Integrate: Because Creative Work is Lid-Resistant

No one has more beautiful lids in her kitchen than my friend, Hula.

The idea for the Integrate Retreat began in my inbox.  The Take Me with You journal had come out, and I was hearing all kinds of things from you, dear readers, about where you were at on your journey of recovering or finding your voice.  What fears you were battling and what you were up against in your mind.

And it was so familiar.

Fear about what would spill out on the page was a common theme.  Most of us have a certain level of awareness that there are thoughts, ideas, or even whole parts of ourselves that we keep under wraps.  Things that feel threatening, as if they could really shake things up or make it impossible to put off change any longer.  Or some of them are things we don't particularly want to get out--we don't want to be known for them, even known by ourselves.  We get so used to it that we stop realizing just how much energy it requires to keep the lid on.

Just don't pick up a pen.  Just be careful who you talk to.  Just avoid that topic.  Just don't go there.  We make up strategies and do our best to execute, but slivers of longing still find their way out through the cracks. 

I know this.  I know it so well.  There's something about creative work that is lid-resistant.  Whatever our medium, whether we are painters or photographers or storytellers, to access the kind of freedom we need to create good work we are required to loosen our grip.  Including our grip on ourselves.

I hadn't been writing for very long at all when some very disruptive words leaked out onto my page.

"It's okay if I'm not brave," they said, "because someday my girls will grow up and they will be brave and they will live in exciting cities."

I don't think I'm the only one who would be stopped in her tracks by such a thought.  I had a 3-year-old and a newborn baby, a house and two dogs in the suburbs.  I wasn't even 30 years old yet, and I was already settling for a life that some part of me didn't want.  And I had been very happy to ignore that.  For years.

But seeing it in black and white--where I couldn't avoid knowing any longer that I was on a path of not following my dreams and then pressuring my children to do what I had not been brave enough to do myself--well, it was a point of no return.  One I didn't ask for, and one I never saw coming.

Slivers of longing still find their way out of the cracks.

I set off to uncover this exciting-city-loving girl and to welcome her into the fold.  She had been there all along, in fact she had probably had some hand in marrying an exciting-city-loving boy all those years ago.  And so, with a 3-year-old and a newborn baby, we began the adventure of a whirlwind move to Brooklyn, a place that mysteriously fits us so, so well.

I know what it's like to be afraid, to use so much energy to coax myself into Just Being Okay.  Who wouldn't want a pretty little house in the suburbs?  It was supposed to be what I wanted. 

Keeping the lid on was exhausting--practically a full-time job.  Taking it off shook everything up, like an earthquake running through my inner universe.  But on the other side, I got to be more free, more true, more whole.

This is one way integration shows up in our creative journeys.  If there's one thing I believe, it's that we shouldn't ever have to go it alone.  To have conversations that change everything forever, and to create a community for ourselves of people who are on the same kind of path--these can be the foundations that keep our quaking worlds from shattering.  This is why we are gathering in November: to be together, to loosen our grips on that lid, and to witness the adventures that are just waiting to find us.  There's a spot there, just for you.  And a dream in my heart that you will come.

Integrate Retreat 2010

co-facilitator and friend, Phyllis Mathis

McG and Julie Keefe

Photo by Julie KeefeImagine spending a long weekend in a safe place, a place in which however you are is welcome. Imagine being loved so much that you find your courage, or more of it, and dare to say something true. Out loud.  Watch your brave words embolden another, and laugh together.  Then cry together.  Go for a walk, take pictures, watch a Broadway show that turns things you took for granted upside down.  Meet parts of yourself that you don't ordinarily invite to dinner.  Find a way--through the back door, where no one thinks to look--to the parts of your voice that have been eluding you.

Thank you to these dear friends for the way they love and embolden me.

