It was an exciting experience to attend the Space Between Stories retreat. To be sharing a space over four days with 150 people on similar journeys of sacred activism and cultural transformation was very inspiring. I also felt very aware of the places where we are still culturally so wounded—so many of us carry that way of “wanting to be seen” that makes it difficult to listen on a deep level to what wants to be born through us.
The lectures that Charles gave felt like an overview of his existing work; I would have loved to hear him speak more about the research for his soon to be published book on climate change. It felt like a lot of what he spoke of was around widening the cultural imagination and inviting in new ways of knowing and perceiving outside of the dominant narrative.
Charles began his first lecture by introducing us to a bowl of water that he had gathered from the Hudson and inviting the water into the space as a “witness” to the work we were doing there. He spoke directly to the water, thanking it for its presence and apologizing for interrupting its flow. He said that at the end of the workshop he would return the water to the Hudson so it could continue on its journey and carry our questions to the ocean.
This invoking and direct speaking to more-than-human presences was the core of Charles’ teachings during the retreat. The thread that wove through the practices and concepts we explored was the knowing of our “interbeing," the realization that “if I were you I would do as you do.” This kind of knowing invites a deeper level of empathy and imagination to way we attempt to make change in the world. It reminds us that each gesture, no matter how small, ripples out on the current of our relationships, touching everything.
This radical expansion of ecological imagination was paired with an invitation into deep inner work in the form of small group exercises. I perceived these exercises as being practices for healing wounds in what Francis Weller calls the second gate of grief, “the places that have not known love.” In one exercise, we named our gifts, then the person listening named back to us all of the other gifts they saw in us too. In another exercise, we named all the judgements that people made about us and we made about ourselves, then the other person spoke words of forgiveness and blessing to us to begin an initiation into the healing of those wounds.
An internal shift began happening for me on the third day of the gathering, when we did an exercise to go outside and find a more-than-human being to have a conversation with. This is practice I do often in my life, of going to listen to trees or to water, and so I thought it would be an easy thing for me to do. But when I sat down at the roots of the oak tree that had been calling me, I found myself distracted by mosquitos and exhausted by all the over-saturation of the last few days.
I tried to listen to the tree, tried to stay present, but I felt so itchy and uncomfortable that I was unable to engage my imagination. I ended up walking away from the tree and going to sit on some vast rocks that made up the cliff overlooking the Hudson River. The retreat center was across the river from West Point and on that day they were doing some kind of military training exercise, because across the water I could hear explosions. I sat down on the rocks, grumpy and distracted, and felt annoyed by the explosions. In the back of my mind, I could hear the rocks saying that they didn’t like the explosions, that they were worried that something was going profoundly wrong, that the tremors were making tiny cracks appear in the solidity of reality, that it wasn’t supposed to be this way. But my mosquito-bitten skin was so uncomfortable that I barely registered what I had heard from the rocks and I stayed in that grumpy state of self-absorption as I went inside for the next exercise.
The next exercise was journalling while Charles occasionally gave us writing prompts for us to incorporate into our process. I wrote:
After about thirty minutes of journaling, we took our lunch break and I wandered around on my own for a while, needing some time without people. I ended up coming back into the lecture hall and feeling drawn to stand before the glass bowl filled with water from the Hudson. Charles had invited us to speak to the water, to offer our prayers and our songs for its journey. I sat before the water for a long time, singing to it, speaking of my confusion and discomfort. I looked within the bowl to see all the sediment at the bottom, the calmness of the water. I asked the water to teach me how to be still and I lay down on the floor next to the water to practice. I lay there for about 30 minutes, feeling my body falling into the floor, my consciousness falling down, down, down. People came and went from the room as I lay there, and when I got up and looked again at the bowl of water, I saw that someone had placed a heart-shaped stone at its center.