Updated: Dec 18, 2020
What was it really like to spend a week in Fiji with Elizabeth Gilbert? Was it really that easy to hang out with her? Well, we didn’t really hang. But we did meet. And a few nights after we met, we (of course) talked about boys. These encounters happened because Liz told us at her keynote what kind of interactions work best for her. She said she’s happy to take a selfie but doesn’t do well with mobs of people. She’s better one-on-one. By telling us what kind of conversations work best, she gave us permission to initiate them.
Liz gave us permission for other things, too. In her workshop she asked us to write letters to fear, love, and the tribe we will abandon—and one from enchantment. Liz said enchantment is not your inspiration or purpose but that “soft, sweet hum.” The letter from enchantment should list activities that give us that hum. My letter included things like biking home and crossing a bridge looking for seals, spending time with my cat, moving my body, writing when it flows, and travelling to see friends. Then Liz asked us to write another letter in permission slip format of the enchantment activities we would give ourselves permission to do. And then we had to select the most specific one from that permission slip letter to share with the group. Not the most powerful example, which is often the vaguest, but the most specific. I loved that. No “I give myself permission to be the beautiful, strong woman that I am.” Nobody knows what that means. She wanted names, places, and (if possible) dates. What happened next was the most alive exchange of permission I experienced all week.
Liz asked us to go around the room and (briefly!) share our statements. After each person shared, the rest of room shouted “Permission granted!” I don’t want to break the confidentiality of this powerful gathering, but I do want to share the type of things we gave ourselves permission to do. Many examples were about travel (visiting relatives and friends or buying that house in Europe). A lot of us gave permission to take classes. Some gave permission not to do things, like not host a party or not love someone. There was permission for pleasure—pleasure of the body and eating sweet and salty foods. One of my favorites was permission to buy fresh mozzarella. That is the level of specificity we gave. I don’t know if it was the writer in me that was moved by the specificity or gals’ gal moved by the spirit of sisterhood, but I was choked up the entire time. Because of the authenticity and openness held by Liz’s expert facilitation, I was about to cry the whole time.
The last morning of the retreat was listed as a “Letting Go Workshop.” That morning I’d already sat through one talk and was feeling the need to spend my last day in Fiji not in a conference room, but at the beach. So when we were asked to move all of our chairs into a circle for the workshop, I left. As a former teacher and pet loss support group facilitator, when 200 people are asked to form a circle to presumably “let go” around the room, that’s my cue to go. I personally believe 200 people is too large a group to share anything related to letting go, especially if some are truly grieving. And I will stand by this belief.
Before the session started, as I was walking out, a woman stopped me. I can’t recall her exact words, but she asked me to consider staying. She affirmed that even though the beach was calling, I might have some grief to process. She asked me to rethink the choice I had just made. After I answered, “No, I’m good.” She said (and I remember this) “Really? because you look like you’re about to cry.” Reader, I was 100% not about to cry. What I was was shocked. I was shocked that after a weeklong, permission-granting, lady lovefest my choice was being challenged. I can only assume this woman picked up on my shocked reaction and misread it as unprocessed grief. I can also only assume that she had the very best intentions in asking me to stay. I have to believe that. But how did I interpret her asking me not to leave? Permission not granted.
Of course I went to the beach. Going to the workshop would have been for her, not me. And going to a workshop to process grief I didn’t have didn’t make any sense. Are you sure, Katie? Are you sure you don’t have something you need to let go of? Oh, honey. If you’re been reading this blog, you know that I love me some processing. I’m all about it. You know that I’ve let go of relationships riding a bike, traveling in Laos, and dancing in my apartment. But on that last morning of the retreat I was feeling good. I’d made awesome friends. I’d proactively met with women to heal my body. I’d attended informative workshops and panels led by articulate, successful women. I’d written letters to fear, love, and the tribes I had to abandon. I’d peed in the ocean five times. I had nothing left to let go.
