So I’ve just returned from a week out in the New Mexico desert, at a zen center, at a retreat with the erotic energy school with which I’ve been working for nearly ten years. This was the first time that I coordinated the retreat, meaning that I was the point person for logistical questions, I did most of the marketing and outreach, I organized the supplies that needed to be at the zen center while we were there, I registered all the participants and took care of the money. I answered last minute freak-out emails. I made sure everyone got from the airport to the zen center.
It was a hard job. I’m thrilled, on the one hand, to be doing more with the school, thrilled to be in more of a leadership role there. I’d really like to become a more formal apprentice to some of the teachers and perhaps even move into teaching this kind of thing myself. It’s a fascinating process, life-changing and delicious, and there’s not really any way to explain it in words. We just don’t have the language to describe energy and the way it moves in the body and how it connects to our emotional and erotic lives. I try, believe me I try to describe it, but I almost always fall short. Very frequently I just say it is beyond description. Something that must be experienced.
I did a similar retreat last year, it was residential and five days at the same location, but it was a completely different curriculum. Last year’s was formalized tantra. This year was just … play. The workshop title was “Pulse” and when the instructors and I were discussing it, they kept saying how much they just wanted to have fun. To move away from the classical tantra heady intellectual internal subtle stuff, but physical pleasure and release and play.
I’ve done things like this before, sure, some even in ritual space at an erotic energy workshops, but never for so many days and never quite like this. This was intense, hard, emotional, moving. And yes, lots of play.
It started out with a trip to the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe. No wait—scratch that. It started when I lost my wallet on the plane ride west, somewhere between JFK and ABQ. I’m not really sure what happened. When I got to Minneapolis, I didn’t have it. Thankfully, I did have my iPhone (which is kind of a miracle, since I keep it in my wallet). I was meeting two friends at the airport, two butches that I met at last year’s retreat, and we had planned to rent a car, drive up to Santa Fe to go to the museum, arrive a night early.
We still met up at the airport, but things got a bit jumbled because I’d made the reservations, and couldn’t pick up the car without a license or the credit card I’d used to make the reservation. At least I was meeting up with other people, I kept telling myself. If I’d been planning to do this alone, I don’t know what I would have done. Had someone wire me money, perhaps.
So that wallet thing put a ding on my plans. I had to deal with calling and canceling my cards, calling the airport’s lost and founds, trying not to stress about how I was going to get back on my plane to return. I had meticulously planned all the things I needed to do to get this retreat running, those 24 hours I had that were extra before the other participants arrived, so that was a stressful way to kick it off. And it’s so not like me! I kept wanting to explain that to everyone. I don’t do this kind of thing! I’m not disorganized! I don’t lose things like my wallet! Like, ever! But what could I do? I asked for what I needed, got a lot of support. And generally I was at a retreat center—I wasn’t on a shopping vacation, so I didn’t really need money. Just a few bucks here and there. It could’ve been worse.
We did make it to the Georgia O’Keeffe museum, and it was beautiful. This small little adobe building, only a few rooms, but a beautiful gallery. The other two butches and I—who everyone started calling “the fellas”—were only there for about half an hour, but we got a good sense of what was there. (It’s an exhibit I’d already seen in New York at the Guggenheim, of O’Keeffe’s abstracts, which I’d listened to the whole audio tour and spent hours in the galleries, so I felt well acquainted with most of the pieces.) Still, it was really lovely to see the museum and to see her works surrounded by the colors of the New Mexico desert.
We arrived at the zen center later than I’d planned, having been delayed by the whole wallet thing, but it was immediately a relief to be at the center, with the hummingbirds and the happy buddhist cats who live there and the hot springs and the hammock, oh the hammock, I love hammocks so much. (It kind of reminds me of Calvin & Hobbes: I just like to say hammock.)