For more about the Integrate Retreat 2010, check out these posts and links:

Integrate Retreat 2010 on Flickr (some great pics)

When Girls Gather by Amelia Maness-Gilliland

Day 16,261: Re-Entry by Julie Keefe

New Friends by Katie Noah Gibson


Eat Me Big, Drink Me Small

Diana Instant+Yesterday the Integrate Retreat finished, and I came home to rewrite my story for Thursday's show before running into Manhattan for the rehearsal.  This morning I'm taking it easy, thinking about unpacking from last week's trip, savoring and settling back into my daily life.  I was home to select the Get Lucky giveaway winner on Sunday at midnight, but couldn't get a post together to announce it until now. helped me select the winner: Emily from Collecting Raindrops.  Congratulations, Emily!  Send me your mailing info and I'll get this yummy read on its way to you.  Everyone else can have Katherine's new novel arrive in her mailbox by ordering a copy here.  More on the retreat is coming soon, but here are a few thoughts about its theme, Integrate, in the meantime.

Size has been on my mind a lot since I saw Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland a few weeks ago.  The parts in Alice's journey in which she's eating or drinking something to make her big or small really stood out to me.  I could feel her struggling with her size and power, and myself grappling with my own.

Life is full of moments in which we feel big or in which we feel small, and it's easy to think that one must be our true identity, and the other a mistake or a just a part we're playing or a sham.  So it's especially confusing when we feel both at once.  I know I can rock that stage, but I really wish my friends were here to hold my hand.

Something about watching Alice grow and shrink and grow back again on a big screen helped me see with a new clarity that the essence of who we are defies measurement--it exists on some other plane.  I could see the possibility that I could be so malleable, that I could be big or small as the situation requires.  Inside this paradigm, it is normal to go back and forth between these paradoxes of self: seen and hidden, strong and vulnerable.  Going from leading a retreat in a beautiful brownstone to washing poopy panties by hand feels matter-of-fact instead of like some crazy whip-lash.  It all belongs: all my roles, all my sizes, all my pieces.  They are all true, and they all get their moments.  Eat me big, drink me small. 


The Red Room, Photo by Stefanie Renee, www.stefanierenee.netIt's hard to remember now how it all started.  Last winter I longed for a gathering in February--something to anticipate and carry me through the last cold, dark months after the holidays, when the festivities are over and spring seems still so far away.  Then there were all the friends who have visited us here in Brooklyn, who rearranged their thoughts or found clarity in long-held dilemmas, teaching me early on that Brooklyn can have that effect on people.

While planning to teach last year at Squam, I realized that I have more to share than what I can fit into an afternoon, or a day, and I began dreaming of hosting a longer conversation.  And while I was there, I met some dream-believing friends that swore that if I created a retreat in Brooklyn, people would come.  (A thought that felt like a major stretch for me.)

I found a lovely house for us and set a date, and they came.  A whole house-full, from across an ocean and a continent, from down the street.  I am still trying to wrap my mind around this.

I wanted to create an experience that would enable women to recover and reclaim lost, censored or silenced aspects of their voices, to excavate their stories that hold keys to the past, clarity for the present and guidance for the future.  I wanted to show as tangibly as possible the central role that togetherness and community plays in this journey, and the best way to do that was to invite special guests and storytellers from my own story community to create the retreat alongside me.

Fatou Coulibaly, Photo by Stefanie Renee, www.stefanierenee.netIt was an honor to have Fatou Coulibaly join us, in her first trip to New York City.  Fatou is an anthropologist from Senegal, who left her country when she received death threats in response to her PhD dissertation.  Through a long friendship that spans many years, Fatou has been a companion for the journey of international story catcher Jen Lemen (Picture Hope, Mondo Beyondo), passing along her unique wisdom and sage guidance. 

Jen Lemen, Photo by Dixon Hill Girl,

We were so fortunate to have Jen Lemen join us for the weekend, too.  Fatou and Jen did double-duty as storytellers for the group and personal security blankets for me.  Fatou was my left hand and Jen was my right, and together there was a completion, a power, a depth and richness of storytelling that none of us could have created alone.  And so it always is with a supportive story community.

Love and courage were the mainstays of this weekend, and together they wove a safety net that made us feel like we could leap in the most tender and true ways.  Jen said long ago, "Stories can change you and me forever," and many of us are still feeling the reverberations of the stories we received and the stories we told as we transition back into our lives, changed.

