Hot Springs Retreat 2001


I flew into Charlotte, North Carolina first thing Thursday morning, and was immediately met at the airport by Sue (whom I've known for a while) and Geeta, a young trans woman from the SF bay area. Geeta had spent the evening in the airport, 'cause her flight came in the previous evening. We bundled off to the rent-a-car place to get a vehicle, and we got dirty looks from people on the rent-a-car shuttle bus by talking about trans issues and Sue's fundy relatives who live in Charlotte.

Then we began a long drive toward Hot Springs; it's about a three hour drive. I chose to fly into Charlotte rather than Asheville (which is closer) 'cause I wanted to fly Air Canada, and that put me in a good position to give Sue and Geeta a ride.

We arrived in Hot Springs around 2:30 in the afternoon; we were a bit early, and we got pretty much first choice of rooms. Sue and I decided we wanted to sleep in the haunted room (which I slept in the year before). Geeta seemed really spooked by the idea of a haunted room, but she ended up across the hall.

We socialized a bit in the music room (the main room where we did most of our ritual work), and Yvonne handed me a copy of TS/TV Tapestry from 1991/2. It was the copy that had spotlighted Rena Swifthawk, about whom I'd been asking on the Kindred Spirits mailing list. Anyway I was really touched that Yvonne had gone out of her way to get me that magazine. Then we talked about drums; I showed Yvonne my new drum -- it's really pretty, but the altitude and humidity had slackened it. Here in Toronto, she has a beautiful voice, but in Hot Springs, she just thudded.

Eventually, we had opening circle; we all put personal items on the altar and they stayed there for the weekend. I put one of my many ankh pendants on the altar. I've always had a fondness for ankhs; I'd like to be able to say that I feel some affinity with the eternal life theme, but in truth, the ankh mostly makes me think of the movie, Logan's Run, with Michael York slurring out "there... is... no... sanctuary". Well, perhaps there is a sanctuary, but you can't just go out and find it, you have to work to bring it into existence.

Our altar

Holly put forth the idea that we've been talking for a long time about our potential/mission/legacy/whatever, and that perhaps it was time we started thinking about figuring out ways to raise awareness about the spiritual dimension of trans-ness. So much of trans gatherings are dominated by the "hair, skin and nails" discussions and she thought that perhaps we could do something to spark different kinds of discourse. Much of the weekend, in fact, was devoted to working with these questions.

It was a good discussion. We gathered again to continue that discussion after dinner, and I think I kinda got us onto a different tangent. I started talking about the experience from last year when we were joined on the mountain top by two mundanely-gendered people who were invited to participate in our ritual. I commented that the previous year, I was really rolling the issue of closed space around in my head ('cause of the whole Michigan Women's Music Festival thing) and was pretty firmly against consciously choosing to create a closed space, and yet when those two were invited, I had all this apprehension: will we be able to talk about Our Stuff? Will we suddenly guard what we say? How will this change the dynamic? It surprised me to discover that apprehension.

In fact, the dynamic was different with them there, but it was okay. More than okay; I feel that something really significantly profound happened because of them being there.

So we talked about that for a while, and agreed that if something similar happened this year, we'd again open the circle to people.

As it started getting later, people trickled off for bed. I stayed up and talked to Holly and Yvonne for a while. Yvonne gave me more information about Rena, including some of her faults. I think that this was a theme for me this year -- discovering that the trans people that are legendary in our community are human beings and have flaws. Several conversations came back around to this idea.

Then I went to bed. At around four in the morning, I got up to go to the bathroom. I came back to the room, closed the door and climbed into bed. Seconds later, the door was noisily opened; I saw a woman silhouetted in the door, and she started moving toward Sue's bed. I figured that it was Sue -- that she must have also gone off to the bathroom just after I left the room. I rolled over to get the light out of my eyes, and just before I went back to sleep, I was aware that although Sue had closed the door behind her, she hadn't latched it properly, and it kind of creaked open again. I remember being vaguely miffed about it. But then I was asleep again.