“What about the other women?” you ask. I’ve thought about that. I am very aware that if every one of us who decided we didn’t have grief to process didn’t attend the workshop, there would be no one in the room to support those who were grieving. I see this. Ladies, if you needed me and I wasn’t there for you, I am sorry. And, and, if I were truly grieving and sitting next to a woman sharing a loss I interpreted as nothing close to the hell I was going through just so she had something to share, well, I would be insulted. I would feel that I wasn’t with my tribe at a time when having a tribe is so important. Liz had also talked to us about tribal shaming. She’d also told us that unsolicited advice giving is driven by the giver’s own panic. So there was that. Even the day before in a Shamballa energy healing session I was asked by the healer, “Have you been giving up your power?” To which I squeaked back, “Maybe?” So maybe not going to the workshop when asked was me wanting to remain powerful in my choice. There were probably several factors at play in not going after the woman asked me to. But to bring my choice back to the simplest of motives, I just wanted to go to the beach. I’d had so much lovely lady time, I was kinda feelin’ the need to dude-out. I was Jeff Spicoli craving some “tasty waves.” That’s why I didn’t go.
I’m not the only one who didn’t go. I’d already seen another woman leave the workshop before I did. And while I was the only one in the water at first, as I bobbed around I started to see women on the shore. Gradually they emerged from the palm trees and waded into the water. I talked to at least five women. Let me tell you that these conversations were some of the most authentic, funny, real conversations I had all week. I talked with women I hadn’t yet met or gotten to know. I talked with women I had already gotten to know and got to know better. Some of them had also left before the workshop started. Some of them had left part way through and lied to women who questioned them about why they left. Some of them felt the need to make up reasons why, like me, they didn’t want to spend their last hours in Fiji grieving. Some of them also just wanted to go to the beach. All of these deeply real conversations got me thinking about what happens at women’s retreats (this is my third) and what happens, in general, when women gather.
Women want to support each other. We want to be there for each other because, let’s face it, it’s rough out there. We want to heal ourselves and each other. But what if, what if, we aren’t actually broken? What if we don’t need to heal? What if we’re just fine? What if we’ve always been just fine? What if the wellness industry just disappeared? What if there were no mass gatherings of women in beautiful places? No dancing, panels, workshops, energy healing, or feminine magic making? I truly ask you, would we thrive or would we crumble? Are there men’s retreats? I haven’t heard of men gathering in big groups to lift each other up. Oh, wait. That’s called politics.
I’ve had two working endings for this post. The first I wrote in my head while heading to the beach. This ending says that the only permission we need is the permission we give ourselves. That message feels right and true and is a message I lived. The other ending is about a friend I talked to on the beach who had also skipped the workshop. Had anyone stopped her on her way out? They hadn’t. We were both two people who had chosen what was best for us, only I had “gotten caught.” We ended our conversation with easy smiles and a real understanding of the importance of doing what’s right for you. I probably said something like “Take that alone time, girl.” Because as I left her on the beach and walked into the water she called out, “permission granted!”
This is a good ending, too. It’s also right and true and relays that as important as it is to give yourself permission, it feels really good when a sister gives it to you. I could end this post on that note. I almost did. It’s a warm, kind ending that speaks to friendship and sisterhood. Then the week after I got back to Seattle I finally read Stephen King’s On Writing. On the last page, in the last paragraph, King writes:
Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life […] [This book]—and perhaps the best of it—is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.
When I think about why I write, it’s also not for the first reasons King lists. It’s to create a space for me that—just as running once did—says “yes.” I’ve even used the word “permission” when writing about running. I write to live in a place of permission.
Thanks for the reminder, Stephen King. I’ll end this post by giving myself permission to write. I’ll also end it by giving you (if you need it) permission to grieve, leave, write, or go to the beach—literally or metaphorically. And if you prefer my first or second ending, well then dear reader, permission granted.