A Witch Waking Story

Posted August 3rd, 2017

I’m going to tell you a story that has five parts. Five, I’ve learned, is associated with the universal symbol of the witch. When connected, they form a pentagram, which is the very same design you’ll find when you cut through the center of an apple – you know, the one that made Eve the patroness of Nasty Women? No coincidence, right?

I’m telling you this story because, while deeply personal to me, I’m starting to see how it’s bigger than just me. I’ve been doing this work for nearly twelve years now, so this isn’t a new awareness by any means, but it seems to continually smack me upside the head in bigger and bigger ways.

And if you’re reading this, maybe you’re starting to get that, too. Maybe you’re getting curious about your own story as a woman. Maybe you have a daughter and you’re watching her wondering if her story will be different than your own. Maybe you’re wondering what the hell is going on in our world and you’re questioning everything you’ve ever been told or believed about being a woman. Maybe you’ll recognize yourself in these words—in this story—and it will create an opening in you. For you. To go into.

I dunno. But there’s one way to find out, eh?

Part 1: My story begins with my body. Because truly, doesn’t every story begin with our bodies? I wrote about it recently on Instagram, feeling vulnerable and self-conscious as I did, but also thinking, “I can’t be the only one experiencing this…” And sure enough, I wasn’t. Because I heard from you offline (which is telling that it’s still not entirely safe talking about our sexuality and the power that lives in our bodies publicly in the comments).

I wrote about how I had been terrified for months that I had cancer—or something equally devastating. What began as a head cold back in March, sort of settled in my throat and never really went away. It lingered and then got worse, giving me the sensation of having one of those large marbles lodged in my throat. Sometimes the sensation moved down into my chest, having me feel short of breath, never allowing me to get that last full part of my inhale, just like I did when I was very pregnant with my babies and was carrying them high. I just. Couldn’t. Breathe. I found I was putting my arms above my head and grabbing onto the tops of doorways in my idle moments, hoping to create just a bit more space inside me for my breath to enter.

In the back of my mind, I knew it had everything to do with what I had just lived through in my woman’s body following November’s election. I remember the sensation of that night, and the wise voice in my head that started speaking shortly after that, cautioning me about staying whole, helping toxins to move through my body, and the need to feel my feelings.

So, like many women did, I got my ass to a crackerjack therapist—a new one—who helped me to cry my tears and give voice to the truth and the anger and the despair that was bubbling up in me. I gradually got off Facebook and started turning off the news.

I also started writing my second book—the one about women not waiting (to do that thing, go for it, make it happen, step into the arena, live their life, lead)—which was flowing out of me like hot lava at the time.

The marble in my throat got bigger and more time passed. I got better at living with it, ignoring it most days and powering through it. I doubled down on things like gratitude, prayer, and solitude, but I also stopped moving my body. I started holding myself still. At some point, I became frozen, like one of those mosquitos stuck in amber. I told myself I was stressed, heartbroken, angry, and that it would eventually pass. But inside? Inside I was terrified I had finally pushed the needle too far. Inside I was convinced the other shoe was about to drop.

Eventually, I got worried enough that I decided to seek counsel from the world of traditional medicine, feeling like I needed some concrete data on my body to put my over-active mind at ease. I was ready to know. I started with a full work up with my blood, and when that came back “normal”, I felt something in my body exhale. When the kind doctor looked down at me after completing my endoscopy and said, “You don’t have cancer. You’re perfectly normal”, I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. More relief. I looked up at her, this stranger, and asked, “So this is stress?” She nodded.

Which honestly, was a relief, but was also a source of shame. How could I let this happen knowing what I know? I knew better, and yet I let this get to me—get inside me. And more shame: I couldn’t talk about this because I had no right to complain…I am white and have so many privileges as a result—who am I to complain about the stress getting to me? But you know what? None of that mattered. My body patiently waited with its marble while I made my way out and about and finally, back into my body.

Part 2: Then my witch woke up. With a twinkle in her eye and a full body stretch. It seems she had been waiting for me. It began in earnest when I started reading Lisa Lister’s mind-blowingly awesome book Witch. Always a fan of anything prefaced by “Un”, I was immediately drawn to the subtitle: Unleashed, Untamed. Unapologetic. Having written a book entitled Unscripted, I immediately sensed that this woman was a soul sister living across the pond.

I’d always loved the word “witch”, but tended to use “witchy woman” so as to differentiate my meaning from its identification with Wiccan, which is a specific spiritual practice I don’t necessarily adhere to. That being said, in recent years women have been referring to my women’s circle as their coven, so there’s that.

Lisa defines a witch as this:

“The witch represents the part of each of us that has been censored, ignored, punished and demonized. And it’s a part that wants—no needs—to be accessed and fully expressed. The witch is a woman fully in her power. She’s in touch with the dark. She knows how to be the witness, how to let things go and how to follow her own counsel. Most importantly, though, she questions EVERYTHING. She’s connected, pussy to the earth. She hears the whispers of those who have gone before her, and she feels the ancient secrets that are in her bones. She’s the one who knows without fail that there’s more of this life than actually meets the eye. She causes hierarchical power structures to shake in her wake. She knows that in any given moment, she can be a hot mess, a woman of grace and beauty, angry and grief-struck, loved and pleasure-sated, tired and soft or raw and vulnerable. She also knows that in some moments, she can be all of this at once. She is whole.”

Yea. That.

That is what I have been referring to all these years as “the and”. That was why I needed to write my first book for myself—to sort all that shit out and to reconfigure myself in a way that made sense to me—that allowed me to see the fullest range of myself, to grab all that is within me without apology, and then to put it to use in the world.