Kathy and me, Photo by Stefanie Renee,

I have spent the last week soaking in the deep joy this experience left in its wake, letting all that I learned and witnessed rearrange me in such a way that I carry it with me going forward.  I've been missing these companions, and celebrating all the gifts from our time together.

You can see more amazing photos from our adventure together in our Flickr pool.

Join us in April, as we use voice, story and more to bridge the divide between our fragmented parts and Integrate. (Single and shared rooms are still available.)


Things from this weekend's retreat that I will never forget:

  • Seeing my chocolate chip cookies work their magic right before my eyes.
  • Listening to my beloved friend, Fatou, laugh with delight. Again and again and again.
  • Catching giant snowflakes on my tongue in Times Square.
  • Watching Wicked on Broadway while sitting between two of my greatest loves.
  • Setting the oven mitt on fire.
  • Acting out my fantasy to lead a hands-in-the-middle group cheer.
  • Going all-forks-in with amazing women on an equally amazing chocolate cake.
  • Every smile, each embrace, every opening and beginning.
  • The way love makes us brave, and the way--with courage and togetherness--we make dreams come true.

Guest Post: If you're very lucky

Meet Phyllis Mathis, my beloved friend and mentor of over ten years.  Phyllis is co-founder and managing editor of Voca Femina, and the ontological coach behind Resonance Life Coaching.  Phyllis, with her profound wisdom and genius, and I joined our powers to cook up the Integrate Retreat in April, which promises to be the most transformative event I've been a part of yet. (There's still room for you to join us.)

Today she shares this story with us:

If you’re very lucky, at some brief moment in time, someone may come along and change your life. 

My someone’s name was Jay. That was the American name he adopted to prevent his yoga students from slaughtering his true Korean name.  

I was an ignorant, overweight, green around the gills yoga-newbie who had grown up on the belief that to darken the door of anything “eastern” was akin to dancing with the devil. Nevertheless I found myself enjoying the newfound flexibility, clarity, and strength provided by this modern/ancient practice, under Jay’s expert instruction. 

Included in my studio membership was a periodic “energy check” – a session with Jay in which he would poke around certain pressure points, looking for anything out of balance, any way he could help his students achieve a healthier balance.  

That particular autumn had been rough. My long-time business partner and close friend had turned vicious - in typical mean girls fashion - and had eviscerated me in front of my colleagues, just weeks after I had signed a five-year contract with her. I was a mess - stunned, wounded, and at a loss for how survive a whopping five years with this woman. 

I was in that condition one day after class, when Jay offered me an energy check. I warily followed him into the treatment room and lay down on the mat.  

He poked and prodded while I wondered what information he could possibly be gleaning, and for what purpose. He moved his hands to press a spot just below my left collarbone. I yelped in pain. 

“What is that?” I asked, completely surprised. 

“Ah,” he said, “You have problem with co-worker.”  

“How do you know that?” I demanded. How could he possibly know that? 

“This energy center have to do with relationships, coworkers,” he replied. “Tell me what is wrong.” 

I gave him a brief history of my humiliation and betrayal. His response startled me. 

“You have to fight!” he said, eyes narrowed, intense. 

“Oh no, I am not a fighter,” I blurted. How could I explain the situation, my cowardice, my complete lack of skills in the art of confrontation, my thorough intimidation under this woman’s glare? 

“In a fight, she is a lion and I am a chicken,” I offered, hoping a metaphor would bridge the cultural gap. 

His eyes did not lose their intensity.  

“Even a chicken knows how to fight for her chicks. You must fight like a chicken – for your soul!” 

His words hung in the air, the moment stretched out in time.  

The oracle had spoken.  

I took his words home, tucked them into my heart. Soon I managed to recover my dignity, face my partner, establish my boundaries, and get my power back.  

Not bad for a chicken. 

Shortly thereafter, the studio closed and Jay was gone.  

Five years later I realize that I was very, very lucky. You never know who might show up to change your life in an unexpected way. 

Curious about this weekend's retreat?  Follow me on Twitter, and I'll keep you posted on what we're up to, as I can.