The decision to attend my first women’s retreat felt indulgent and nerve-racking. Indulgent, because it represented an escape from so many responsibilities. Nerve-wracking in that I didn’t know any of the other women who’d be there, and I’d have to travel from Los Angeles to the remote Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, where cell reception was limited.
What hooked me was that the retreat was led by a Jungian analyst and author who I greatly admire, who would guide us in analyzing fairytales that portray the heroine’s journey, and stages of female initiation. I hoped I would gain wisdom from these archetypal tales of womanhood, and return home armed with secret knowledge.
It was a time in my life when I desperately needed a break from the emotional and physical demands of motherhood. Over 11 years, domestic turmoil had engulfed me. The needs of others—my children’s, my husband’s—flattened my own desires into a pattern of self-sacrifice that only seemed to increase their demands that I do more, feel more, tend to them more. I fought for balance between my work and family lives, a balance that I now realize doesn’t exist. I was feeling suffocated, and startled by my own rage.
I wasn’t interested in the less complicated reasons why some women go away for the weekend. I didn’t need a massage or a bottle of wine (although those sound nice). I didn’t want a feminist guru to teach me how to create a spreadsheet to divvy up household chores between myself and my partner, magically releasing us from traditional gender roles. I wanted something more.
What I wanted, deep down, was what the poet Mary Oliver describes in “I Have Decided” : “…a home in the mountains/somewhere high up/where one learns to live peacefully in/the cold and the silence. It’s said that/in such a place certain revelations may/be discovered. That what the spirit/reaches for may be eventually felt, if not/exactly understood. Slowly, no doubt. I’m/not talking about a vacation.”
The retreat didn’t disappoint. Over three days, sitting on chairs in a drafty meeting room, we examined fairytales, we shared experiences, and we probed the links between them. We analyzed, we questioned, we laughed, we acknowledged each other’s suffering. Most importantly, we held a sacred space for ourselves, a space we had all been craving.
The last night of the gathering, a full moon blazed in the sky, reflecting off the motionless dark lake. We had a bonfire on the itinerary, but the retreat center couldn’t get the wood, damp from a recent rain, to ignite. Rather than give up on it, we rallied together—making our own kindling with wood, twigs, and loose blank paper from our journals. The wind kicked up, and we had to keep tending to the tentative flames, but after half an hour the fire blazed, radiating a thick warm heat.
Around the fire, my new companions and I took turns reciting poems and telling stories. Sipping red wine from plastic cups, the atmosphere felt celebratory and jubilant and yet undergirded by the depth of our shared emotional journeys. We cackled like witches. We half-jokingly howled at the moon. One young woman played a song on her ukulele, her voice rich and tremulous with emotion.
It was while she was singing that a group of young men entered our line of vision, hovering around the edge of the hillside. It turned out they were scheduled to use the bonfire, too. A camp director apologized for the double booking and asked us if we’d cut our allotted time short.
We had analyzed fairy tales that emphasized the importance of women upholding emotional boundaries and not participating in self-betrayal. For example, the Russian tale Vasilisa the Beautiful, collected by Alexander Afanasyev, is about a girl who, forced into the dark forest by her evil step-mother, ends up in Baba Yaga’s hut—working for, and learning from, the magical fearsome witch.
The girl completes a variety of impossible tasks and as a reward, Baba Yaga allows her to return to the step-mother’s house armed with her own fire: a skull that burns from within. In a final twist, the coals inside the skull immolate the step-mother and step-sisters, reducing them to ashes. Vasilisa escapes bondage through the ferocity of her own inner fire.
I imagined myself carrying a metaphorical burning skull to delineate my needs from those of others. At the same time, stepping aside and conceding felt familiar to me—and to the rest of the group, apparently. Given the double-booking mistake, we agreed to relocate inside.
First we stole a few more minutes to savor the radiant fire we had created. To enjoy the crisp October air. The full moon. Our warm breath spiraling in the air.
The young men edged closer. “We’re tired of waiting!” one of them grumbled. Their impatience was palpable. A member of our group—kind and soft-spoken, a minister—stood up and walked over to them.
“Boys, you can wait five minutes,” she said. “We’ve waited 10,000 F—ING YEARS!”
Her internal strength hadn’t been fully apparent to me until then. When those young men had first walked our way, I’d felt a pang of empathy. They reminded me of my son, at home. They too needed a fire. They too had come here for a sense of community and belonging.
But in this moment, it hit me like a lightning bolt: We have been waiting 10,000 f—ing years.
For what, exactly? What precious thing had we lost?
The answer came tumbling out of me: So many rights. And rites. The days we had shared together were a reminder of ancient rites, created for and by women to better understand themselves and their experience of the world, through contact with the divine.
The original Mother Goddess emerged in far-flung locales—Sumer, India, Africa, Australia, China, Egypt, and classical Greece—and over spans of thousands of years. There was Maya, mother of all forms and names, Isis and Cybele, Ishtar and Kali, the faint echo of the invisible Shekinah in Judaism, Cerridwen the Celtic goddess, Amaterasu the celestial Japanese goddess of the sun and the heavens, the Nigerian goddess Oshun of Yuroba cosmology, and Lilith, the first woman, who refused to have sex with Adam in the Garden of Eden.
Despite preexisting Judeo-Christian religions for thousands of years, these ancient goddesses were muzzled and banished, pushed underground to make way for Yahweh and Jesus, Mohammed, and Gautama Buddha, all of whom demanded undivided love and devotion. Over centuries, any woman who exhibited the spark of the divine within her was deemed a witch, burned or drowned, beheaded or stoned, or simply shoved into the margins of society. Some scholars refer to this period, which faded by the end of the 18th century, as the female holocaust.
The morning after our campfire debacle, we sat in a circle sipping hot coffee, and discussed how we had, once again, been displaced, volunteering up our own discomfort so that others could feel comfortable. Capitulating the fire that we built ourselves was a small, but symbolic reminder of how the patriarchy continued to stifle our flame.
I wished I could stay in that circle of women forever, bathed in sisterly understanding and the strong Sunday sun streaming through the windows. And yet I knew the whole point of our experience was to carry what we learned with us back home. For me, this meant implementing boundaries so that I could focus and write, and (somehow) holding my mother-guilt at bay while nurturing emotional closeness within my family. For the group, it meant not making ourselves smaller or apologizing for taking up space, as women have done for generations as a method of self-preservation.
Men are so often suspicious of a group of women gathered around a fire, laughing and hooting at the moon. Perhaps, they fear our bright hot rage and beneath that, the collective grief that has been stirring within us for centuries.
Sitting there in that circle was a reminder that we don’t have to reinvent all that was lost. We only need to remember it.