I’ll never forget where I was when I was reading her book. We were camping on the shore of this beautiful river, and it was like the sounds of the water moving over the rocks matched the words on the pages I was reading. It reminded me of the currents inside myself that would always lead me home. Inside my body.

During our three day stay on the river, my youngest son and I made it into a sacred place, erecting over twenty tall cairns of stones all along the shore. I felt like a witch, and I watched as both my husband and my son looked at me, and were drawn to me and the power I was clearly tapping into.

I came home from that trip and found a package resting on my doorstep. It turns out it was a random “just because” present sent by one of my oldest and dearest friends. She had taken a trip to Italy with her daughter this past spring and she wrote: “Saw this in Florence and immediately knew it was for you.” I opened the package, and a tsunami of energy washed over me—a combination of gratitude, love, serendipity and what I can only describe as witch-power. My hand flew to my chest as I picked up the leather bound journal that featured an embossed rendering of Botticelli’s Three Graces.

Not two days before, I had said aloud “I need a grimoire to write down all this stuff.” And now here it was.

Part 3: I got to work healing my body with my body. Meaning: I handed the reins over to my body and said “you steer”. I did what I could to get really quiet and I made more of an effort to listen. I tried my best not to laugh or dismiss the ideas that rolled into my consciousness, like when I couldn’t get the word “jasper” out of my head and finally looked up the significance of that stone and then made a new set of mala beads out of them and bought a jasper yoni egg so I could both wear that stone as well as carry it inside me. All hands on deck. Full court press.

I cracked open my grimoire and I started becoming a student of what I already knew deep down inside me. I started unearthing wisdom in myself that felt exciting and new as much as it did affirming and ancient.

I pulled out all my essential oils and started to use them with intention. I allowed myself to be drawn to certain colors. I paid attention to my appetite and what I was hungry for—and gave myself permission to not eat for long periods of time if my body didn’t feel like it, even when it was “time to eat”. I started to make a more direct connection for myself between my sexuality and my vitality—an awareness that had been building in me for a while, but that got hijacked by my brain so easily in this world of busy and doing and thinking. I started to crave making teas and concocting things like rituals and spells and magic. I started to consider the fact that there was more power in me than I realized—like I had been using just the little finger nail of my pinky, when, in fact, I could be using the entire hand. And my full body. I started to use the phrase “I desire” and then smiled when I realized that is the very same word I chose in January to be my word of the 2017 when we painted our words as a family on the wall of our kitchen.

I knew how to do this.

Part 4: I followed where my path led me. Yesterday, when I was flat on my back getting a “massage” (I put massage in quotes because this woman is clearly a mad-skilled wild woman witch who does more than simply work with my muscles…), I felt her hands and energy be drawn to my heart. She knew about the marble in my throat—I had shared that much with her—and had asked her to tune into the conversation my body was trying to have with me. She put one hand under my body between my shoulder blades and the other she placed lightly on my chest. And she held them there. For a while. Until I felt this wail build up from the depths of me (Oh no, I’m going to lose it…shit, here it comes…stand the fuck back, it’s gonna blow!), and I made sounds that I’d only heard myself make one other time…when I was in the depths of labor birthing my sons. As her hands held steady, my body convulsed with sobs underneath them. One passed, and another started to build, like waves hitting the shore after a storm.

Then, she flipped me over onto my stomach and put both hands on my back. I heard her ask out loud (to my guides, to her guides, to the universe…) What IS this? I was so relieved to have someone other than myself asking that question. A moment later, she said “Mama Bear energy”, and again, I sobbed, this time with anger at the injustice, violence and whole-scale systematic oppression of women that now seemed publicly sanctioned. Apparently I had been carrying that around on my back, reluctant to put it down lest I forget it.

Needless to say I was spent. Wrung out like a sponge.

My “plan” had been to go to this massage and then pop into a coffee shop to crank out some client work before heading out on my August break. She knew this plan, and after working me for much longer than we both had anticipated, she gently suggested that I take a moment before shifting gears—“…maybe take yourself to the water…” 

Which I did. I found a country road and followed it along the coast until it ended. I just keep taking these big huge sighs, and with each one I felt a bit lighter.

I came to a place along the water and pulled over, thinking I would literally get right by the water, maybe even in it.

I wasn’t supposed to be here. I hadn’t planned on it. I didn’t have time for this. I had a mountain of work to get through and here I was just…wandering. I was going to disappoint someone because shit wasn’t getting done when I said it was going to get done. Why couldn’t I just focus, put my head down and get it done? That’s the gist of what my tired brain was saying.

But my body? My body said YAAAAAAASSSSSSS. This is where you are now. Right here is where you’re supposed to be.

So I plopped myself down, pulled out my mala beads (I wear them around my neck for just this occasion…) and went through all 108 of them. When I was done, I opened my eyes and looked across the water at this rocky ledge that was jutting out. And that’s when it hit me.

I’d been here before. Right in this very spot, only last time I was out on that rocky ledge, talking about my life and my business with a trusted friend. It was almost exactly six years ago. I was at a crossroads in my life—wanting something more, but not really knowing if I was worthy of it or could pull it off. You know, that Who Am I…? conversation Marianne Williamson talks about. Sigh. That one.

The conversation on that day was a catalyst for me to make some big changes at SheChanges. Shortly after that I completely re-hauled my website, clarified my brand, stepped away from what felt stale and no longer served me, and grabbed ahold of the idea that would become SheSpeaks, the ever-popular evening of women’s storytelling that, ultimately, was the springboard for my first book to be born.

