Earlier this month, I had the honor of taking a group of women from the YWCA Utah Domestic Violence Shelter’s transitional housing on a daylong medicine walk up in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
The group day walk came about as a result of conversations with Saundra Shanti who is a multi-faith chaplain and a tirelessly loving, listening presence at the YWCA shelter, offering much needed spiritual care for these women who have experienced intimate partner violence and related abuse. Saundra intuitively understood the potential for healing that spending a day in the mountains could provide, and created the opportunity for me to take these women out of their every day world, into a space where they could feel and hear their real selves. Saundra and Courtney Giles, the Transitional Housing Educator at the YWCA invited ten women, and five were able to attend.
As often happens when I do this work, I awoke in the morning feeling different. Half a dimension off, as it were. Or perhaps dropped way down, into a deeper place.
At the YWCA in downtown Salt Lake City, Saundra and Courtney welcomed me and the women as they arrived. We were all gathered by 9:30 am-ish — with water, good walking shoes, jackets, and a packed lunch provided by the YWCA. Everyone was excited, sensing that this experience would hold something important for their lives, even though they did not know exactly what we would be doing.
Gathered around a picnic table just outside of the cafeteria, I spoke about this day as a Heroine’s Journey. We would be traveling away from normal life, into a special place outside of time . . . with Courtney driving our magic van!
I did not know the stories of these women. They were of different ages and backgrounds. They were mothers, working to give their children good lives. I sensed a certain gravity in them, a kind of caution and no-bullshit-ness in their energy. My heart ached imagining what they had been through to end up in this shelter, and how strong they must be to now be in transitional housing, on their way to being back in the world.
We hiked slowly, mindfully, up the Big Willow Conservation Area trail, and then off the trail, to the spot I like to call ‘base camp.’ I felt them slow down and take in the beauty — the tall aspen, the pine trees and underbrush, the clouds and blue sky. I offer words that allow us all to soften, open, drop down into our ‘indigenous’ or true human selves. We may not consciously know it, but we are in ceremony together.
The design of the day was to sit together in circle, after invoking the energies of the four cardinal directions (ala my secular, trans-cultural rites of passage training), and speak about why we came, what we are looking for, including myself. Then everyone was to have two and a half hours to wander by themselves, wherever they were called. I was a little unprepared for the issues of feeling safe that naturally arose, but Sandra jumped in and masterfully created permission to not go far at all, and that she and I would stay in view at all times.
With this clarification about safety, everyone quickly settled in and stepping across a ‘threshold’ made of sticks, they each disappeared into the tall grasses and groves of trees surrounding our base camp. The weather was changeable and cool, verging on cold. I sat in stillness on a granite boulder, holding the center and all of these women in my heart.
Upon their return, we held a council circle, with a talking stick, and each told the story of their two and a half hours alone on the land. I was completely floored with the authenticity, depth and emotional honesty of their sharing. After just a few hours, and only a few words of orientation, these women had dropped right into the ceremony, the community, the quiet and peace that held them. Some shared incredibly difficult things that they had been holding, perhaps all their lives. I heard courage, self-love, deep wisdom, hope. I was moved beyond words, in awe of these amazing souls. I mirrored their stories back to them, speaking to them what I had heard, opening for something bigger than myself to come through. Energy was freed up, in being heard (as I myself experience when I know I’ve been deeply listened to), and as we drummed out and thanked the energies of the four cardinal directions, they joined in one big line, facing south, then west, north and east and heartily saying ‘Ho!’ in gratitude. Holy smokes.
Coming back is the hard part, I had stressed. How to remember who you are in this place, right now? How not to forget? We spoke of ways to hold this experience lightly but firmly, allowing it to grow in each of us like a well-tended seed. We journeyed back into the city and parted ways at the YWCA with hugs and smiles.
A week later, Saundra forwarded me this e-mail from a case worker:
“I have to tell you of the overwhelmingly positive and in at least one case transformative response my four clients had at your wilderness retreat!! Each resident I spoke with stated that they felt a bit anxious about going “solo,” as many of them felt that they either did not like being alone with themselves or have learned that distraction is a method for them to cope. However, in every case my clients reported feeling empowered, connected and strengthened by the time they spent in nature. One client even proclaiming how grateful she felt to have “found” herself, and the love that she feels for herself now.
As a case manager I am beyond grateful for these types of experiences that allow women to heal, feel the strength of other women and find the power within to move forward! I sincerely hope that you will consider continuing this particular experience as it was nothing short of powerful.”
When I read these words, I wept. All one has to do is create a safe and sacred container in the beauty of a wild place, and we effortlessly re-connect to ourselves and our deepest natures. It is a wholeness we are so hungry for! I bow to these strong women who changed me, through the privilege of being witness to remarkable healing power of nature, community and the sacred.