “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations.”
I remember Patsy smudging my ex and I when she officiated our marriage. And me doing the same for my friend Chase when her divorce was final, smudging the entire house – making it “her own” again.
It is hot and humid inside. I feel a wave of nausea wash over me as Paul explains what will happen in ceremony.
Rocks. Herbs. Water.
Chanting. Praying. Smoking.
Connectedness to the earth. To one another. To ourselves.
I am afraid. Afraid of the total darkness. Afraid of what I might feel, what might “come up.” Afraid I cannot physically or psychologically endure this – even though Paul has assured us that this will be a “gentle sweat.”
But the heat is like a balm – different from the still Midwestern humidity that settled heavy around me just moments before. The drumming and chanting force all thoughts from my mind. I only hear my friend’s voice – strong, confident, prayerful – and the African Queen’s. It is sweet and slippery and hard to hold on to. But very much there. Just as I feel her, very much there, next to me.
Everything softens. My body. My brain. My lapa. I feel the sweat sliding down my body and I am deliriously in love with it. This body I have fought for so much of my life. That has brought me here and is sustaining me today. It is strong and small and very, very feminine. I feel my hands pressing into the earth beneath me. My legs. My feet. My ass. The soft dampness of moist earth is flesh, the spiky grass is hair and we are one.
I pray for my stepfather and my two girlfriends who are battling mightily. And I ask for prayers for myself. For compassion and acceptance for myself, for where I am, not where I think I should be. My voice cracks and I add, “May we all have compassion and acceptance for ourselves and for one another.”
I pray for the man who hurt my heart not so long ago. I call out his name when I am certain no one can hear me.
I smoke from the Chanupa — the sacred, ceremonial pipe. Sober nearly seven years, my addict is awakened.
I am back in college, sitting in a circle. My friend Brian stirs the bowl and lights it while I suck in all that I can, holding it in my lungs. I converse easily while I do this – like one of the big boys.
But I am not talking. And this is not weed. It is tobacco, although it tastes like juniper and pine. It is ceremony. It is holy. It is community. It is what I longed for, sitting in a circle like this, so many years ago.
I weep in the darkness. I am certain no one can hear my dying animal letting go. And it is over.
We crawl out on our hands and knees, just as we had entered, saying “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations,” once again.
Paul greets each of us with an embrace, and we greet one another in the same way. The African Queen’s eyes are wordlessly different. Lighter. As if the color has changed. She presses me tightly to her.
The group walks towards the house for a celebratory feast, but I stay behind and wait for Paul.
While I am waiting, I do cartwheels around the lodge. One after the other after the other, until I feel dizzy. I feel the pull of my pelvis – the source of chronic pain – and I welcome it. I feel the lightness of my body, of my mind and I welcome it, give thanks for and to it.
I had believed I was here to meet the African Queen. That was only half of the truth. In the stillness of the after-lodge, I know its other half, its twin — I was here to meet myself. “Aho Matakuye O’yasin — Greetings, All My Relations.”
I have a vivid image of her in black tights and leotard, trotting off to our swim club – where lessons took place in the “party room,” in front of the fireplace. She took a towel with her. It was 1976. There were no yoga mats. She boasted that the teacher said she was doing well as she often fell asleep at the end, during Savasana – corpse pose.
I do not do yoga.
I have written about it before. That I wear this like a badge of honor. That I am the massage therapist who does not do yoga. Who wears red lipstick, tailored clothing and heels. Ever the contrarian.
Until last Thursday, at 6:30 a.m., when I am.
My friend Jeanette is to my left and a little bit forward, so I can watch her out of the corner of my eye. She is tall to my short. She knows what the poses are as they are called out.
I know many of them too. It is untrue that I have never done yoga. I have dabbled, and not liked it.
Sometimes because I wanted a more vigorous workout. Sometimes because I felt intimidated.
Mostly, because it made me cry.
My last attempt at yoga was in Seattle. One of my last efforts to bring my then-husband and I together.
He had found a studio on the top of Queen Anne Hill that he liked. Small – with just enough room for six mats. The students were fairly consistent each week, and none of them looked like “Western Yogis.” Most came to heal a physical or emotional wound. He liked the teacher. And he thought I would too.
But every session I found myself on the verge of tears, wondering when class would end.
The poses were not terribly difficult. But we held them for what seemed like forever.
I felt my chest rip open – my beating heart vulnerable and exposed. Too much. I told her that. She said it was good. Everyone said it was good. That I needed more of it.
It did not feel good. And while always one to push myself toward more growth, I did not feel like I needed more of it.
So it is a surprise to find myself here on the first day of spring, in the front row of a hot studio, not quite heated to Bikram temperatures, but more than warm.
I committed to it during a Weight Watchers meeting I was leading. We were talking about accountability. Partnering. And stepping outside of our comfort zones. Jeanette mentioned her class at Om on the Range. I blurted out, “I will meet you there.”
It is snowing outside. Big, fluffy flakes. It is March 20 and the room smells like men’s body odor, which is different from women’s.
The room is darkish. At times, even darker. The music changes. At moments verging on electronic dance.
We begin the session with a collective OM. I feel the words resound in my ears and bounce off the walls around us. I think of my synagogue in Seattle – the meditation congregation, Bet Alef. Rabbi Olivier began each Friday night service with several collective ShalOMs.