I spent a lot of time in the Zendo (that photo on the right), which is a rather new building and is an incredibly beautiful meditation hall. The monks and residents who stay at the center get up every morning at 5am to do morning meditation, but I couldn’t bring myself to get up that early (even if it was 7am New York time) because I’d done it the year before and it wiped me out for the whole day. I wanted to be present for the workshop, much as I wanted to sit in that beautiful hall, so instead I stole into it (wearing socks to protect the tatami mats, of course) whenever I could. The zen practice is so rigid, sometimes it feels too immobile, but other times it is incredibly inspiring to clean lines and clear mind.
I miss meditating in that zendo.
The Fellas and I took over one of the rooms, the same one we’d all bunked in the year before. Since we got there so late and the participants were arriving the next day in the early afternoon, I didn’t have time to get into the hammock or go into the hot springs until after we’d already started and were dismissed for the night.
And what a delicious experience it was, when I finally lowered myself into the hot springs, walked along the bottom on all the pebbles, let the mineral waters soak into my muscles. Later, I lay in bed, my body tingling, a deep relaxation down into my bones, I could feel everything letting go, relaxing, just a little bit more. I started thinking about the abbess of the zen center, the woman who has lived there for the past thirty years. Time in the hot springs is actually listed on the daily schedule of the monks and people who come to spend time at the center. She goes into these hot springs nearly every single day for last thirty years, I thought. I would smile like her, too, if I did that.
It’s hard to describe the level of calm and relaxation that comes to me when I’m out in nature, connected to the weather and the earth and air and water, listening to the sounds of the birds and bugs and critters, paying attention to how a flower is growing. Up at Easton Mountain, where I’m coordinating another one of these retreats in November, there’s a sign in the vegetable garden that says, “The wilderness holds answers to more questions than we yet know how to ask.” —Nancy Newhail. I thought of that often when I was off on my own, sitting on a rock or in the grass or in the hammock watching the clouds, wondering if I would actually be happy if I wasn’t so connected to the heavy rhythms of the city, the culture, the events, the music and readings and bookstores and cafes and clubs. Wouldn’t I miss that? Wouldn’t I get bored? Would I really have enough fodder for my work, if I was closer to the earth and farther from people?
I don’t know. Maybe I would desperately miss the easy access to things like Thai food and dyke bars. But maybe I’d get enough of that if I kept my Internet connection (which of course would be mandatory) and kept traveling. I really don’t know.
When I visited Easton recently to get a feel for it, to see the accommodations and to be able to tell potential participants about the options and the space for the November workshop, when it came time to get back in the car and head back to the concrete urbana that is New York, I nearly teared up. I wanted to stay there. I wasn’t ready to go. I wanted to get out my computer and sit on the porch swing, or go for a walk on one of their trails. Kristen and I curled up in their hammock for a little while, but it was getting dark and it was time for dinner, so we didn’t stay long. I realized with that, though, that it’s really time to start planning my exit from the East coast and from New York City. I’ve always said I wouldn’t stay here forever, but I’ve been here more than five years now and it’s starting to feel less temporary. I don’t know if there really is somewhere better for me, but I want to look. I’m not convinced this is where I belong.
I’ve narrowed it down to somewhere along the I-5 corridor: Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, the Bay. I don’t know what will be best for me, or for Kristen, presuming that she comes along. But it’s time for me to start creating a plan.
I know I’ve been saying that for a long time, and that pretty much my entire column over on SexIs has been dedicated to reconciling with New York or, in my more city-depressed months, complaining about missing the West. But it feels different, and it’s time to start making a plan.
The retreat unfolded, as it does, with complicated emotions and things that became undone and unsure footing and practice and pleasure. The Fellas and I had a great time reconnecting and bunking together, and we often decompressed together at night after the big events of the day. There was another butch there, a leather butch also from the East coast, and along with one of the instructors and another woman who was figuring out that she was possibly queer (and, we suspect, possibly a bit masculine of center), when we finally got around to what we dubbed the Sadie Hawkins dance on the third day of the retreat, where we were all letting loose with some dancing and silliness, there were six of us up against the wall with our arms folded over our chests, saying, “I am dancing.”