What my friend and I didn’t know at the time was that there was a woman who was painting us as we were sitting out there. We had seen a woman with an easel, but we weren’t aware that we had ambled into her field of view and become subjects in her painting.

And here’s the really cool part. My friend? She managed to track down the artist, buy the painting, and give it to me with a note that read: As a symbol of our friendship and women making change in the world. For years, I had that painting packed away, but just found it again last year and put it on our bookshelf. When I came home yesterday, I flipped it over on the back and saw that the artist (who’s name, sadly, is illegible…) wrote: Solving? or Creating? Problems!

I shit you not.

Part 5: Coming full circle. Which brings me to where I find myself today.

Driving over to that spot yesterday—long before I realized where I was heading and what its significance would be—I had this thought: I gather the witches. And sometimes the men who love them.

I was thinking about the event that scares the shit out of me this September, and the six brave women who will join me on stage this December at SheSpeaks, and the six women who will gather with my for my women’s circle this fall and winter. I was thinking about the men’s group I have almost had on multiple occasions, that feels more timely now than ever. I was thinking about the second book I am writing that has my hair on fire and can’t come out fast enough.

But I know I am poised at another crossroads in my life now. Sitting there yesterday thinking Who am I…? with that marble in my throat, holding back my heartache and anger for fear of….what? It’s power? It’s impact? My safety?

And like that day on the rocks, I already know what my answer will be. It’s the same one it always is: Yes.

Why? Because that’s the witches’ word. A solemn oath. An ancient promise that has me coming full circle again and again and again. Walking my path with as much courage and moxie as I can muster in my white, privileged woman’s body.

 

Want to hear more stories like this? Check out my Unscripted Evening coming up this September 28th in Yarmouth, Maine. Tickets are now on sale.

 

And if women’s storytelling is your thing, save the date for this year’s SheSpeaks being held at One Longfellow Square on December 7th. The theme is “Life In The Arena” and tickets will go on sale November 1st.

Remembering

Posted May 29th, 2015

Colorful-dancing-woman-Kashe-Mama-LargeI went to a dance class earlier this week. I wasn’t supposed to. I was supposed to be working – you know, being productive – but for whatever reason I had an invitation from my friend land right into a patch of open time. And I couldn’t say no, even though I felt like I should.

That invitation felt like a delicious cocktail of divine intervention and desire to play hooky. My favorite flavor.

So of course I said yes. 

And that is how I found myself Wednesday morning –  driving up the coast to an unknown location, late and lost, wandering around someone’s property mumbling “gorgeous barn…gorgeous barn…where the fuck is the gorgeous barn!?” – cursing my instincts, even as I followed them. Because deep down I knew.

I knew this would be one of those happy accidents that starts with resistance.

It didn’t take me long to have that sense validated. Even as I arrived late, sweaty and stressed with some leaves stuck in my hair, I felt the “rightness” of the space and how I was supposed to be there. As I locked eyes with my friend, now pregnant with her first child, and saw the wall of windows behind her that looked out to this faerie forest, I could feel it.

I could feel me there. The me that has been patiently awaiting my arrival.

It wasn’t an immediate reunion with myself that morning, but a gradual one – even with some shy awkwardness, mumbling and fumbling around myself avoiding eye-contact.

That was the beginning. Reconnecting.

But that all started to change when my friend invited us into the movement of Qoya by spinning various parts of ourselves in gentle circles – first our wrists, then our arms, head, ankles, and finally our hips. I kid you not, when I say I nearly wept with relief at this motion. Even as I write this my whole body is doing a deep inhale. And exhale. 

Because it was in the circles that I remembered.   

Purposely asking my body to move in circles and curves, accentuating the bumps and swells of my soul felt like pouring a cool glass of water over my parched head – like standing under a rain shower and being watered down to the tips of my toes. Warm feminine rain.

And just as I was starting to rejoice in this sensation, to be fully present to this experience in my body, I started to have these thoughts.

HerMojo2

How is it that I had forgotten my body could move like this? How is it that I had fallen back into my old ways of lines of moving as if between two panes of glass – forward, backward, up or down. I knew better than that! Hadn’t I just written a book about this? Wasn’t I all over this!? Why the fuck did I keep forgetting to find and feed the feminine in me with my body? When, when, when was I finally going to get to that place of remembering this and STAYing there?

These are the mean-spirited things that ran through my mind as I moved in that class. Berating myself, even as I felt relief for having reconnected. Lamenting the loss of an soul-promise intention, even as I greeted the arrival of it at my door.  It was weird and embarrassing, leaving me grateful all this ruckus was happening inside me, safely hidden away from others. Or so I thought.

This was the middle. The street fight.

Thankfully, just about as this was reaching a heightened crescendo in me, my friend instructed us to move into downward dog, reminding us that we could drop down at any time into child’s pose if we felt so moved. And then she asked a question that finally pulled the cork out of my bottle:

“How would you move if this were a prayer?”

At which point, I dropped down to the ground to child’s pose with a soft thud and quietly started sobbing. And the universe started talking, softly rubbing soothing circles on my lower back. And I stayed there having the earth hold me as I listened and filled myself up. I stayed there long past the point when others had moved on. I stayed there knowing I wasn’t alone. I just stayed there. Until I felt ready to move again.

And that was the end. Sacred union. 

That was when I remembered (again). Everything wants to be round – including me, it seems. Beginning – middle – end…string them together and they form a circle. A cycle. Forgetting wasn’t a fatal flaw, it was a natural consequence of the turning of the wheel. Remembering wasn’t meant to be a forever state of being, it was a constant process of renewal.

