Women of the Wild featured in
the book 50 After 50 by Maria Leonard Olsen
Author Maria Leonard Olsen, past Women of the Wild participant, wrote about her experience at the gathering as part of her latest book, 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). Check out this excerpt below to read about her experience at Women of the Wild.
Excavating My Inner Wild Woman
You were wild once. Don’t let them tame you.
I turned 50 and decided to run naked in the woods. I do not think there is
a single woman from my “past” life who would believe I spent a retreat in
the woods with a group of women I did not know, part of which involved
dancing naked around a campfire howling “pussy power” at the moon. If you
had told me, before I turned 50, that I would be doing this, I’d have been
The name of the retreat intrigued me. “Women of the Wild.” I longed
to be a Woman of the Wild. I had spent too much time holed up in a little
box I believed society—and especially my straight-laced, steady, appropriate
husband—wanted me to stay in. This cradle-Catholic was raised believing that
anything wild, lewd, of-the-flesh (unless solely for procreation), led to infernal
damnation. We were exhorted to cover our heads, shoulders, and knees while
in church. I was done covering who I really was. I did not want to allow fear
to govern my decisions any longer. Thus, I shed my comfort zone, pushing
away any lingering wary thoughts, as my car climbed the mountains into Appalachia,
into the woods and away from modern plumbing.
The retreat organizer lived near Gallaudet University and arranged for
the gathering to be completely accessible, with interpreters fully fluent in
American Sign Language (ASL). Initially, I felt self-conscious when talking
with the deaf participants. Do I look at the interpreter? Do I look at the
woman with whom I was speaking, who was looking alternatively at me and
then the interpreter? What happened over the course of the retreat was a
gradual easing of the hearing “barrier.” We learned how to adapt and leaned
in to one another. We all learned the difference between the ASL sign for “vagina”
and how that sign differed from that for “pussy.” We took an audacious
group photo celebrating this piece of education. I no longer take for granted
the facility (albeit diminishing) I still enjoy with all of my senses.
There also were lesbian and trans women present. We were of all ages,
though the group skewed a bit younger than my demographic. While dancing
naked around the campfire, I showed the youngsters what “elephant”
skin looks like on the belly of a women who gained too much weight in
pregnancy. They smiled and said I was beautiful. Perhaps I was and perhaps
I was not. The point was that we were and are beautiful, just as we are. The
energy and vibration we created together was dazzling, palpable, and intrepid.
We danced fully clothed as well. During open mic night, we got a
“twerking” lesson from a belly dancing instructor. My half-century-old body
betrayed my desire as I struggled to keep up with the seductive moves. No
matter. We laughed together and I felt a sense of freedom in my soul. Or was
it freedom in my haltingly shaking pelvis that refused to contort like those of
the young women's? As we moved to the pulsing music that our deaf sisters felt
in their bones, no one cared how they looked. When was the last time I was
in a room with dozens of women who did not care one iota how they looked?
How much time I had wasted caring about my appearance! The shame
from my First Communion at age seven being the only girl not dressed in
white was etched into my psyche. Had my immigrant mother not known how
to dress me for this occasion? Did my custodial father fail to get the memo?
I still cannot look at photos from that day without feeling blood rush to my
face, or at least sadness for that seven-year-old girl.
A preoccupation with being dressed appropriately for the occasion entered
my public persona as the result of this and other shaming life experiences.
I remember not feeling that I had the right clothes when I arrived at
college. It was the 1980s, and preppiness was de rigeur at that New England
gothic-spired school. I had come from a Catholic girls’ high school, where
we wore uniforms every day and fashion was downplayed in my friend group.
I remember feeling judged and stared at by my wealthier college classmates.
At the country club we joined, I was mistaken for a server. I was painfully
aware of the dress code and disappointed that my armor had not sufficed. At
the large Washington, D.C., law firm where I first practiced after graduation,
I was mistaken for a secretary. There is, of course, nothing wrong with servers
or secretaries. I have been both. But assumptions people made, based on my
Such baggage led to some stifling behavior on my part. We lived in an
affluent neighborhood for a couple decades, where I would not even go outside
for a run unless I was in color-coordinated attire. And it was usually highend
Lululemon brand, or the like. Now, I dress for comfort, especially while
exercising. And I live in an area where people seem not to regard clothing as
much beyond functional.
Does caring less about what others think come from a healthy self-esteem,
borne from nurturing parents and a supportive upbringing? Does it come from
maturing with sheer force of years of experience on this planet? Who knows?
