For the last three months I have been eagerly awaiting June 4th, the day I would get to welcome a group of birth worker sisters to my workshop space and home for a sisterhood retreat and sleepover. Together and individually we prepared for our time together: gathered necessary items, planned our time, prepared the space, bought and prepared nourishing and less nourishing food items to help us get through and celebrate this time together, made plans with our families for our time away from them, and journeyed from our homes to the location where this much anticipated event would occur. We gathered together in Topanga Canyon on Saturday morning with smiles and excited anticipation of our time together.
Everything was in place, just as we expected. Well, almost.
We got a note a week or so before our event from one of our sisters letting us know that she could no longer join us due to a health issue. Then another emailed the night before that she too could not join us as it just wouldn’t work with her new family and another mama couldn’t swing it along with a recent move and recovery from having sick kids. The morning of our special weekend, another mama emailed she just couldn’t do it with everything else happening in her life. From 13, we were down to 9.
The 9 of us there, gathered, joined together, dropped in, and readied ourselves for our much anticipated retreat. Collectively, we created an altar and shared our intentions, moved our bodies, grounded on the land, and embraced the energy of sisterhood. This was going to be just as we intended! AMAZING!
Our collectively created schedule of events included movement, rebozo work, discussion/exploration of archetypes, fire circle ritual and singing, belly binding, and an overview of my dissertation (per request of the group). These were our planned and scheduled modules. We also had many open times for swimming, talking, eating and the chance to share a glass of wine together in person rather than via social media, the thought of which inspired the weekend to begin with! You might say, we had a two page, carefully constructed, birth plan for our weekend.
And, as is often the case, the Universe had other plans.
At about 4:30 on Saturday, in the midst of our discussion about archetypes, my neighbor burst into our space with the announcement that there was a fire.
Did I mention we were in Topanga?
We stepped outside the bubble of our workshop womb to see a large billow of smoke rising across the ridge in front of us. Living in a dry chaparral environment known for its flammability, fire is both familiar and terrifying.
And did I mention we were a group of BIRTH workers gathered together for this event…women both skilled and experienced in managing high-stress situations with unpredictable outcomes?
Yeah. That’s who walked out and faced this unwished for addition to our highly anticipated and planned birth…I mean retreat.
The next hour was spent educating ourselves on the severity of this unwished for situation. What do we know? Where is it? What are the current concerns? What if we wait an hour? Are there other things we could try first? How are we feeling about this situation? What does my/our intuition say to do or not do?
Knowing what I know about fire, Topanga, and emergency services and access to information in times such as these, I tag-teamed my phone and computer, put on the TV and gathered my neighbors who had lost internet access when the fire began (they have a different service provider than I do). We set up command central in my living room and waited.
The birth workers also waited, as they are so good at doing. They went on with the afternoon knowing at any moment the next best thing to do might be to pack up and leave, but for now, we did not need to pull the plug entirely, rather simply adjust. Like in birth, time would give us more information and more experience with which to guide our next move.
Like we often have to do in labor, I gave myself a comfortable boundary within which to relax and wait: if any area in Topanga was put on mandatory evacuation orders or my area was given voluntary evacuation orders, we would call the retreat complete. No one wanted to. We had done and planned so MUCH to get HERE to this moment. Our dreams and expectations were grand! In none of them did a major fire event enter the fantasy.
Time passed. The retreat group swam in the pool and enjoyed each other’s company, with their stuff packed in case it became time to go. I stayed active in my living room command center. The moment came. A few fire zones near mine were ordered to evacuate.
I pulled the plug.
It was no longer time to wait or to look for alternatives. The time had come for greater action. As the sun began to set, we closed our retreat, not with the ceremony planned for the next day, but with a certain amount of haste and motion. We gathered for a group photo on the deck overlooking the smoke plume and said goodbye.
We had to walk our talk. We had to practice doing the next best thing. We had to walk our labyrinth of excitement turned disappointment not as a metaphor, but as real life. Yes, it was “just” a retreat, but the excitement and disappointment were no less real. We got to practice holding both emotions tenderly within our hands and hearts.
The doulas left and my shit got very very real. The letting go intensified as I went around my home looking for things I couldn’t live without…treasures, photos, heirlooms and what I could leave to potentially burn…what to hold onto and what to release, even reluctantly.
I had to help my teenage sons do the same. Boys who have lived in the same place their entire lives, young men who have gathered treasures and crap that now fills their shelves and some of which touches their hearts deeply. They too had to decide what to take and what to leave with the possibility, albeit unlikely but felt no less real, of never seeing any of it again.
My husband came home and we loaded our cars with boxes of photos we’ve been meaning to digitize for the last several years and other important items. Left behind were some surprises: my doll collection from my childhood, my box of high school mementos, my wedding dress. It was an exercise in forced clarity.
As we drove away after our Topanga zone was put on “voluntary evacuation” orders (a decision we made to role model being conservative in terms of safety and to support our emergency responders in making a tough situation as easy as possible for them). We had everything that mattered…our pets, our photos, a few special treasures, some heirlooms, and each other.
Oh, and at the last minute, my son grabbed a few chocolate bars left by my birth worker colleagues intended for our retreat, and now soul food for retreating evacuees.
Things don’t always go as planned or expected. We plan, we prepare, we organize, we ready ourselves and others for the big event. AND then, we have to let go, practice being with what is, showing up for the moment, surrendering what needs to be surrendered, doing the next best thing, mourning the loss of what we had held with such excitement, and gathering clarity about what really matters.