I wasn’t wrong. And I wasn’t right. I was simply a human being moving forward. Like a round wheel.

Sometime during that dance class I made another soul-promise to myself – and this one I’m pretty sure I can honor. I want to bring some reverence back to the process of forgetting. I want to stop participating in my own shame when I have lost my way. Forgetting isn’t shameful and neither is remembering nobel. They are simply two sides of the same coin – integrally linked and connected to each other, not separate and distinct.  I need both of them in me. To turn. And move forward.

Even as I resist. Even as I embrace. 

I remember that now. But I reserve the right to forget it again.

 

 

A New Take On “Happy”

Posted October 19th, 2012

I had the most amazing woman read me a poem at our spontaneous lunch together earlier this week. I’m usually not a poem sort of person, but this made my pulse quicken and my eyes dance with knowing. I think I even panted a bit.

Why? Because these women – the woman reading it, the woman who wrote it – were singing a song that spoke deeply to my soul. Having just come off of running the best retreat of my life, it also helped me to find words to describe what I had witnessed among the women that weekend.

A potent and electrifying type of happiness.

Up until this reading, I hadn’t given the word “happy” so much as a second glance…it felt like a wonder bread of a description – banal and fluffy. Certainly not in the same league as the words I hang with such as “ecstatic”, “transcendent” or “effervescent”. But I stand corrected.

If this is happy, I want to be a card-carrying member of that club.

“Happy” does me – and the women I am blessed to work with – right. If you’re a skeptic like I was, go ahead, read on. Tell me this doesn’t describe you.

Dithyramb of a Happy Woman
by Anna Swir

Song of excess,
strength, mighty tenderness,
pliant ecstasy.
Magnificence
lovingly dancing.

I quiver as a body in rapture,
I quiver as a wing,
I am an explosion,
I overstep myself,
I am a fountain,
I have its resilience.
Excess,
a thousand excesses,
strength,
song of gushing strength.

There are gifts in me,
flowerings of abundance,
curls of light are sobbing,
a flame is foaming, its lofty ripeness
is ripening.
Oceans of glare,
rosy as the palate
of a big mouth in ecstasy.

I am astonished
up to my nostrils, I snort,
a snorting universe of astonishment
inundates me.
I am gulping excess, I am choking with fullness,
I am impossible as reality.

No shit, right? I know. It had me at hello, too.

Lessons from the Lake

Posted September 18th, 2012

The halo effect from August is still very much with me. I just keep thinking about what a gift that month was to my psyche and my body. It’s still giving to me.

In many ways, I feel like I swam my way through this past August. Literally. I was in the water every chance I could get, loving the sensation of pulling and pushing my body through the water. I had fish envy.

As a water sign, I get power from all things water – tears, lakes, even rain – so this isn’t  any new revelation for me. But this summer it felt even more powerful.

Maybe I was just ready to receive the gifts of the water this summer. Maybe 43 was my magical number for really being able to drink in the lessons of the water. Whatever is was that enabled me to take it all in – my own wisdom or simply the expansiveness of a series of perfectly blissful days on the restorative lakes of Maine and New Hampshire – I am entirely grateful to the water and its offerings this summer.

Here is what it taught me:

Breathe with the waves, not against them

It sounds obvious, but if you’ve ever done an open water swim in really choppy water, you know what I’m talking about. Sometimes you turn your head to breathe and you get a lung full of water instead of air. Sure, you can muscle your way through and charge ahead – which is what I would have done if I were training. But this year, I let the water tell me what to do – I let it instruct me on how best to be with it. And surprise, surprise – it worked! Feeling the waves roll through my body as I swam, I could sense when I was up on the crest of the wave (and could breathe), and when I was in the trough (and need to keep my mouth shut and head down). I went to sleep many nights in August with that rhythm of the waves rocking me to sleep, as my inner ear continued to play out the movement on dry land. That’s when it hit me…I could heed the water’s instruction to me on dry land, too: breathe at the crest, rest at the trough, look up and get your bearings at the top, put your head down and trust at the bottom. It’s amazing how I effort less when I work with that rhythm. It just makes sense.

Orientation is everywhere if you just open your eyes

If I don’t have a kayaker with me to accompany me across the lake, my tendency is to pick a 200 meter stretch that’s close to shore and use this to do do “laps”. What’s key here is having a fixed bearing to orient myself (like a buoy or a dock) so that I make a direct line from here to there. That’s all well and good when it’s relatively calm, but when it gets choppy and the whitecaps pick up on the lake, it’s really difficult to keep them in your sights. At times I felt really distracted and disoriented – maddened, even – by this fact. Until I realized – duh! – that I could use the underwater bearings to orient me just as well. There is a whole landscape underwater- downed trees, distinctive rocks, even the occasional coke can – that be used to orient, much like lights that line a runway for planes. Once I realized I could use this secret underwater guidance system, I relaxed into the water and stopped fighting gravity so much. Again, I thought about the relevance to my life…where else was I missing information and guidance that was literally right under my nose waiting to be discovered? Where else was I struggling to keep my head above water, when the answers I needed were below it? I began to see where else I might get orientation – perhaps even relying on senses other than sight, tuning into sensations or sounds to guide me along the “right” path.