It is probably very case-specific. For this person in long-term recovery, it came
from internalizing the sentiment that “What other people think of me is none
of my business.” And even if it were, it is largely out of my control.
The rain at the Wild retreat did not dampen our spirits, but rather magnified
the earthy smells during our nature walks and movement between geodomes
and our cabins. Everything green was glittering with moisture. It smelled
loamy. I felt the soil give as I stepped into the woods, as my resistance slowly
I had a transforming experience sitting upon a rock that jutted over a
river’s rushing water. All sounds were drowned out, save for the river current’s
music. I was able to sit still with my eyes closed, attempting to empty my
mind, and meditating for the longest period to date. My mind’s eye conjured
up the image of a phoenix behind my lids. Images came and went. I listened
for my Higher Power to speak to me in some way.
I opened my eyes and gazed at the river’s rocks. Most were smooth; some
were still jagged. “Stop fighting, and let the river of life smooth your edges,”
a spirit seemed to say.
There were yoga, meditation, and “soulspeak” workshops at the retreat; sessions
on unhealthy body images; and instruction on how to manifest our
intentions and create our own abundance. One sublime orator shot verbal
sugar through our veins, as we listened with rapt attention to her compelling
words. We learned the gift of “holding space” for people we love, but cannot
reach. When I hear negative thoughts from others or in my head, I learned
from a wise woman, Malka Roth, now to respond with, “Return to sender,
with love and consciousness,” until I can release the negativity. One poet led
me to a place where I was able to see myself as my own soul mate. When I
shared this with her after her presentation, we both wept.
We practiced healing modalities on one another and ate vegetarian,
“clean” food. I enjoyed a body massage in a makeshift studio with cloth walls
that opened to the rushing river. During the closing ceremony, we took turns
standing in the middle of the circle and receiving positive energy from the
outstretched hands of the others who were reaching toward the woman in
the center. We sealed our intentions to attract positivity and tend carefully to
The retreat included empaths, shamans, yogis, and seekers of many
kinds. Women shared their deep pain during the weekend. We were so
opened up and raw following the sharing that took place, that I happily
wore a red hat upon my return to civilization, being told that this would
protect my Crown Chakra, which represents our ability to be fully connected
spiritually—one of several spiritual self-defense tactics to which I was
exposed. News to me. Why not embrace these concepts previously foreign
to me? Who is to say traditional Western religions are right and Buddhists
are wrong? I can now find my Higher Power anywhere. I believe we are all
talking to and seeking the same God, no matter what we call Her or Him
and how we approach the Spirit.
I still smile when I think about the long weekend in the woods with this
amazing group of soul sisters—free of judgment, inclusive, international, authentic,
open-hearted, magical women. I allowed myself the spiritual expansion
I had dreamed of for years. I am working hard to dismantle the yoke of
shame and fear I have carried for so long. I am banishing the word “should”
from my vocabulary, in a quest to cease from “shoulding” all over myself. I
am learning to love out loud, accepting life as it comes, and letting the rough
edges of my life heal with the gliding water of experience that now includes
the Women of the Wild.
I have adopted as my mantra a meditation Malka shared with us that was
adapted from a writing of Ram Dass. After solitary meditation in the woods,
she had us come together and consider picturing the world as a forest. Notice
how some trees grow straight and tall, nourished by sunlight, while others
bend this way and that, struggling to reach some sun above. Some trees bend
and break with weight foisted upon them or weakness within, that we cannot
see. So, too, are people around us like the trees. Some have easily received
what they needed to thrive. Some worked hard to get what they needed, and
some could not bear their circumstances. If we think of our fellows in these
terms, it is much easier to practice more kindness toward all.
Remembering this metaphor for regarding others in the world has allowed
me to grow in compassion toward those with whom I come in contact.
I was surrounded by such love at this retreat. I pray you, too, can find a community
or retreat where you can let go, expand your mind, and allow epiphanies
like those I had at Women of the Wild dance in your consciousness.
--Excerpted from 50 After 50--Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life (Rowman & Littlefield, June 2018), by Maria Leonard Olsen
Women of the Wild 2018 Gathering
Friday, Oct. 5th, 3pm to Monday, Oct. 8th, 12pm
13951 Freedom Center Drive
WithLoveDC's third annual gathering Women of the Wild. This weekend gives all women and femme-identifying people a space to connect more with nature, connect deeper with their truer selves, and then connect with a strong community and network of other women.
This event is open to the Deaf community and is completely ASL inclusive.
Check out our amazing presenters and more details at www.womenofthewild.us.