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RETREAT

My life as a dancer was born in chaos and out of the traumatic unraveling of my childhood. My experience of dance was twofold, it was simultaneously my greatest refuge and my greatest escape. On one hand, movement was a powerful outlet that afforded healing. On the other, as a young girl, I did not fully understand the complexities of the human body, and so it also became a great place for me to hide and shelter from the hurt. My body could mask my emotional pain. Like a magician, I used dance to turn pain into beauty. Or at least, I made it appear that way. I disguised my pain with costumes, fake eyelashes, rhinestones, and rouge. I perfected my technique and by the turn of the millennium, I was caught up in the competitive dance craze. I pursued competitive dance at all costs and when I wasn’t competing, I spent the majority of my free time rehearsing for the next competition. I grew out of my childhood prematurely. I traded friendships and social events for dance, and most of the time I did it alone. I often had more solos than group numbers. In the competitive world of dance, judgments are doled out as awards. These awards came in the form of trophies and medals meant to symbolize your status in the hierarchy of “success.” I had a bedroom full of these awards. They lined the shelves of my room like tokens of excellence. From the outside, my world appeared to be perfect, but at the end of the day, I was miserable. I felt as alone in life as I was on the stage. Most nights I sobbed on my mother’s kitchen counter, but I didn't know how to name my depression, and neither did the adults around me, they insisted that I was fine. So, I held my emotions in and pushed them down hoping they would eventually disappear. As a result, I kept my body's hardships hidden away like secrets. 

 

I don’t think our loved ones intend for us to inherit their unhealthy beliefs, behaviors, or coping mechanisms. However, for better or worse, we usually do. As a young girl, I learned that self-care was a luxury and that things like pain and grief were fleeting, temporary states of being to be conquered. Retreating in moments of sorrow wasn’t altogether taboo, but overstaying your welcome certainly was. I was taught that grief should take about as long as my homework. After all, big girls don’t cry, don’t worry be happy, and of course, hide your crazy and start acting like a lady. As a result, I inherited a linear view of life. One that had me chasing unreachable finish lines. Though most of these rules were unwritten, I was expected to keep going without pausing, resting, or retreating for too long. I was also supposed to have the fortitude to fight through pain whether it was physical, mental, or emotional. Not only was this unattainable, it was unsustainable, and it would mean that I would spend years later in life untangling decades of suppression. Nevertheless, I treated my body like a waste scape where I could collect and store my life’s burdens. My body suffered violence and endured loss and betrayal, some of which was self-inflicted, but most of which came at the hands of those I entrusted with the sacred responsibility of keeping it safe. I weathered the death and rebirth of my marriage. I have experienced injuries and battled a number of health issues that have intermittently kept me from dancing, including chronic pain and a condition that would eventually make breathing so difficult I would barely be able to walk a flight of stairs, let alone dance. I tried to either minimize or conceal all of this until my long-term breathing condition progressed to the point of hospitalization and I would have to undergo surgery to correct the issue. My recovery process was slow and wouldn’t happen overnight. Even after I recovered physically, emotionally I still had to unbind the threads that had woven unhealthy associations between movement and my body’s ability to thrive. 

 

For a long time, it felt like my complicated health history was some sort of strange atonement, or a sign from my body and the universe to stop dancing. I feared if I didn’t stop, my relationship with dance would devolve, unravel, and exist only as an unbridled affair for which I would be in a constant state of reckoning. I spent years trying to reconcile the love, loathing, gratitude, and resentment I held for my craft. I denied the duality in which it existed, which meant I was unwittingly resisting the nature of life itself. All things live and thrive in opposition. Darkness is the necessity of light, and I was going to have to sit in the dark if I wanted to stand in the light. I believe that somewhere in my subconscious I knew this, I just wasn't ready to end my resistance. My learned tendency to resist was buried deep in my bones and it wasn’t going away without a fight. Over time, the battle became more and more exhausting, and I walked away from my movement practices many times with the intention of leaving dance behind for good. But each time, something called me back—the tide would shift and reveal a new way in. Eventually, I began to recognize the pattern, like the changing of seasons. My relationship with dance might have been splintered but my body wasn’t telling me to stop, it was trying to teach me to slow down, rest, allow for periods of integration and retreat. For so long I thought that retreat held a darkness that would be my demise, but my relationship with dance and movement was adapting and evolving. 