Rest and rigor aren’t mutually exclusive

I’ve often joked that I have two speeds: really fast and stop. It’s a rather extreme way of living, and yes, I’ve crashed and burned many times as a result of stripping my gears trying to move from one to another – or worse yet, getting stuck in one. But I had it all wrong. The water taught me that. The rigor that comes when I move fast and focused isn’t mutually exclusive with the rest and ease that can come with stopping. When I was swimming longer distances this summer, I experimented with trying to relax AS I was swimming hard – to see if I could access that sweet spot of surrender and ease, at the same time I was exerting myself. It wasn’t immediate, that awareness of just how to do that, but I did find a way to hold them both in my body at once. I found the key was my breathe (duh!) and keeping it deep and even. I also found another clue in the length of my extension and in my willingness to allow for my glide between strokes to come to its fullest expression. I think it’s what my master’s swim  coach has been trying to teach me for years, but I finally got it – it’s about efficiency and not rushing my stroke. It’s about letting all the pieces of my stroke work for – and through – me. Having recently learned to row, I now see it is a similar lesson to leveraging both the “catch” and “release” of a stroke. It seems the are not mutually exclusive as I had once thought, but are two sides of the same coin.

The noise under the noise is so sweet

I am a night owl, often staying up way after everyone else in my family has drifted off to dreamland. It’s my special time, where I do my best thinking and dreaming and plan-hatching. Spending so much time by the water this August, I found myself drifting outside, drinking up all those private sounds that echo off the lake at night – the cry of the loons, the unseen water lapping gently against the dock, the spring peepers, and the occasional sound of laughter or the random piece of story from a nearby neighbors. We live in an extremely noisy society. I’ve always known this (and loved it, at times, being a relatively noisy person…), but this summer I was reminded of the sweetness that lies just below the noise. It’s invisible during the day, but it’s always there, patiently waiting for the noise to stop. So I made a promise to myself this August – to make sure I”m make more space for this underlying sweetness to emerge from the noise of mylife. Which means I need to shut up more. And shut down. And listen. Because it speaks to me in volumes, that sweetness, and I want more of it in my life. I even recorded a 20 second clip on my iphone of what it sounds like so I can have it remind me when I forget.

Storms are better observed than endured

Is there anything more spectacular than witnessing an awesome thunderstorm roll across a New Hampshire lake!? I marvel at it every time. But this year, it taught me something about storms. It offered me a new way to be with them: reverence. Growing up as a runner, I was trained to never let the weather stop you – to run in rain, ice, and yes, storms. But as a former waterfront director, I know all too well the protocol for storms on a lake: GET OUT OF THE WATER, find shelter, and wait for the storm to pass. Which it will. It always does. Watching the storms blow through those days in August, I thought about my relationship to them in the context of my life – did I resent them? Resist them? Nope. I endured them. What a waste! What have I missed as a result of “getting through” a storm – the spectacular displays, the majestic forces of nature at work, the sweetness of shelter… So this summer, I silent thanked the storms for their lesson. And I made a note to bring a bit more reverence to them in my travels beyond the lake.

Being Raised By A Place

Posted July 27th, 2012

Last week I heard a phrase that resonated deeply with my soul. And in that moment, a large chunk of my life – both personally and professionally – went “click” and just fell perfectly into place.

I was listening to one of the women of my In Her Words writing experience read her selection for the week. She was sharing her most recent realization about her trip to her grandparent’s lake, and how it instantly connected her to her favorite parts of herself. Almost without her realizing it. Like magic.

“It’s possible to be raised by a place” , she concluded.

That’s when everything clicked into place for me and I had a moment of crystal clarity.

I was raised by a place, too.

Way back in the day (’85-’91 to be exact), I worked at an overnight summer camp on a beautiful lake in New Hampshire. I found my way to that camp out of sheer grit and determination. We didn’t have a lot of money back then. My single mom was doing her best to make ends meet, while at the same time managing to make life a marvelous adventure for “just us girls.” We were a rock-star team, my mom, my sister and I.

But when I was 15 I was craving an adventure. I had just moved to a new town and I was having trouble fitting in. I wanted a do-over. I wanted a fresh start where no one knew me. So when my mom was home sick one day from work, I rested the phone on her belly (considerate, eh?) and asked if she could find me and my best friend a job at a summer camp. I had heard tales of summer camps from my mom all my life, and was ready for some of my own. When I came home from school that day, my mom’s fever had broken and she proudly announced she had gotten us jobs that summer.

And that’s how I found my way home…to the place that raised me.

So what if my job was in the kitchen, scraping dishes and running the Hobart? So what if I smelled like rotten milk most of the day? I was 15 and was with my best friend in New Hampshire for the entire summer. That year turned out to be the beginning of an amazing seven-year stretch of magical time, in which I was a counselor, water front director, CIT (counselor in training) director and ultimately, girls’ camp director.

I became me in this place.

I discovered I was a leader. I was given immense responsibility and I watched in utter amazement as I rose to the occasion time and time again. I fell in love many times over those summers – with the place, with the sounds, with the smells, with my independence, with New England, and with a handful of sweet and saucy chocolate pie-eyed boys. This place taught me to believe in myself and to believe in the capacity of others. It taught me the power of community. It taught me what it feels like to truly belong and be part of something bigger than yourself.

Now if you’ve ever been to an overnight camp as a kid or if you’ve ever worked at one as a teenager or adult, you might know what I’m talking about. In reading this, you might have instantly been transported back to that place, and find yourself grinning ear to ear as you’re reading this. I don’t blame you one bit. It happens to me, too.

So it’s no wonder it still makes me smile with gratitude. This place raised me.

