It was twelve years ago. I was turning the big five-oh. I was in the midst of a divorce after twenty-three years of marriage. There had been strife and tension in my life for many years. Socially, I’d been in a lay-low mode for a long time. I had friends, I went to gatherings of people I knew well, but I wasn’t exactly a social hobnobber. Nah, no one was going to throw a birthday party for me. So I decided to throw one for myself. Not with glitz or high heels or streamers or fancy food or cocktails and hollow conversation. No, a celebration of myself. My style.
I rented a cabin in the woods, away from everything. I invited a dozen girlfriends and asked them to bring food & wine, CDs, videos, candles, and walking shoes. I said I didn’t want to go antiquing or out to restaurants or on any shopping expeditions of any kind. Just hang out, listen to music, talk, take walks, cook, chill in the hot tub. Get up for the sunrise. Sit on the porch at sunset with a glass of wine.
Fifteen of us gathered together – some from my Shaker Heights, OH friends I hung out with a lot, some from far away – friends from my earlier days in New York City. A few came not knowing a soul but me, but everyone was willing to take the leap and spend the weekend together, and we loved the prospect of spending a no kids, no husbands, no make-up, no errands weekend away from day-to-day life. A weekend just for us.
The experience was grand. Any conversation that happened was open to anyone; no breaking off into pairs or cliques. We talked a lot; we went off alone here and there for time to ourselves. We took a good long hike in the woods and came back good and sweaty. We mixed margaritas. We shared our food and took turns cooking and cleaning up, without any need to ask, discuss, or bargain.
And on the second night, I lit all the candles and brought out a little basket into which I had dumped a handful of folded slips of paper. I held it out. “These are questions I’d like to pass around the table. A few women looked very close to rolling their eyes. “If you pick a question you don’t want to answer, just put it back and get a different one,” I said.
One of the women, in fact one of the friends I was closest to, left the table and went to sit on the couch. I said, “If you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to leave. You can just listen.”
“No, I’ll just stay over here,” she said. To this day I don’t know why she not only didn’t want to participate, but she felt she had to get far away from where this little event was going on. But it was okay. She continued to hang out, just at an apparently safe distance.
During the next few hours, some women shared hilarious stories from their lives. Some shared dreams they’d let go by the wayside. Some shared stupid things they’d done that should have left them dead.
That night seemed to make a change for a few of us. One woman who’d abandoned her painting years ago came close to tears that evening. “I didn’t realize how much I missed it,” she said. She is now painting again.
Another shared the hidden doubts she’d harbored since giving birth to a severely disabled child twenty years earlier. (Did I cause it? Was it due to the drugs I took in my twenties? Was it my diet?)
Another woman talked about a problem that had plagued her all of her life – chronic tardiness – that the group, and everyone else in her life, had always teased her about. She shared the embarrassment it had brought upon her, the efforts she’d tried to cure it, and the terrible consequences it had sometimes caused. She is now writing a book about the subject.
Another revealed that she was really at the point of desperation, looking for a new job. As it turned out, another woman at the table didn’t know she was even looking, and knew of an opening at her place of work. She ended up recommending her friend, who ended up getting the job.
All in all it was a low-key weekend. Casual. Free-flowing. An escape. No real agenda. Yet it actually changed the course of a few lives. Because of what I did? No. Because of the women who were there, their willingness to share their true selves, and the encouragement and support they received from the rest of the group.
That’s what’s behind Women At Woodstock – the desire to bring like-minded women – women of experience – together to share what they may. Yes, we have workshops and speakers and yoga and special activities. But at the bottom of it all, we have each other. And that’s where the power of the experience lies.