"It is only through mystery and madness that the soul is revealed."
- Thomas Moore
"Ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space."
- Edward Abbey
It started in September. Anne and I started planning to go to a workshop together in California in March--a creative retreat for photographers, with sincere promises of connection and inspiration and relaxation. It sounded like a much needed bolt from heaven, especially from the swampy weeds of September as I powered through the very full wedding season I'd booked. I craved the woods, ocean, thought, stillness, and companionship from others who understood.
Our enthusiasm drained when we did the hard math on what it would cost. Oh, come on, we said together. Surely we don't need an organized posse and a small fortune to get what we want! Let's just go to the beach and teach each other stuff, work on things that matter, listen, go on adventures, cook, walk, dream, sleep, and create. Let's call it "Mystery and Madness", because of Thomas Moore. And while we're at it, let's not be in charge--let's all be equally invested.
The plan formed out of the mist like a grand castle in a fairytale. We rented a magical oceanfront house in Cape Perpetua on the Oregon coast, put together a rough explanation of what we thought we were doing, invited people, and almost immediately watched responses flood in. Sooner than seemed possible, we had 10 creative women from all over the country to share our adventure--photographers, painters, stylists, writers. There were lists for meal planning and ideas for hikes and adventures.
Along with the excitement, I felt itchily nervous too. Won't something go wrong? Won't there be at least one woman who decides this isn't her cup of tea? Will there be problems? Oh well, said my inner voice. I'm up for a challenge.
On January 10th, I drove to the airport to meet the arrivals as they began to converge on Portland. We sat, laughing, chatting and drinking coffee in baggage claim, welcoming each new arrival. We caravaned out to the beach, through winding coastal roads and narrow bridges, and arrived at our oceanside home for a week.
We came together as a group on Monday, cradling coffee and mimosas, sitting curled up in chairs and on the couch. We talked about what we wanted. Needed. What a diversity of struggles, too--from extremely internal and personal challenges, to feeling very disconnected from work and burned out, to a mother with a daughter who has cancer, to being creatively blocked and feeling like a fraud, to balancing being a mother and a creative, to simply being confused about where to go next. There was a lot of nodding, a few rueful smiles, laughter, compassion.
I came needing to dig deep into my own frustrations. After 27 weddings last year and many many portrait sessions, I found truths about myself. I needed to slow down. Begin to integrate new ways of seeing into the way I photograph. Literally focus. Try those new things I'd been dying to. Explore the direction I want to take my business in--which clients do I connect most with, what locations do I photograph with glorious authenticity, what kind of adventures can I take my clients on? And, most important of all, I needed to find balance so I could spend more time with my husband, who I love fiercely, and in nature, which gives me strength.
I remember sitting there on the couch, listening to eleven other stories and thinking, oh God, what have we done? How can we possibly hope to begin overcoming some of these huge, deep, important things in one week? How can we support each other through these big questions, and yet figure out our own struggles?
And magically, it did happen. Slowly, then picking up steam. Each day, we grew closer. Each day, we took bigger risks, opened up, trusted more, began to tell those stories you only tell your very best friends. Each of us began to bloom like roses after a misty, cold morning in June.
And oh, the wonders I saw and felt to my core. Triumphs, microscopic and gigantic. Bonding, real bonding, and sharing of craft. Beautiful paintings, breathtaking and very personal photographs. A look of utter joy and transformation as we showed each other portraits we'd taken. "I look pretty!" "That's me?" "WOW." The faces of my new friends as they saw the beauty of Cook's Chasm, a vibrant sunset through the windows of the house, the Milky Way stretching above us in the hot tub, the tangles of a fairytale forest path leading to the beach, a storm shaking the house and howling across the sand. The laughter of someone breaking down a barrier they'd been fighting for months, maybe years.
I ran through the waves with bare feet and a soaked dress, feeling the wind rip at my hair and the sand scratch my skin. I let the rain pour down on me in the forest, moss under my toes, feeling SO ALIVE that I could almost fly. The sun warmed my face and dazzled my eyes as I climbed rocks on the beach. I photographed waves higher than me, crashing down around Thor's Well and blasting my cheeks with salty spray. I photographed people in nature, as I love to do more than almost anything. I began to notice sudden bolts of clarity as I realized my mind had been too cluttered to see what was obvious. The precious stillness was drifting into the deepest corners of my soul.