The next morning, we started processing about power. We were discussing what power means and the ways that we disempower ourselves. We also did an exercise intended to get ourselves out of our heads and back into our bodies: we were asked to find a stance that we associated with power. Most people were in rigid chakra-opening stances. Me, I started doing the little dance that I associate with my spirit name. It's a bit goofy, but it always succeeds in getting myself out of my head and into my body.

At a convenient break, Sue asked, "who came into our room at four o'clock this morning?" We talked about this for a while, and here's Sue's recollection:

Sue was sleeping when the door was noisily opened. Sue woke up, and saw a woman with light-coloured (possibly grey) hair, in tight curls enter the room. Sue described the woman as resembling Holly, but was pretty sure that the hair was shorter than Holly's. The woman leaned in to the room and appeared to put something on the nightstand beside her bed. Then she went back into the hall, closing the door behind her, but failing to latch it. The door creaked open a bit, and while she was lying there, Sue decided to get up to go to the bathroom. She's pretty sure that I was still in bed when she both got up and came back.

Because the figure at the door appeared to put something on the night table, Sue assumed that it was someone handing out information for the next day, and although she thought that four o'clock in the morning was a really odd time to do so, she didn't feel like anything really extraordinary was going on.

Nobody in the Inn came into the room (there are only three staff members in the building). So it looks like we were visited by "Aunt" Jane, who lost a daughter in the room, and who occasionally comes in to the room to check up. Last year, Holly had told me that the room was haunted by a little girl, and I didn't know about Aunt Jane. Elmer, the Innkeeper, told us that she puts in about one appearance a year, and that she was last seen the previous fall.

This really pleased me and freaked me out. I guess I've pretty much assumed that ghosts don't show themselves to me (the previous March, I may have heard the ghost of a cat at my Minneapolis sweetie's place -- I've never been certain about that, though). It's pleasing to know that I don't live so deeply in the rational/intellectual world that I'm ghostblind. But weird, too.

The Inn

That afternoon, we went hiking, and ended up going skinny-dipping in the river. As an exercise, we were looking for things that caught our eye -- collecting up a bundle of rocks or acorns or leaves or old, rusty fishing-line weights. We were doing this all weekend long. I suspected that I'd be bringing these home with me, so I avoided plant and animal parts. I ended up with a collection of interesting rocks. And then as I was climbing across big boulders in the water, I found a cucumber. A perfectly fresh cucumber wedged between a rock and a tree trunk. I started referring to it as the Cosmic Cucumber, and I'd use it for whatever ceremonial knightings that I felt were called for.

The book I was reading during the weekend of the event was Robertson Davies' The Deptford Trilogy, and on the plane-ride home, I read a passage, about a Portuguese saint whose father had betrothed her to a man she didn't want to marry. After praying about this, the woman miraculously grew a beard, and her fiance didn't want to marry her. The passage goes like this:

"She was commonly called Wilgefortis, supposed to be derived from Virgo-Fortis, but she was also honoured under the names of Liberata, Kummernis, Ontkommena, Livrade, and in England  -- she once had a shrine in St. Paul's -- as Uncumber. [...]

"I, however, had one or two new ideas about Uncumber, which I wanted to test. The first was that her legend might be a persistence of the hermaphrodite figure of the Great Mother, which was long worshipped in Cyprus and Carthage. Many a useful and popular wonder-working figure had been pinched from the pagans by Christians in early days, and some not so early. [...]

"So I jaunted cheerfully about the Continent on my apparently mad mission, hunting up Uncumber in remote villages as well as in such easy and pleasant places as Beauvais and Wissant, and once positively identifying an image that was said to be Uncumber [...] as Galla, the patroness of widows, who also sometimes represented with a beard."

Anyway, the name "Uncumber" caught my attention because of its similarity to "cucumber", and then the references to "Galla" and the great mother figure (about which Sue and I had chatted) struck me as really coincidental.