Years later, when I created SheChanges and was interested in offering an opportunity for women to come home to themselves, to remember who they are, and to tap back into the most powerful and nourishing parts of themselves, I though of camp and the place I was raised. In 2008, I offered my first women’s retreat, and I called it Homecoming. This women’s retreat of mine, held on a beautiful lake in Maine, is my love letter to my time at Camp Coniston. So whenever anyone asks me how I got the idea for my retreat, I smile and give a nod to the place that raised me.

Its spirit is alive in me. And at Homecoming.

Author’s note: Special thanks to the woman who so graciously granted me permission to use her phrase and share a bit of her story. You know who you ar


An Experiment

Posted March 24th, 2011

Sometimes the answers we seek can be found right outside the window.

Eviction Notice

Posted March 15th, 2011

What if Fear, Guilt, Angst and Doubt were sent packing? By you. After all, they’re tenants in your house, are they not? Haven’t you been saying how tired you are of them blasting their heavy metal music all hours of the night, leaving their dirty dishes in the sink, the toilet seat up and let’s not even talk about the icky hair they leave behind in the shower drain.

So let’s, for a minute, assume you evict them. You put on your big girl panties, march up to their respective rooms and give them notice. Sure, they might be surprised – maybe even put up a fight. Can’t blame them, really. They’ve never heard you talk to them like this before. Realizing you’re not going to back down, they finally pack up their bags and shuffle off to Buffalo (or wherever else they’re wanted.)

What would your house be like then, eh? Are you liking this image? Let’s sweeten the pot, shall we?

Now, let’s suppose you put a rockin’ ad on Craig’s list for some new tenants – boarders that would breathe some light and fresh air into your home, ones that would carry their weight and actually make your home happier, healthier and more alive.

Because you are the powerful manifester you are, soon four new tenants move in your house: Honesty, Impatience, Inspiration and Audacity. Clearly Inspiration is the warmest of the bunch, but something in your gut said the others were the right fit for you at this stage of your life, so you trusted it.

You welcome them in , a bit guarded and skeptical at first (who can blame you after the last bunch, eh?) The house and all its inhabitants soon settle into a new routine and here is what you notice:

Honesty is hard to be with at times – kind of grates on the nerves a bit with its close-to-the-bone comments. But we can’t help laughing when Honesty is around because its observations are just ridiculously on-target. Honesty doesn’t say all that much, but when it does, there is not a grain of sugar to be found. We’ve all come to appreciate just how much sugar we’ve had in our diet before living with Honesty.

Impatience was a surprise, really. A bit of a wild card that turned out to be a bonus. We all kind of tip-toed around it for a while – especially before it had its coffee in the morning – but now we’re used to it. Impatience is the “get it done” voice in the house and keeps us from whining and bemoaning our lives. Without Impatience, we’d all be hung up in our underwear, spinning our wheels and waiting for someone to rescue us.

Inspiration is the one that stays up eating chocolate in the kitchen until the wee hours of the morning, talking, dreaming, exploring and doodling incessantly on this little white board it wears around its neck. Exhausting at times – especially after having its morning cup of coffee – Inspiration is the most creative person in the house, always questioning our assumptions and playing “what if” games with us.

Audacity rapidly becomes known as the pot-stirrer in the house, always saying something a little edgy or shocking with its raised eyebrow, watching to see how many waves it can make. We’ve all become used to it by now and are envious of the fearless nature Audacity possesses. Audacity keeps the house and everyone in it fresh by adding a bit of healthy tension to our lot, never allowing us to settle, get too comfortable or play it safe.

What a different house you’ve created for yourself, no? The air feels fresher, the light feels brighter and there is some substance in the house that wasn’t present before. Where as Fear, Guilt, Anger and Doubt used to drag you down and hold you back, the people in this house are invested in life and take responsibility for constructing a life that fulfills them. It’s also a highly creative environment, not one caught up in “keeping up with the Joneses” or paying much mind to what other people think you “should” be doing, saying or being.

What we’re really talking about here is choice, right? Actively choosing your life. Your circumstances might not change a bit and certainly Fear, Guilt, Anger and Doubt will make cameo appearances in your life again. But what if it wasn’t as hard as we thought? What if taking control of the thoughts that get to live in our OWN house was a choice we could make daily?

Elizabeth Gilbert writes about her own experience with this in Eat, Pray, Love: “I’ve started being vigilant about watching my thoughts all day, and monitoring them. I repeat this vow about 700 times a day: ‘I will not harbor unhealthy thoughts anymore.’ Every time a diminishing thought arises, I repeat the vow….The harbor of my mind is an open bay, the only access to the island of my Self . This island has been through some wars, its true, but it is now committed to peace, under a new leader (me) who has instituted new policies to protect the place. And now – let the word go out across the seven seas – there are much, much stricter laws on the books about who may enter this harbor.”

Similarly, Martha Beck writes about the moment a woman reaches her “breaking point” and realizes she has been playing the role of society’s version of what she should be: ‘You know, this is a really stupid script. All this fussing and fighting and sweating and shaking is giving me a migraine. And besides, I like happy endings. Y’all can keep going or y’all can come with me, but I’m going backstage to rewrite my part. She sits down in one of the chairs, loosens the collar of her space suit, and begins to jot notes to herself on a pad. ‘Let’s see,’ she murmurs ‘I’ve always wanted my character to do this…’ “

For some this notion of “choosing” might be a radical paradigm shift, for others it might be subtle. But the question remains the same: “What if you get to choose who lives in your house of you? Would you choose a sustainable community or a combustible one?”