 

I have since learned that grief is not something to be conquered. It is certainly something to overcome, but doing so in a real and lasting way means encountering our pain and allowing ourselves the time we need to mourn. This means making space for the cycle of grief with the understanding that not all cycles share the same life span. Each one has a unique duration, the timing of which we can’t always sense until we are emerging on the other side. When we engage our trauma in this way it has the power to be transformational. I came to this place of adaptation and evolution in part through the practice of Emergent Improvisation. Ironically, finding my way to this work was the result of an injury that had severely limited my ability to continue pursuing traditional forms of concert dance. But my departure from the traditional dance world was the greatest gift I dared to receive. This is not to say that it wasn’t an invaluable part of my history. I hold on to the fruitful lessons it imparted and sometimes I even return to its practices for the nostalgia of it all, but I get something different from it now. It doesn’t hold me hostage anymore. I can take a ballet class now and refine the material to suit my interests and honor my body’s current state of being. 

 

Emergent Improvisation has allowed me to reframe this part of my history and to redefine and reinvent my relationship with dance. Ultimately, improvisation became the channel through which I found catharsis in the process of creation.  But, it’s much more than a simple studio practice, it's a microcosm for the nature of life itself. The practice of Emergent Improvisation has taught me a great deal about what it means to be human—to reside in a human body, to believe in the wisdom that resides within my body and trust in its capacity to heal and to change. It taught me to befriend my intuition. Not the gut-wrenching, fear-stoking intuition that makes your belly swell, but a deeper kind of intuitive intelligence. The kind that lives in your bones. I sense this intuition from my spine. It calls me from behind and moves through the connective tissues of my vertebrae, dispersing into every cell of my body. This practice also taught me how to navigate the complex dynamics of human emotion and interpersonal relationships. Above all, it has taught me how to connect with our more-than-human world and embrace the cyclical nature of life. Throughout the process of becoming an improviser, I was letting go and learning to yield. I was finally opening the door and allowing myself to retreat in the ways I had feared and withheld in the past. I began to seek the darkness for the seeds it had yet to sow and I felt replete in the realization that despite having developed such a problematic relationship to my body through dance, movement was actually the key to healing those wounds and restoring my health.

 

It has taken me a long time to really surrender to the offerings of retreat in their fullness and to accept the healing and rebirth that comes from spending time in solitude. There is still so much more to unearth here, but I am learning to greet darkness with gratitude—to embrace its cycle like the recurring rhythm of my heartbeat and welcome moments of retreat with tenderness. This means trusting in my capacity to embody the depth of a paradoxical existence and allowing myself to become a disciple of my own dichotomy. We gain nothing by denying or delaying pain. Grief deferred brews resentment and stifles our ability to love. Most grief is the manifestation of deep love, and mourning is how we honor the loss of our greatest loves. I enter these moments knowing that my body is not just a vessel capable of holding my grief, but a vehicle for moving it through me and into the light. I am finding ritual and renewal in the reckoning. So I keep returning, engaging the cycle of light and darkness, again and again, embracing the repetition of its perfectly imperfect harmony. 

 

In the early months of 2020, as we settled into our socially distant lifestyle during the pandemic, I could feel the season of retreat emerging. I could also sense that there was something different about this particular time of retreat—that somehow it would not only test my resolve but leave a lasting scar that would permanently mark this moment in time, forever reminding all of us of the moment we were thrust into a collective retreat and reckoning as our past began wielding its sword in the face of our future. 

 

Despite our wildly varied circumstances, we’ve all had plenty of time to get to know ourselves this year and to meet ourselves in more intimate encounters, stripped of life’s usual distractions. For many of us, this meant waking up to keep our own company. In the thick of isolation, staying present and finding calm amid the chaos often felt unattainable. During this lengthy retreat, I drifted in and out of my own past and got lost in my imagination of the future. I meandered from room to room, following my cats around the house, studying their daily schedules. I read books and watched enough TV for a lifetime. I wore the same clothes for days on end. Some days moving and creating was the lifeline that kept me afloat and other days it haunted me from across the room, like a ghost accompanying me throughout the house. Some days I woke up elated in the freedom and solitude of isolation—those days felt like the first snowfall of the year. Other days I woke up in the pitch black of my own shadow and on those days I was restless, plagued by the nagging and relentless chatter of my inconsolable internal dialogue. Sometimes, I felt like a celestial being, in a celestial body, levitating and hovering in the atmosphere observing my now unmoored life. Sometimes all I could do was lie in the living room listening to the same songs on repeat. It felt like I was stuck at the end of a record, circling around and around listening for the scratch of the needle on repeat, as it marked time, and tallied ending after ending. Eventually, it felt like there were no more beginnings, just a series of endings. I was living in an unrelenting, unforgiving cycle of endings. I lived in this space until the difference between ending and beginning was so distorted it no longer carried weight. Still, I was aware that the losses were ongoing and not mine alone. Many people suffered losses greater than my own, and I could feel the vibrations of our universal losses as they resonated throughout the air. Some losses are unbearable and the weight of their absence can be crippling. Others are easier to receive and overtime I was surprised to find relief in the absence of the things that had been the hardest to let go of. There are things that I am grateful to no longer be beholden to. Things that I will no longer return to as I recess my priorities and make space for more nourishing endeavors. 

