Connecting at the Women’s Herbal Symposium
I wasn’t planning to attend the Symposium this year. I had other priorities, I told myself. But when I noticed that my eyes welled up with tears both times I encouraged others to attend, I realized some part of me wanted to go. I’ve been attending the Northern California Women’s Herbal Symposium for over half of my life. The Symposium is a gathering of hundreds of women and girls of all ages, including pregnant and nursing moms, toddlers, children of all ages, teenagers and even women into their 70’s and 80’s. Every decade is represented and boys get to attend until they’re 9.
I first attended at their second annual meeting in 1992 when I was 23 and beginning my studies in herbal medicine. I met people at my first gathering that I would continue to see every time I attended, some of whom became close friends. Even though I haven’t attended annually since the 90’s, and much less in the last 15 years, I still feel a sense of homecoming when I return, as I did this May. It’s like a reunion, seeing people I only see there. And even if we don’t know each other or say more than “hello,” I feel a sense of sisterhood with them. I may have watched them through pregnancy, marriage, divorce or grandmotherhood. I may have seen their children grow, their hair turn grey, cancer take their breasts, or even their lives.
When I chose to return this year, it wasn’t to learn about herbs, as it had been in the past. And it wasn’t because a bunch of my close friends were going, as in the past. In addition to supporting my friend and her daughter in the ritual (see below), it was for this feeling of communing with sisters, of bathing in the experience of empowered women and mothers raising their children in an environment where they feel safe, connected to themselves, to the land, and their emerging womanhood. The Symposium creates a safe container for women and children because it’s by women and because that is their intention. I love what happens inside when women feel safe: they relax, open their hearts and connect to others more easily. I think most people crave this. I know I do. And for me, the weekend was all about these kinds of connections.
And that’s why the opening circle on Friday night is now one of my favorite parts of the weekend. It’s where we first come together as a community and are initiated into the essence and flow of the weekend. The presenters set the tone with humor, humility and integrity, introducing the schedule, teachers and general guidelines for participating in a harmonious way. Then there’s the more intimate introduction circle where women from all over come close to share their stories. They are often heartfelt and emotional and we listen with compassionate ears and sisterly love. The stage is set for a weekend of open-heartedness and mutual support and I feel a part of it. I am reminded that through all of our differences, we are connected in our desire for peace, communion and well-being.
On Saturday, I created sweet connections through doing bodywork as work trade. I committed to offering 8 hours of 30-minute sessions over the weekend. I was skeptical about how much I could help someone in that short time. I was also concerned it might be hard on my body or that I’d feel like I was missing out on activities and socializing. But what I discovered was that I could help people a lot in 30 minutes and that I really enjoyed it! It was super rewarding to see pain and tension resolve so quickly. And I loved the opportunity to connect with each woman individually, in a more intimate way than we might otherwise meet over the weekend. I was happy to make deeper connections with many women I already knew from my local community as well as to meet a few new people while bathing them in my healing love balm. So instead of feeling drained by the hours or resentful that it was taking me away from my ideal symposium, I found that it actually enriched my experience in a way I’d never even imagined!
My other favorite connection experience was during the Maiden Ritual on Sunday evening. I remember in my early years feeling resistant to attending this ritual of initiating young girls into motherhood who’ve started their menses – mostly because it can take so long. Now, I cry every time. I so appreciate the power of hundreds of women, boys and girls witnessing and marking this time of transition with celebration and song. And this year, one of my closest friends’ daughters was initiated, one I’ve known since she was born. In fact, this was another main reason I chose to attend this year. I wanted to support and witness them in this rich experience of stepping into a new chapter together.
This year’s Memorial Day weekend symposium was full at about 450 attendees. I was anticipating the ritual would feel too long and I also didn’t want to rush my dinner, so I showed up a little late, taking my time eating and getting dressed up for the occasion. Earlier, a friend had suggested we avoid being at the end of the line so we wouldn’t have to hold our arms up in the human bridge as long. They can really start to burn. But in fact, when I found my good friend, that’s exactly where she was and I joined her. I knew I wanted to be with her during her profound motherhood transition. And I think being at the end with her made my experience even more profound.
At this part of the ritual, we sing the same song over and over – the same song we’ve sung since the 90’s – and it can be a real tear jerker. The lines are:
We are hear to tell you that you’re nothing less than beautiful
We are here to tell you that you’re more than whole
We are here to notice that your loving is a miracle
How deeply you’re connected to my soul
We sing it while we gather the big circle and while we make the bridge as each woman passes underneath. So hundreds of women passed under our arms that Sunday before we passed under the arms of others. It’s like we’re all getting reborn through a goddess birth canal before we initiate the maidens into motherhood. And many tears are shed. After my initial tears, I think I was smiling the whole time as I sang to the people passing under us. I looked into each person’s eyes and saw her beauty and her wholeness and I was very moved. I was reminded that although we can look through eyes that see difference and create separation, we can also look through eyes that see sameness and create unity. To me, this is the essence of yoga. And it’s what I hope to bring with me from the weekend.
So the weekend was full of wonderful surprises. And one of the greatest gifts was my own experience of ease within myself. Because I’ve attended so many times since my early twenties, the event is sort of a maturity marker for me. At earlier Symposiums, I remember feeling alone, judging myself as not likable, inadequate, not “goddessy” enough, etc. But this time especially, I could really see how much I had changed. I could see how all the self-esteem work I’ve done in the last several years has made a huge difference in how I relate to myself, especially in groups of empowered women. I went with the intention to be kind and present with myself and I followed through on that. I listened to my body and honored my desires for connection, alone time, and sleep. I followed my natural flow without pressuring myself to do too much or judging myself for not doing it right. And to me, these are signs that I love and accept myself just as I am.
I left feeling completely uplifted and nurtured by the whole experience. I also left inspired to share my Self-Esteem work with the Symposium next year. In preparing for my next iteration of the Self-Esteem Transformation groups I’ve been leading, the new online video course, I’ve been interviewing past attendees and realizing how greatly women have benefited from these offerings. It’s inspired me to spread this work even more. I think the Symposium will be the perfect environment to share my passion for supporting women of all ages in this deep way. And I imagine I’ll experience a special form of connecting to myself and others if I do.
I hope to see some of you there!
I bow to the Divine in you,