And before you go down that road of “it’s not that simple…” or “easier said then done…”, what if you were to consider it a matter of civic responsibility? Elizabeth Gilbert called this act “assuming custodial responsibility for the care of your soul.” Imagine how making the decision to improve your house would also benefit everyone that comes into contact with it. You’ve not only created health and happiness for your own home, you’ve also spruced up the neighborhood, inspiring your neighbors and friends to do the same.

What if your choice not only impacted you and your life? What if it impacted the world? What would you choose then?

Hip Hip Hurray!

Posted December 22nd, 2010

I have hips. If I sound shocked it’s because I’d forgotten (again). But this morning after taking my first Zumba! class, I marvelled at how foreign the sensation was to move my hips as they were meant to move – from side to side.

I’ve had this experience before, forgetting my hips. I remember taking belly dancing for the first time when I was 10 months pregnant with my first son and then again when I was pregnant with my second son. I liked the way the baby moved in response to my own movement and I liked how sensual and powerfully feminine it made me feel – even despite the newness of the dance to me. I remember the instructor speaking about the roots of belly dance being about birthing and how it is a celebration and an expression of women’s power. Of women’s stories. Of women’s wisdom. Most of all, I remember being in labor with my sons and moving my hips in a figure eight for hour after hour as I brought new life into the world. I can’t think of another time I felt more powerfully feminine.
And yet this way of being seemed to be the exception in my life.
Growing up in my tribe of white women, I learned to find my way in a world that values predominately the masculine. I let myself lose my connection to my hips. I became a runner and often joked that “I didn’t have hips” because how my body was shaped, lean with a wide waist and narrow hips. I entered corporate america and learned to walk tall and straight, not a sashay or wiggle in sight.
As I think of it now, it makes me sad. Don’t get me wrong, I love my masculine side – the part of me that stands firm like a mountain and moves directly in a line, swift and efficient. But that is only half of me and, truth be told, takes a fair amount of energy and consciousness. By denying or discounting the feminine in me, I had made a part of myself invisible – sawing off part of who I am without much thought. How terrifying how that happens. And it seems I’m not alone.
Last week, twenty-two women came together at my winter Tribal Gathering to talk about sensuality and power in women. We remembered our hips – indivdually and collectively – and honored their desire to move from side to side as something that is destinctly feminine. And powerful. We talked about connection between spirituality, sensuality and power in women and acknowledged how this feminine way of being in the world – being with the world – will heal us.
So let’s move our hips again. It’s time. When you have a free moment today, put your finger tips to your hip bones. Literally connect with them. And listen to what they have to say. Watch as start to move with ease from side to side as you walk. Give them a little shake or shimmy and celebrate how this ancient instinct still lives within you.

Seek Out A Little Solace

Posted August 13th, 2010

It’s a radical act to strike out on your own. On purpose. With intention. And yet, however terrifying that prospect might seem, I am firmly convinced it is elixir for the soul. Keeping good company with your own self is an exercise in unconditional love. Free from the distractions of prater and chatter, cell phones and wifi, friends and foes, the hum of our own operating system can be heard.

Every year, sometime during the week of my birthday, I take myself away for one night and two days. I started doing this the year I turned 39 and it’s become something of a ritual. I always go to the same place up the coast. Every year on the day I leave it rains. And the kids whine and beg me not to go. And awful stories swirl around in my head about being selfish, inflicting unnecessary stress on my family and spending money on myself that could go toward something else. Something more important. But I somehow muster the fortitude to drag myself out of the house, into the car and up the coast.

When I tell this to people – friends and clients – I get a lot of “well, that must be nice…” or “I wish I could do that, but it would be so hard to get away.” Let me tell you right now, “nice” is not the word I would ever use to describe that journey, and it’s never ever easy to get away. Ever. It’s rugged and it takes every ounce of courage I have. But having fulfilled that commitment to myself for three years now, I am a believer. It’s so worth the angst, the sweat and the money. It’s my annual anchor and it deeply nourishes my spirit and soul.

Each year, I have many rituals I go through and very clear intentions for my time away. Some of them soothe my soul so I relax and some of them stir the pot and agitate me into a state of clarity. The best description of what I do, however, I found in the KT Tunstall song, Someday Soon:

Think it’s time to put myself away
Seek out a little solace
Close the doors and sit a while
And walk a little

As I put my words away
The flow slows…

It is this same belief that inspired me to offer Homecoming: A Women’s Retreat back in 2008 for the first time. Forty-one women joined me at that retreat back then. This October, I will be holding the retreat again and it’s likely we’ll have twice that number. It seems that “radical’ is the new black. More and more women are putting firm stakes in the ground and are carving out time for themselves. Look at what a phenomenon Eat, Pray, Love has become (it opens today, by the way…)

Will it be hard to pull yourself away? Sure it will. Might you feel awkward or self-conscious at first? Of course. But that won’t stop you, will it? Because if you’re reading this, you’re a believer, too. And if you need a bit of encouragement or a primer, check out this awesome YouTube video called Learning to Be Alone. It’s a thing of beauty and calls to each of us to see ourselves as such.

The Woman in the Mirror

Posted May 20th, 2009

I had a terrifying experience last year (well, relatively speaking…). I encountered myself and didn’t recognize me – at all. In that split moment, I felt so many conflicting emotions – shame, pride, an acute sort of dislocation from myself and a renewed commitment to improving the accuracy of my self-perception.