 

Eventually, no matter what state I woke up in, I trusted in the necessity of its presence. I burrowed into my retreat and began to approach my time with myself the same way that I would approach my time with others, gifting myself the same love and kindness I gave to my family and friends. I decided to meet myself without judgment or expectation. To join myself the way I would a dance partner. I moved toward myself with open arms and with warmth and curiosity for wherever I happened to be. I made space for my desires without discrimination or apology. When I fell into sadness or slipped into past tragedies, I acknowledged the need to mine the lingering trauma. I kept my hands busy planting, cooking, and crafting, giving myself to tasks that looked like homemaking but felt like prayer. I found communion in the simplest acts of living and I gave myself permission to do “nothing” for much longer periods of time than I would have deemed admissible in the past. I listened with closer care and attention and I made more space for not knowing.

 

In my dance improvisation work, I draw on shared movement practices that help us embody empathy and bring us into partnership. However, in the thick of social distancing, partners were scarce. So I turned inward to find a partner within myself. I became my own witness, softened my gaze and engaged my heart, soul, and spirit with empathy. Confronting myself in this way each day became a practice, one that required patience and forgiveness. I didn’t know where it would take me, and quite honestly, I still don’t know everything about where it’s leading me. It’s still emerging, and I’m still uncovering and navigating uncharted territories. What I can sense is that it is allowing me to continue deepening my own sense of embodiment and expanding my capacities to care—for myself, but also for those around me and in my community. It’s a slow, but beautiful, burn to stand in the presence of your own evolution, and to watch yourself rise and fall in the fullness of your vulnerability and authenticity. 

 

I also spent more time bonding with the wild and communing with our more-than-human world. When it was safe I took long walks and spent time at the beach. I danced at the edge of the water and found sanctuary under the moss of the live oak trees. I allowed myself to soften, to be still, and wade in and out of the silence and the hum of the universe that framed the songs of birds, cicadas, and even the rain. I found partnerships in nature as I explored the land in and around the area of my new home along the Mississippi River. In these expeditions, I stumbled across abandoned places that I took to calling wastescapes. Some of them were recently neglected, but most of the sites were long forgotten. They were covered in vines and moss as the earth had slowly begun reinhabiting their spaces. They were also hauntingly familiar of the dumpsites hidden in the woods behind my childhood home and throughout the town I grew up in. These dumpsites were full of old sofas, appliances, fencing, and outdated farming equipment. When I would inquire about why we were hiding trash in the woods, my grandfather would say, oh that’s not a dump, it’s a garden. The birds come here to find scraps for their nests and the mice, rabbits, and other animals make dens down here for the winter. As a child, I knew that there was some truth to that, but I also knew that he was teasing me and that there must be another explanation. Animals taking over the ‘trash garden’ was merely a consequence of an old and outdated practice to discard items that you didn’t have the means to properly dispose of. Nevertheless, I was enchanted by these places, and my cousins and I used to sneak into the woods to hang out and build forts. The present-day wastescapes I find now remind me of these childhood ruins, but they are less enchanting. They are heavier, more mysterious, and evoke a sense of sadness in their abandonment. I keep returning to these places and am drawn to them the same way I’m drawn to dance in the landscapes that surround them. Eventually, I began photographing them as part of my practice. I would dance in the fields and near the swamps and then stop to observe and spend time in the presence of these structures. My reverence for these wastescapes was becoming as strong as my admiration for the terrain they inhabited. These places were isolated and rarely happened upon, and in this particular moment of time, their abandonment mirrored my own. 

