It was 1995 and although the death of my father had occurred two years before, the end of my mourning seemed nowhere in sight and I found myself in real danger of being permanently stuck with the grief and anger I felt toward life.
A colleague invited me to attend a weekend health and wellness retreat for women and because I had procrastinated until the last moment decided to go so as not to financially disadvantage the other participants or the woman who had flown in from Maui to lead the weekend. Dr. Elaine Willis had earned her Ph.D. later in life and after working in a variety of places, including PBS as a correspondent interviewing the new-age thinkers of the day, washed her hands of that life and moved to Maui. Ultimately she became an early a pioneer in the body, mind and spirit field that is more main-stream today. From the first moment I saw her appear from around the grand piano in the front room of the retreat house, I knew this petite woman with her rich resonant voice and elegant countenance possessed a rare combination of power and compassion. She was in her mid-sixties then, spirited, the picture of class and grace with large brown eyes that could see through any charade or pretentiousness.
And while I survived the weekend, I certainly didn’t thrive and so was somewhat surprised to find myself landing on Maui the following autumn to attend my first week long Goddess Camp. Standing at the curb at the Kahului airport, the warm tropical air saturated with both the salty smell of the ocean as well as freshness of rainwater encircle me and just by breathing, a comfortable security settled in. My hair began to curl spontaneously, something I always lamented when I was young because the style of the day was poker straight. But it was a clear sign that I might be capable of letting go of my current overly responsible, serious, button-downed woman-in-a man’s word facade.
There were ten women who came to stay at Leini’s Bed and Breakfast that year ranging in age from forty to upwards of eighty; mothers with children at home, empty nesters, married or divorced, widowed or otherwise single, women with jobs or career CEO’s and a mother and daughter duo who worked at the same spa in Arizona.
Anuhea, which means “sweet breezes” in Hawaiian, had once been a non-descript, rather traditional house in a quiet neighborhood of year round residents but in the years under Leini’s care it had taken on a transformation, much like how a once highly manicured and domesticated garden might revert back to a more natural tropical state of rambunctiousness, playfulness and effervescence. There was a separate apartment peaking out of the garden canopy supported on stilts that Leini lived in with a walkway connecting it to the second story lanai of the main house, two cabins with floor to ceiling screens that remained open to the private garden behind the house, a small hut used for private sessions between guests and a variety of homeopathic healers, an outside shower where guests’ modesty was guarded by huge leaves of surrounding vines and tropical shrubs, a large Jacuzzi and numerous garden benches, swings and a hammock tucked into a lush fragrant garden that was a feast of green for the eyes.
We had all come for some reason or another though it would take several days before some of us discovered our own secrets or share them with the others.
A daily schedule, reminiscent of a college course syllabus was included in a thick package of materials that had been prepared for each of us. Morning meditation was first on the schedule followed by a light healthy breakfast; all meals were vegetarian which was quite unusual in those days. Next up was the morning instruction given on the lanai, the topic of which ranged from the changing physiological makeup of a woman’s body, good nutrition, new medical research, homeopathic treatments and the mind-body connection to wellness. By the end of those lectures, lunch was generally packed up in a backpack for us and we were off on an adventure with our knowledgeable and radiant nature guide. Romy, a tall, lean, striking woman also in her sixties, with her own calm peaceful charisma was so much at home in nature that she had started an adventure company some years before and specialized in “magical journeys in nature”. Mother Maui was her playground now and with reverence and ceremony she showed us bamboo forests and fresh water falls deep within the island’s interior, tidal birthing pools where some Hawaiian women still bring the next generation into the world, Sacred Beach with aqua colored water suspending golden grains of sand that sparkled in the sun, desolate and otherworldly red-black lava beds, isolated rocky shorelines whose submerged nooks and crannies were home for an astounding array of saltwater fish, the incomparable Iao Valley, and Kukuipuka Heiau, an ancient Hawaiian temple of refuge and healing. Upon returning to our rooms at Anuhea from the day’s exploration we had time to refresh before dinner or spend it completing some homework assignment.
We gathered on the lanai in time to watch the sunset with a cocktail which sadly contained no alcohol but was an elixir made of an unusual mix of tropical juices. Dinner, served outside under the stars was surprisingly unique, delicious and unexpectedly satisfying. One night huge bowls piled high with raw beets and carrots spiraled into “pasta” strands covered with raw tomatoes, onions, garlic and basil crushed into a “marinara sauce” and spiced with balsamic vinegar were placed in front of us. The sight of those deep rich colors of red and orange tumbling together engaged all our other senses, commanding our undivided attention.
Our evening sessions were held in the living room, a light, open feeling space with ceiling fans that mingled the evening air with the scent of the tropical flowers that decorated glass table tops, big white sofas and rattan chairs with rich blue-green and fuchsia colored throw pillows and vibrant artwork portraying Hawaiian culture and scenery on pristine white walls. Everything was awash in the soft light of candles too numerous to count. We’d gather and sit comfortably in a favorite cozy spot with quiet music in the background and the occasional encouraging chirp of a resident gecko.
These sessions were generally poignant and moving as each of us struggled with our own tough questions and issues. Life is a blessing but it comes with difficult lessons and painful realities. As we talked together we found the courage to come to terms with our choices, good and bad, to remember who we’d always wanted to be, accept ourselves and each other too. Leini would end the evening with a meditation designed to bring solace and rest to our bodies and minds and we would retire in silence until the next morning’s sunrise.
Over the decade or so I attended numerous weekend retreats throughout California and four or five week-long retreats on the island of Maui with Leini and Romy. I came to see that the anguish and grief over my father’s death had opened the door to my own search for life’s meaning. Why are we here? What makes a good life? What do I believe God to be? What happens when we die? This family of women, some of whom are gone now, others I still see and hear from today and still others who came and went with a single retreat were all searching too. Regardless of their stories, each had courage and faith to ask their own questions, seek their own answers and deep down, where it counts, each of us is still as our camp T-shirts once proclaimed: a “GODDESS, formerly known as princess”.