Here is what happened. I was in the midst of leading my biannual women’s retreat, Homecoming, last October and I came upon a group of women. One woman was talking in a very animated fashion about this other woman she knew – a woman that clearly had made a positive impression on her. She painted a picture of this amazing woman, rattling off all the qualities this woman possessed and all the things she had juggled and had accomplished. As I listened in, I became entranced about what I was hearing. I wanted to know her. Whoever she was, I was convinced we would be fast friends. I didn’t even know her and yet I admired her. Finally, unable to bear the suspense any longer, I inserted myself into the conversation, asking, “who is this woman?”All five women in the circle stopped and stared at me and then smiled, looking at each other. “Lael, it’s you”, the woman said. My jaw fell open and I was speechless. I recovered from my shock quickly, laughing at myself for having been caught in such an awkward bungle. But that experience made a lasting imprint on my nearly 40-year old soul.

While I was still mulling over this experience post-retreat, I came across a blog entry from the amazing Jess Esch that felt like it tapped into the same vein that was pulsating through me.

There once was a wonderful, magical woman
who people looked upon with envy and admiration.
People thought their lives would improve tenfold
if they could be more like her.
But the magical woman’s mirror was broken.
She did not think she was special at all.
We are taught to see the best in others.
No one tells us to look inside ourselves
with the same intention.
I think that is sad.
It makes me wonder about the sun.
Does she know of her beauty?
The joy she brings?
The majesty emanating from her core?
Or does she envy the moon?

Both of these events had me retreating inward, convinced that this was my unique experience. Besides, how do you engage in a conversation in which you share how impressed, nay in awe, you were in hearing a description of yourself? It just doesn’t happen easily. But I was wrong. This is not just about me. In telling my own story, I have learned this is a common experience we share as women. Simply put: we don’t see ourselves clearly. I would wage a bet that we only see pieces, and often not the best ones, that create kind of a hodge-podge impression; a far cry from the big, bold and beautiful expression that complete strangers often experience of us.

What’s going on here? Why is this the case? I must admit, I don’t fully understand it (after all, it’s my stuff, too, right?), but I sense it’s really important. It feels like it’s a key that might unlock so many different but related dynamics in women’s lives: our tendency to diminish or underestimate our value (financial or otherwise), our reluctance to ask for help when we need it most, our resistance to stepping up, standing out and playing BIG (however that looks to you), the various health issues we tend to face as women (depression, heart disease, breast cancer), the competition we engage in with other women. A big fat key.

So what IS the cost of not seeing ourselves as others do? One theory I have is that we might come to rely more on other people’s perceptions of us. Do you see where this might lead? Needing approval? Wanting to be liked? Making decisions based on what other’s might feel or want instead of from our own inner wisdom? Playing it safe instead of taking a stand?

Another theory I’m playing with is how it directly relates to the wage gap we face as women. There are countless books (see Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation) and research (see http://www.catalyst.com/) that implore women to “make the ask” and instruct them on how best to do it. If we don’t see the full picture – the full impact – of what we are bringing, don’t we run the risk of selling ourselves short? Or trusting in someone else’s assessment of what is “fair?” Yikes. I’m beginning to believe this is one of the most universal ways we give away our power as women – by not taking responsibility for calculating our own worth. The irony is that women are known for being quite shrewd and savvy with money. After all, women make over 80% of the household buying decisions from groceries to cars and everything in between. So no excuses.

Another piece of the puzzle clicked into place for me during a conversation at one of my most recent circles for women leaders. The topic was “stepping up and standing out” and – BLAM! – out came the theme again of not fully seeing or appreciating ourselves. The new piece for me was how this was all tied up in our notion of “the ego”. Specifically, our fear of it. There was this palpable sense of not wanting to be seen as too confident, too knowledgeable, too assertive, too (insert your own fear here). In this circle of women, we discussed that our default antidote to mitigate these concerns was to either diminish (“it really wasn’t a big deal..”), disclaim (“this is probably a crazy idea…”) or distract (“it was actually the team’s idea…”). What is it in us that prevents us from saying, “I did this!”, “I’m right” or “I’m worth this?”

For my part, I’m practicing some new behaviors. I’m nodding more as people share their experiences of me. Sounds like a simple thing, but I’m a blurter – I tend to sweep away the words of any compliments or praise while they are still being spoken. And before you catch me in a contradiction (about relying on others’ perceptions), let me assure you that my nodding technique is simply a trigger for me to ask myself, “is this true for me?” and then notice how it feels to recognize myself more clearly. To own myself – who I am, what I bring and how I show up in life – more fully. I am nodding myself into awareness.

I’m also saying “you’re welcome” more. As a mother, I am vigilant about teaching my children to acknowledge, receive and give thanks. But now I’m aware of the oft silent sibling of “thank you”….”you’re welcome”. Saying this gracious phrase signals to me that I have taken in and received more information about myself, for myself. Again, it may sound simple, but try it out. I wasn’t aware of how often I smooshed other words around that phrase, effectively burying it.

Finally, I’m practicing putting a period at the end of my statements. In my graduate program, I had the privilege of having this amazing professor who gifted me with the practice of putting a period after a statement. Up until that point, I was unaware of how often I would let my sentences straggle to a conclusion or taper off. Worse yet, I would diminish the impact of what I was saying by, once again, letting my message get lost in a cascade of other words. I remember watching her pinch her pointer finger and thumb together – as if she were literally picking up a period – and place it in front of her to signal she was done. Period. It got my attention then and I’m hoping to use that technique to get my own attention now.

My main message is this: fix your mirror. Don’t have one? Find one. Clean it off. Get one. Give yourself that much respect – you deserve to be seen by you. You are worthy of clear and enduring admiration, so be the first to get in line to witness yourself in all your glory. We owe that much to ourselves – and the world – as women. Period.