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Pauline Lerner

April 6, 2005 at 7:12 AM

Last weekend I went to a retreat for women from my church. This is a Unitarian Church, and most of us are rebels, nonconformists, independent thinkers, introverts, and music lovers. The group was fairly small (22), and one of the best things about the weekend was getting to know each other better and feeling more connected with each other.

The site of the retreat is like a dream come true. It is perched on a ridge in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, with beautiful views of trees, hills, and mountains. Of all the kinds of scenery I have seen, I love this the most. The gently rolling hills are comforting to me. I kept thinking, “I will lift my eyes up unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” Even the clouds in the sky were beautiful, unlike clouds over cities and suburbs, which generally look gray and dirty. The clouds were varying shades of pearly purple-gray, suffused with light from the sun behind them. In my own head, I kept hearing lines from a song by Kate Wolf: “I always knew I’d find you, though I never did know how. Like sunshine on a cloudy day, you stand before me now.”

The retreat is the brainchild of a retired Presbyterian minister, and what a vision she had. There are only three or four small buildings there. The one I stayed in is a remodeled country house. Our group met in the Round House, which was really round, with floor to ceiling windows so you can always see the view from inside. The main lodge, where we ate, also had large windows with beautiful views. There was a path through the woods and a shorter, winding path through a rock garden for walking meditation. At night we were serenaded by peepers (tree frogs), and during the day, by birds (hoot owls, phoebes, sparrows, and others). The air was so clean that breathing was a sensual joy for asthmatics like me.

The indoor areas had beauty of their own kind. They were stocked with lots of books. Some of the large rooms had ceiling to floor bookcases, and the room where I slept had books on a stand by the beds. All the books were of a spiritual nature (“spiritual” in the broad sense of the word) and/or about women’s roles and issues. The whole place was designed with women in mind, with small touches like vases with flowers freshly cut from flower beds scattered generously around the site.

The venue was certainly not monastic. The food was prepared on the premises by a dedicated cook and staff, and it was incredibly good and healthful, too. There was an outdoor hot tub, and three professional massage therapists were summoned for the weekend.

Our entire retreat was planned and managed by women from our church. All the activities were participatory. The program chair this year is a kindergarten teacher, and she chose to center the discussion around children’s books and the way they portrayed girls and women. A related theme we discussed was inner and outer beauty. We did some crafts, and I had a blast making my very first collage. We had a chance to be a princess or choose any other title that appealed to us and explain why. One woman was a “first mate” from Star Trek and another was a special character from a science fiction story. I enjoyed being a Druidess, especially since only men could be Druids. We also divided into three subgroups for discussions and paper bag theatrics (skits using props given to us in paper bags). Two of the three groups chose to rewrite children’s fairy tales according to our own values. We had fun reversing some cultural stereotypes. In one exercise, we talked about personal beauty articles and why they were special to us, for example a piece of jewelry given as a gift by a family member or an article with some symbols which were personally meaningful. Saturday night we cut loose and partied with a happy hour followed by dancing, singing, and telling off color stories. Each of these events was a great bonding experience.

On Sunday morning, we talked about what we had especially liked (lots of things) or disliked (hardly anything) about our weekend. A lot of women said that they liked the feeling of getting connected with each other. Some of the younger women said that they liked interacting with the older women, and vice versa. Lots of people said they especially enjoyed the dancing. I said that at the beginning of the weekend, I felt secure being with so many wise and competent women, and at the end of the weekend, I realized that I was one of them. We ended with lots and lots of hugs. I felt especially good because I didn’t have to say, “I’m sad to think that I won’t see you for another year.” I’ll see most of the people very soon, many of them this coming Sunday.

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