 

I did all of these explorations trusting that no matter how muted they become, our creative impulses reside in all stages of the cycle from activity to retreat. They come in waves, and often emerge from our quieter moments of rest, taking shape in the darker waters and swelling to the surface when we are ready to receive the transformative magic of their gifts. This cycle teaches us that the process of grieving and letting go is cumulative, that we can continue sifting through the sands of confusion whilst accepting moments of reprieve and renewal. Even the most complex patterns are knowable, but sometimes mapping them means we have to revisit them time and time again. The lessons of letting go are lifelong. I recall that my grandmother used to spend a lot of time in the ocean and I remember learning from her how to float the waves and ride the current. She would say, just a little further, a little longer, it's good for your soul. I didn't understand what she meant at the time, but now it makes sense to me. She was teaching me how to surrender. Nowadays, I spend at least thirty minutes a day wading, sinking, and steeping in a body of water. It's the most healing ritual I know. The water holds me, renders me weightless, and brings release. In this way, water is a portal for letting go, and like the cycles of retreat, it too teaches me that the act of doing so is cumulative, and comes in waves. It also teaches me how to enter the space of letting go, to reside in its expanse because it is ripe with possibility, and when the time is right, it reveals the unseen. Water teaches me that finding ourselves and our way in the world is about finding fluidity. When we synchronize with the universe and attend to each moment as it unfolds, we begin to recognize when to ride the wave and when to harness its momentum. 

 

I can recall many other moments, events, and life circumstances that help me to embody this knowledge. Our wisdom evolves through the seasonal rhythms of retreat. It's why we are called to movement practices that utilize repetition and ritual. It is our task to engage our material over and over again to move closer toward a mirroring with the patterns of nature. The patterns reside within us, they are our nature. They guide us and help us navigate the complexities of our lives. There is an electrical kind of sapience that comes from moving in concert with nature and with the universe. You don’t have to be a dancer or a mover to tap into it. We are born improvisers, most of us just don't attend to our lives like the unfolding of a composition. But we share our origins with nature and the intelligence that resides in our universe is accessible to everyone. We just have to be willing to listen.

 

Retreat will never feel quite the same for me again. Despite the fact that we continue to be physically separated, we are not alone. There is a strange sort of solace in our communal isolation and I am grateful for the changes that have occurred. We are disengaging old patterns, forging new paths, and rediscovering what it means to be in kinship with one another and with the wider world. The circumstances that have delivered us to this moment are no longer asking but demanding that we unite as a community. Even in the face of mounting polarization, our seasonal cycles have synced and we are being called to weather the storm together. We are being asked to step back, witness, listen, and attend to all matters with compassion. To revel in our joy, lament in our grief, and care more completely for ourselves so that we might better care for our families, our homes, our neighbors, and our planet. We cannot unknow who we have been or who we are becoming in this moment. This moment is holding us accountable and it's counting on us. What we continue to do now, in the unseen moments of our isolation, matters. It’s porous and it's shaping who we will become. I know that we still have so much to mourn and that there will be more waves to endure, but no matter how deafening the silences or stillness become, there are divine gifts materializing from our shared retreat. The sacrifices of our bereft and grieving communities will not go unseen. We will begin again, and we will find our way back to one another in the aftermath of this chaotic time. We will be better for having been broken. So, I’m leaning even more heavily into the unknown. I’m engaging all cycles and patterns of growth, trusting that not just my, but our personal reckonings are strengthening our sovereignty, preparing us to be together again, and filling us with the spirit we will need to hold each other in the season of communal reckoning. I can feel myself continuing to change, and I can feel us adapting. We are conjuring our collective consciousness. We are emerging in chorus, I can hear our voices echoing, traveling, laying roots like a network of mycelium.

 

Yesterday, I stared out the window as my husband drove us home over the lake. It hadn’t been a particularly sunny day, but the sun appeared, as it often does, just in time for its descent over the horizon. I’ve always loved watching the light dance across the water from a fast-moving vehicle. It’s equally mesmerizing and meditative. Today I saw its movement differently, the sun’s rays illuminated a thousand specks of light. They collected like a swarm or a murmuration. They gathered like a sparkle of fireflies glittering across the water, catching and reflecting an infinity of light. They were convening and calling out. Calling me, calling you, calling us. Insisting on their ability to summon us from even the darkest of waters. 

I wrote this piece in the days leading up to the winter solstice. That timing was unintentional but was made purposeful by my subsequent awareness of it. Still, I wasn’t sure if I was going to share it. I was conflicted. I knew that what I had written wasn’t a profound revelation, but I also believe that sharing our stories is part of cultivating shared experiences and there is something about doing so that feels necessary in these times. I believe that the more abundant our voices become, the more likely we are to come together in community. And now, more than ever, it is paramount that we learn how to live in communion, for ourselves, for our species, and for our planet. So dare to ignite your voice, write to me, call me, or join me at the horizon, and we’ll share a dance where the water catches the light of infinity.

film still by Greg Murtha