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.

—Isadora Duncan


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

incredulous.


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

appearance, stung.


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

gave in.


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

our dreams.


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

Leesburg, VA

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.