It was thrilling and different to be in a women-only space with five other (or four and a half, really) masculine of center people. I struggled for a while, after I started doing work with this school, to bring my own masculinity to these women-only spaces, especially when they are focused on erotic healing and power, because much of the trauma in women’s sexualities has to do with men and, subsequently, masculinity. But since I’ve been bringing it harder into that space, not so apologetic or nervous about packing or wearing a button down or boxers, the experiences have been more about fetishizing my masculinity than about being afraid of it. Swooning over it, even, since for straight women to be in a women-only space where we’re exploring eroticism can sometimes be strange, with no one to focus their erotic attention on when they are genuinely not attracted to women. But insert a masculine woman into that equation, and it’s easier to sexualize us, easier to want us, easier to ask us to do things (like penetrate) that they would otherwise perhaps shy away from in groups of women.
I’ve never been in one of these women-only workshops that had so much heat and intensity around gender. One of The Fellas said, “I have—when I was the only butch.” And yes, I’ve been in that scenario, too, and it is also intense, but in a different way. Or maybe I was different then, or was just in a different position. This time felt different though, and at times scary. I felt like I was getting lost, being used for my masculinity, not being seen beyond my presentation. By time day four rolled around, I lost it for an afternoon, but thankfully I had so much support and many friends there, other queers who do “get” my masculinity and my presentation and weren’t just using me—or us! because of course a lot of this I ended up projecting onto those other butches, feeling like I needed to swoop in and save them, too, from being eaten up. Thank goodness they were around, and I could talk to them about what was going on for me (after freaking out a little and not knowing what was wrong).
That comes up in my life quite frequently, now that I am thinking about it, and there were plenty of other “issues” of mine that came up while in the circle, too. My relationships to community, authority, and leadership, for example, were tried and complex, and came up more than once. Being in touch with what I wanted continued to be a challenge. The distance between being in service to someone as an assistant and being seen for who I am felt fine sometimes, and terrible others. There were many moments when people asked me to clarify my gender or to explain something. “I work with a lot of trans guys, so I get gender,” one woman said to me over breakfast. “But I don’t get … ” she vaguely gestured to me. “Me?” I asked. “Yeah.” I gave a five-minute explanation of female masculinity and the identity alignment assumptions of femininity and female, masculinity and male. She seemed to get it. And it didn’t take much out of me, I’m okay with those conversations. Practiced at them. But it kept happening from all directions, throughout the retreat.
That wasn’t the only part of the retreat, though. I had some great conversations with the queers in attendance about gender, about stone identity, about masculinity and the ways we get used, about femme visibility in a women-only space, about being the “experiment.” The Fellas and I had a great conversation about male identity, where one of us said, “I’m not a ‘fella,’ I’m not a guy. I’m butch, that is my gender, and I’m woman identified.” We all nodded in agreement. In my semi-formal studies of masculinity, I’ve started getting more and more So even referring to us as “The Fellas” as I’ve done here seems not quite right, but I think of it as us, not as a male thing, and I like how it’s casual and a little dapper.
I’m so glad it was such a queer space.
There was talk about doing it again next year, and my first experience coordinating went very well. The group had a wonderful dynamic all together, and though there were some newcomers, everyone was really up for it and brought it, fully, attended and gave their all and, I think, moved mountains in their own personal erotic and emotional work.
It was beautiful to watch.
Watching the releases is my favorite part, really. It’s why I so adore doing this work, and why I crave these workshops. That level of cellular release of trauma and pain and shame is so hard to recreate one-on-one or outside of these ritual spaces, and it satisfies something deep in me. Something about healing women, about fixing what is so fucked up and wrong with this culture that does this to us.
I had a chance to chat with another woman (a queer femme in her 60s!) who does similar work coordinating workshops, and with the facilitators, and I expressed interest in doing more of this erotic healing work around genderqueer folks, butches, and anyone who consider themselves stone. I would love to get a more explicitly queer group together, even if it was just once, or once a year.
The folks who returned who had also attended last year all expressed interest in continuing this tradition, so who knows? These retreats in late summer may become an annual event, returning to the desert with a circle of women to strip ourselves bare and soak ourselves in healing waters.