4:30am on February 9th

Last night I had a dream that I was trying out for a high school cheerleading team. It wasn't the small town high school I graduated from, though. This was a full-blown Texas-style school with a football stadium the size of the neighborhood I grew up in. 

In the dream, in order to try out for the team after school, you had to wear their uniform all day so they could see how it looked on you. The current team members would walk around and take notes on clipboards on things like, "Did she smile enough in the uniform?" "Do her boobs fill up the top near the dart seams?" "How many boys turned their heads when she walked by?"

At one point I stood in an empty girls' bathroom, staring at myself in a full length mirror, tugging at the back of the pleated skirt, praying for some sweat pants and a hoodie. 

I made the team. 

And then fell apart, sobbing, behind the bleachers, because I only tried out because I really wanted to dance every single day, but I had no use for the cruel and exclusive club I had just been granted access to. It felt good to be accepted, and get a stamp of approval, but actually no it didn't and all I really wanted to do is starfish in the sunshine on the school sidewalk, my bellybutton plugged into the sky, poems written on palms. 

It's 4:30am and I'm sitting on the couch just like damn. Damn. How incredible to be granted this gift, this dream of so much clarity, on the eve of my retreat ending. The new moon. 

I'm going to eventually find the words to articulate the magic that this weekend was, or maybe not because that's impossible, but for now, I just need to share something about my experience leading the retreat and holding the space. 

Often when we hear of people who have been damaged from social hierarchies, it's because they were consistently, and often times brutally, rejected. In some way, and in some ungraceful fashion, they were given the message that they were not good enough to go to the parties, or get on the varsity team, or make boys turn their heads. And I am aware of how fucked up this is about to sound, but it's my truth and it's revealing itself, and so it counts. The truth is, that has never been my story. Sure there were profound moments of pain and judgement, but I always had a saved seat at the popular table.  My story is that once I got there, I'd realize it was not at all what I was looking for, and because I didn't know what else to do, I'd call them on their shit and fuck it all up and make people uncomfortable, and angry. I made enemies by getting to the "top" and then being like, "You're all assholes."  I kind of still do this. So no, I wasn't the nerd in the corner being made fun of, but I ended up alone, hated, and never belonging, either way.

In college I was so desperate for sisterhood that I joined a sorority. I got into them all during rush week and chose the one that I thought was the "best." The first week I was voted into a leadership position and thought this was going to finally be my jam until they poured a giant bucket of ice cream sprinkles onto the carpet and told us to separate them by color. I went to the college co-op that night and bought a journal. Finally, during the second semester, somewhere between the president declaring we weren't allowed to eat all day before rush events for fear of food being stuck in our teeth, and witnessing someone with cerebral palsy being denied access to a party because of her electric wheelchair, I snapped. I wrote a letter to headquarters, carefully listing each and every thing I had documented in my diary, and how and why I believed it was so horribly, terribly, wrong. The girls all hated me for it, and I crossed the street on my way to English class to avoid the house from then on. 

I could tell a hundred more stories just like this. Where I sign up for a thing that is very clear about what it is, and then defiantly and totally ungracefully tell them how harmful they are, and then cry for weeks wondering why everyone hates me. 

I didn't really see this until this morning. 

I started to do the very same thing with the photography community, in fact. I came in about 6 years ago and somehow ended up being invited to sit at the popular table. I got to be with the cool kids, and speak at the cool things. They stamped my hand and told me I had made it. Sounds awesome, right? Except, once again, the moment I jumped into that pool, I couldn't get out fast enough.

This time, though, by some miracle, instead of filling blank pages with lists of what they were doing to harm others, so I could later slam them over the head with it, I filled it with what I was missing in my own heart and ways I could maybe find it. 

Just like in my dream last night, I just wanted to dance, and the big problem wasn't the cheerleading squad (well, maybe, but...) it was (also) me thinking I needed the cheerleading squad in order to dance. If you want to dance, Michelle, just fucking dance. 

But here's the thing. Community is everything and sisterhood sustains me. And in the words of Madonna, eventually I realized, "I'm tired of dancing here all by myself." 

And so River Retreats were born. 

Again, I'm not going to even try to write about this weekend just yet, but after that dream and this realization, I just have to say, it's worth it. Finding the people who love you right up close and completely, is so worth it. Breaking the cycles that prevent us from being fully alive (although brutal) is definitely worth it, too. And I keep crying to the point of puffy eyes because I don't have to tug at the back of my skirt anymore, wishing. 

And my brain keeps trying to comb through the last 72 hours, like a mother searching for lice, to pick out the mistakes I made, and beat myself up for them. But I refuse. Not this. 

I woke up to the impatient chirping of a drained smoke detector over my bed. And I just laid there at first staring up at it like, "Oh fire alarm. I know how you feel, stuck all day and night on guard for a catastrophe that never actually happens. Screaming out when you think things are dangerous. But I really wanted to see how this dream ended. I really wanted to see what happens. UGH." 

But then after grouchily getting a drink of water and a bite of muffin, and tucking Thomas' feet back into the blankets, I got a text on my phone from one of the retreat sisters and it all just kind of lifted. A heaviness, finally, at last, was gone. 

I know exactly how it ends. And damn am I grateful.