Just before dinner, Holly and I had a conversation on the porch. While we were chatting, she said some really affirming things. They meant a lot to me to hear.

After dinner, we went off to the hot tubs (they don't call the town Hot Springs for nuthin', y'know?) I tubbed with Sue, Yvonne and Stephanie, and we spent a lot of time talking about the Gallae and about Yvonne's history with shamanism. After the hot tubs, we went back and planned to do some journeying work.

I lay on my bed for a while; my tummy was a bit tight. I have really mild lactose intolerance, but we'd been having a lot of dairy, so I feared that it was getting the better of me. While in our room, Sue and I heard bells being chimed. And chimed. And chimed. I figured that this must be the call to start the journeying work, and we headed downstairs. They weren't quite ready to begin journeying, so we asked what the bells were all about. Everyone looked confused. "What bells?" Sue and I looked at each other. How could they not have heard the bells? But they hadn't. Eeep! This after we'd been visited by a ghost.

While I was willing to accept the idea that the visitation the previous evening was a ghost, I didn't think that the bells were supernatural. Sue and I hunted around looking for something bell-like that could have made that noise, but we couldn't find anything. We asked a couple of people if they were doing something with bells, but nobody that we asked knew anything about them... and, to be honest, because of the whole ghost thing, I was self-conscious about making too much of a fuss about the bells; I mean, two unexplained things in one day is just too incredulous.

We didn't manage to solve the mystery of the bells that evening, but the next day, we heard Anastasia playing one of those metal bowls that you gong with a big stick; that was the sound of our bells, and Anastasia had the room next to ours, explaining why we heard it and no one else did.

The journey work was a bit odd. It had good bits and bad bits. I was looking for some answers to questions about one of my relationships. When I started the journeying, I tried calling in a particular spirit animal -- the animal associated with my spirit name, who hasn't really nominated himself to be a spirit animal; I just keep hoping that, given my spirit name, he would be willing to be my guide. I'm not sure if it's really couth to call a particular guide, but I'd been doing it anyway.

The few times I've called him, he's appeared static -- like a cardboard cut-out of the animal image from my Medicine Cards. And when I started visualizing him in my journey, he looked that way again. So I mentally said, "fuck it", and decided to call on Deer, who had been retrieved for me the previous weekend at a journeying workshop. Then, suddenly, the other guide became much more real. I recall his fur, thick and wet, and the movement of his head. That was one of the good parts.

The first half of the journey was spent driving a golf cart with my guide, through some ruins of buildings, like in some post-apocalyptic SF movie. That was a bit unhappy-making. Then I became aware of my body in the room. I could feel the tightness in my stomach again. Also, I could feel the beat of the drum vibrating in my sternum. And I suddenly felt this tingling, radiating out from my torso to my appendages. I couldn't feel my fingertips touching the floor, or the feel of the floor on my shoulders. My directional hearing was fine, and I was completely aware of where the drummer was in the room, but I couldn't feel the room. I was really quite fascinated by the sensation, although I was aware that I'd lost track of my journey. Then the return beat started, and the session ended.

The post-apocalyptic scenes had me somewhat concerned (given that I was looking for insight into a relationship issue) and I didn't feel like sharing any of my journey at the time.

Between the ghost, the bells, the tight stomach, and the weird journey, I was in an odd state that night. In bed, I was freezing. I was shaking. I got up to go to the bathroom again, and my body shook the whole time. I got back to the room and closed the door to the balcony, and tried to turn off the fan in our room (I was fumbling in the dark trying to find the off switch, all the while imagining the fan accidentally catching my hair). I eventually opened the door to let light from the hallway in, and got the fan turned off.

My sleep was fitful. I kept dreaming that I was waiting for the ghost to come back, and that I had certain mathematical transformations that I had to keep in my mind that would help the ghost and protect me at the same time. I feel like I woke up every hour or so, and was still freezing.