The instructor’s name is Veronica. I have shared my yoga trepidation with her before class, as I was the first to arrive.
She gets it.
The movements are faster, fluid — Vinyasa. It feels better to me. And I can mostly follow along. Veronica makes adjustments to my body. Uncurling my toes. Instructing me to bring my feet closer together. To lean into the edge of my foot for balance.
My mat gets wet from sweat and I run a towel along it to keep from slipping.
And it all becomes too much. Too hot. Too fast. Too challenging.
I am too open.
I drop into child’s pose and sob quietly. Tears mixed with sweat. Damn it. My broken heart has seeped through the steely concentration of my mind and body. And I allow myself to weep.
I stay in this position for what feels like a long time. I remember Jeanette telling me about a man who lied on the floor with his legs on the wall for the entire hour. I feel permission to do whatever it is that I have to do. That I can stay in child’s pose for the entire session if I feel like it.
Veronica puts per fingers on my tailbone and gently pushes it towards my feet, curving down to the earth. It feels good to be touched just a little.
But I do not stay in child’s pose for the whole session. I rise up again, into Warrior. Warrior II. Warrior III.
We end class with a collective OM. Jeanette high-fives me. Veronica reminds me I have a week of unlimited classes. I slip a schedule into my bag. A calendar of possibilities. A reminder. I can do anything for an hour. I will rise up again.
I recently entered a Weight Watchers-sponsored contest called, “You Only Live Once,” where I described a bucket-list dream, one that is possible only now that I am a healthy weight.
I had two. One, to dance in Senegal with my instructor Idy Ciss. The other, to dance Alvin Ailey Workshop classes in New York.
I didn’t win. But clearly the universe heard my desire as I am about to walk into a 90-minute Master Class with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – Artist Date 66.
I feel a little bit like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. A self-identified outsider taking another step inside the sometimes seemingly-closed world of dance.
I notice the opportunity a few weeks ago while purchasing tickets for the Ailey shows. The class lists as intermediate, and I hope my six years of West African instruction will qualify me.
Three days before the workshop I get a call from the Auditorium Theatre requesting payment. I am in.
I am over the moon.
And now, standing at the studio doorway, I feel I should be more nervous than I am. But as I told my dear friend the night before, “The worst that happens is they say, ‘You suck. Please sit down.’ ”
I can live with that.
Inside I meet Kristen. She recognizes me from the Ailey shows earlier in the week – seeing me pin a slip of paper to a board in the lobby reading, “How Does Alvin Ailey inspire you?”
“To Dance. No matter how badly.” I scrawl.
Today I will get my opportunity.
There are about a dozen of us here. I am the oldest by at least 15 years. Surprisingly, this lends me a sense of calm and confidence, which I do not question.
We are joined by company member, Antonio Douthit-Boyd. He appears to be wearing slippers on his feet – quilted booties. I wonder where he is coming from as it is snowing outside.
He moves quickly through the warm up. Much more quickly than I am used to. I breathe and do what I can. So far so good.
He moves across the floor, making adjustments to each dancer’s movements and posture. “Widen your legs. Go lower now. Keep your balance. See.” “Jut your hip first. Muuuch more movement. Excellent.”
He comes to me. I do not avert my eyes, hoping he will not notice me, in case I am doing it wrong. I smile at him.
“Beautiful flat back,” he says, touching the space between my wings. I lower into the squat – legs wide, and come up on to my toes. Antonio meets my outstretched arms with his own, our fingertips touching. My legs are shaking. I struggle to balance. “Good,” he says.
The other dancers have had significantly more training than I. It is clear. Ballet. Jazz. Modern. They nod knowingly to the terms Antonio throws out. And more importantly, they can execute them. I am in over my head. Kind of. But I just keep moving. Smiling. Trying to mimic the other dancers.
I notice that I am not frustrated. I am not angry. I do not stop.
I do not ask Antonio to slow down and bring the class to my level. I do not burst into tears.
I have done all of these things previously.
I am not jealous or envious. I notice the beauty of the dancers. Their bodies. What they can do.
I am amazed by my response.
I am equally amazed that I occasionally “nail it.”
Moving across the floor – a quick, leg-cross-over-leg, jazz step. Hips wagging. I think of Harry Detry, another of my teachers at the Old Town School, calling out over the drums, “Shake your babaloo!” “Sell it!”
I am “selling it.” And I know it. Antonio does too, clapping, “Yes! Yes! That’s it.”
But the final movement has me stymied. Leap, cross over, lift the other leg, turn, lift the other leg, jump. Or something like that.
I am not even close.
No one cares. No one is watching me. They are watching themselves. I am free.
And in that freedom, I see the pattern that will keep my body in constant motion. Give me my momentum. Right leg back, left leg back, right leg back, left leg back.
It is. But I still don’t have it.
A couple more times across the floor and I might. But it doesn’t matter. I risked being “the worst.” And by all accounts, I was. But I don’t feel like it. Not even close. Just less trained.
Pulling on my jeans, my body feels different. My pelvis is open. Open – I could drop a baby out of me with a single squat – open. I like it.
It is the ballet, I am certain of it. The one type of dance I never consider.
I do not have a ballet body, I tell myself. I don’t even know what that is. It is an excuse.