I went to bed every night basking in the feeling that something truly magical was happening. We all had hours upon hours to create, write, paint, photograph, plan, talk or do whatever we needed to. There was time to enjoy the sunset, explore tidepools, stand in a storm and feel the electricity of the wind scouring your face. I lived in my own joy and release, and sometimes even more in the joy and transformation of others.
The last night, we all sat again together, listening to some of the creations the week had brought. Meghan read and sang, Jen and Summer and Anne read to us. We talked about what had happened over the week as the wind blew a crazy storm at us, all cozy inside. Sheltered from the world, sheltered from the wild, we connected as never before.
And something going wrong? It just... didn't. Sure, we all hit capacity on human connection after awhile, so we'd run away to our room or the beach or one of the armchairs facing out to the ocean. Conversations flowed naturally, ebbing and flowing as people came in and left, going from the sublime to the ridiculous to the immensely personal. We cooked huge meals, toasted the experience, thanked each other. We all spoke a language that we could understand--one of importance, ethereal concepts, daring and unusual thoughts, bold dreams, scary demons, vulnerability and defiance.
I left with eleven glorious, empowered, creative, beautiful, soulful and caring sisters. People I would fly across the country to see for a day, whose presence I can still feel, whose smiles I still see, whose jokes I hear in my mind when something funny happens. Anne, my beautiful co-conspirator, with her keen wit and limitless eloquence, her written words that crush you to tears and lift you to the clouds, her brilliant and intimate photography, her love of people. Greta, with her orange shock of hair, brilliant smile, incredible creativity, and tangible sweetness. Amanda, with her sharp and excellent humor, her curls and infectious laugh, her perfect poems, her ability to make anyone love true things about themselves. Sarah, with her sassy smile, fantastic ideas, ability to see women's sensuality and curves and beauty, and exquisite photographs. Summer, with her gentle presence and quick laughter, beautiful writing, supportive soul, and excellent cooking. Carrie, with her purple hair and amazing smile, her eagerness to immediately absorb everything wonderful around her, her painting and photographs, her adoration of everyone. Meghan, fierce and loving, with her sharp wit and true words, summoning the ocean and connecting with every piece of natural beauty around her, playing the piano and moving me to tears. Jordan, with her elfin Galadriel look, connection to nature, caring touch, beautiful eyes and thoughtful words. Marie, with her windswept hair and easy smile, unease with the ordinary, mad makeup skills, and love of adventure. Jen, with her beautiful writing, visions of beauty, so quiet then not, incredible cook and fascinating conversationalist. Tamara, one of my very best friends, with unfathomable beauty inside and out, tall and strong, vulnerable and daring, the best listener, so loving and supportive of all around her.
If you have this chance, take it. Better yet, make it. Find people you love and admire and want to share your adventures with, and ask them to join you. Create community. Risk loving with all your heart, even when it may hurt. Yes, the risk is huge, but I promise you, the gifts are far larger. Most of the only true fulfillment I've felt in life has come from daring myself to do something so utterly terrifying that I wanted to run like hell rather than face the seemingly-inevitable failure. I am not always brave. But failure is temporary; magic and connection created through hard work is eternal. And I believe in magic.
I cannot wait until next time, when we mad creatives re-converge, to see what we've done with our year and how we've grown, to reset again, and to grab our packs and set out on another journey, better for the knowledge that we are not alone.
"There is beauty, heartbreaking beauty, everywhere."
- Edward Abbey
"I might not be someone’s first choice, but I am a great choice. I don’t pretend to be someone I’m not, because I’m good at being me. I might not be proud of some of the things I’ve done in the past, but I am proud of who I am today. I may not be perfect, but I don’t need to be. Take me as I am, or watch me as I walk away."
And here are the images, from the beautiful to the funny, the candid to the ridiculous. Enjoy.