The next day, I was a wreck. I felt nauseous, I had a headache, and I was really spacey. I couldn't focus on anything, and I was tired. The plan that day was to go up to Max Patch (the mountaintop on the Appalachian trail) where we do our major ceremony. I made Sue drive the rental car, and when we got there, I still felt woozy. By the time we reached the peak, I was drained. One of our group, Christina, does some pretty good stuff with energy work, and she started working on me. She said, "It feels like you're not in your body." I'd heard that sometimes people don't come back properly from journeys, and I started wondering if that's what was wrong with me. After she worked on me, the headache and the nausea went away, but I still felt completely spacey.

The view from the top of Max Patch

We started doing ritual work; I spent most of the ritual horizontal, but I stayed in the circle. We were just starting the naming ceremony for some of the new people there when all of a sudden, along came the same two people who joined us last year. They had apparently been so affected by their time with us last year that they came back exactly a year later, gambling that they were going to find us again. They weren't even local; they came in from out-of-state. We were so amazed by this. There was lots of hugging going on.

If we ever doubted the idea that the circles on Max Patch should be open, we did not doubt it any more.

After ritual work, we went back down the mountain, and had a picnic lunch. I didn't eat; I was still spacey. I skipped breakfast as well. When we got back to the inn, I went to lie down, and I slept through dinner, slept through a major music jam session that went late into the night.


But I was just fine when I woke up on Sunday morning. Some people had to leave, and we tried to finish up a good amount of our work. Holly asked us each to make some kind of personal statement about what we were going to do to reclaim our power in the coming months. I was terrified by the question, because I'm afraid of the ideas that present us as "special" or "leaders". I think it's too easy for our egos to latch onto these ideas and use them badly. I've been re-reading Trungpa's Cutting through Spiritual Materialism, recently, and I think that spiritual materialism is a real threat.

At one point, we were talking about the Kindred Spirits symbol. I love symbols -- I like to know what they mean, and I have a good collection of personal symbols. But I started thinking, that weekend, that maybe the practice of re-inventing symbols is important. Yvonne and I had previously had a discussion about how when things become static, they're lifeless. Perhaps we all have to find our own variation on the symbols and myths that mean things to us. I know that I had been planning to paint the Kindred Spirits symbol on my new drum -- now I think I'm looking to paint a variation. Here's my first prototype:

I liked the arrows that circle and converge on one of Holly's drums, but I also liked the red/black/white/yellow colour scheme representing the human races. My version has an outer green circle (the Earth) surrounded by a blue circle (the sky). This is my personal version of the Kindred Spirits symbol.

We finished the afternoon with some more hiking and swimming, this time in a different river.

I was being a wimp about the cold water, again (I like water, I just don't like *cold*). Eventually, I concluded that, in order to be true to my spirit name, I had to ride the rapids. So I stepped over the mucky, mossy rocks to get upstream. I slipped, and scraped my hand on a rock. I got up and started walking again, and slipped again. So I started walking, crab-like, on all fours. I remember thinking, "this is stupid. Why do I keep slipping? I'd always been very sure of my footing." Hmmm, thinks I, is this a metaphoric reminder that I need to re-own my confidence?

But eventually, I made it far enough upstream to ride the rapids. Bump bump ouch bump.

Then we went out for dinner, the only meal we had away from the Inn. My eyes betrayed me, and I couldn't finish my meal. We finished the evening with some drumming, but even that petered out early.


Next morning, we had a closing circle. People were saying their thanks. I said, "Thank you for being My People." And the whole group spontaneously started doing my spirit animal dance. That was a good moment.

At 9:30 the next morning, Sue, Geeta and I were off, back toward Charlotte. We got back to the airport about an hour before their flight. Me, I had to wait in the airport for about five hours before I could get back to Toronto.

Before we left, Holly and I chatted briefly on the porch, and I told her that I felt some obligation to do something in Toronto -- perhaps as simple as holding a circle in the park some day. I don't know what form it'll take, but I'm certain that it'll happen.

Copyright © 2001 by B.C. Holmes. Last updated September 3rd, 2001.

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