Where the Wild Things Are: Courage in Uncertainty

Written by Rona Fernandez

May 20, 2014

Burnt out. That was me in 2009, after thirteen-plus years working in social justice organizations—a walking cliché as a movement worker. Although I had a relatively cushy job as a Development Director at a great organization, feeling responsible for raising the budget for a staff of fifteen, working through executive transitions, and fretting about myriad organizational issues led to many nights of anxiety-ridden insomnia. I’d suffered bouts of migraines and vertigo that on some days made it impossible for me to do anything. I wasn’t always my best in the work, taking my frustrations out on colleagues, and most often on myself. I loved working for justice but I knew something needed to change. So when a friend encouraged me to apply to the Windcall Institute’s residency program, I jumped at the chance.

I was the person in my organization that always pushed for things like coaching for staff, urging people to stay home and rest when they were sick, encouraging folks to utilize our health insurance to get acupuncture and chiropractic treatments. More than once I’d spent more money on therapy and alternative healing sessions in one month than I had on rent! So I figured Windcall would be easy since I was already into all this groovy California self-help type stuff.

But once I got there—my Windcall retreat was in the Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest—it wasn’t exactly easy. You see, my M.O. back then was to overload myself with “to do” lists—even when on vacation I always had an itinerary. Suddenly, in that wooden house perched on a hillside lush with green ferns and madrone and spruce trees above an isolated bay, I was confronted with more unstructured free time (just under three weeks) than I’d ever had in my adult life. Even with the company of two other movement folks, I was surrounded by the most immense quiet I’d ever experienced. And it gave me a bit of a panic. But I’d asked for this, so I had to decide how I was going to deal with all this space and time to just be.

So I decided to experiment with letting go, to live with the uncertainty and formlessness of each moment, with doing whatever I felt like doing at any given time, and with not judging whatever came up. It’s the kind of thing I never got to do in my regular life back home, but at Windcall, I finally had the chance. In this way, my whole Windcall experience was a meditation. And just like any meditation, it wasn’t always easy or pleasant. It was also at times difficult, challenging, even frightening.

On the third day of our stay, a cougar made its way to our front door. I wasn’t there to see it, but a fellow Windcaller, Shannon Sullivan, did. She was alone in the house while the rest of us were walking in the forest, and told us later how the big cat sauntered up to the window, sat on the front porch and scratched itself. When she went to grab her camera to try to take a picture, the cougar bolted.

Before this, I’d felt safe in that natural environment. Afterwards, things got hard. I felt homesick, even a little depressed, and for a few days I felt real fear—fear of walking down to the beach by myself or up to the main road via the driveway. A city girl, I’d never spent much time in such a wild, remote place before. Though I was unafraid of the many urban dangers I faced on a regular basis back home in Oakland, California, the cougar was an unfamiliar threat.

But I remembered my commitment to try and stay in the moment. I started a daily meditation practice, sitting in my room overlooking the forest or outside on the deck. I sat with my fear. Every night by the fire in the house, I read When Things Fall Apart by Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. I came to the realization that the cougar had provoked a deeper fear in me, the archetypal fear of death that we all encounter. This realization made me want to face my fears head-on, not wanting to waste the few precious weeks of solitude I had been given, cougar or not.

So I did a lot of things I hadn’t let myself do for a long time, or ever. I played the keyboard in the loft, even bought sheet music in town so I could learn a few new tunes. I climbed up a tree house and read poetry out loud, my voice adding to the forest chorus of rustling leaves and chirping birds and insects. I had my first-ever horse-riding lesson. Flame, the gentle, pale brown horse I rode, was very patient with me.

I spent a lot of time doing something even more important, especially for burnt-out activists. I sat back and enjoyed the beauty and healing power of nature. I spent many hours sitting or walking outside, soaking in the green serenity of the forest, the pristine waters of Dabob Bay, the endless sky and clouds that came and went. During my eighteen days in the Olympic Peninsula I saw more wild creatures than I’d seen in my entire lifetime: a black bear down the road, countless deer, a herd of Roosevelt elk in the Hoh Rainforest, and even a bald eagle soaring past our living room window to its nest nearby. Being surrounded by so much nature at turns made me feel broken open and vulnerable, then strong and self-assured. And it renewed my burnt out spirit in a way that nothing else could have.

I also read the reflections of past Windcallers—which were given to us in a binder for our perusal—and came across entries by folks I knew from back home. People like Taj James, Nikki Bas, Jan Adams, Andy Robinson, Eric Quezada, and Francis Calpotura. I hadn’t even known that many of them had gone to Windcall. Many of those folks’ Windcall stories were similar to mine. They expressed gratitude for the solitude and time in nature, for the reminder to care for oneself in order to stay strong for our movement work. Reading their stories made me realize how much healing Windcall had brought to our movement over the years. They all described coming away from the experience feeling rested and rejuvenated, hopeful even, and with a renewed commitment to movement work.

And, perhaps most importantly, Windcallers come away with ideas and practices to bring back to our organizations and the broader movement.

Nikki Fortunato Bas, of Sweatshop Watch at the time of her residency in 2003, now with East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy and soon to be with Partnership for Working Families, said, “Windcall erased my burnout, taught me I could work in a more sustainable way, and inspired an organizational culture shift, including our adopting a sabbatical policy. Windcall shows us we can, and should, focus on leadership longevity as part of strengthening our movements.” Windcall is about “big cultural shifts for us,” wrote Melinda Wiggins, 2004 Windcall alum and Executive Director of Student Action with Farmworkers. Shifts she believes “recognize how we work best as people and not machines.”

After Windcall, I shifted into supporting a broader range of organizing groups as a fundraising consultant, contributing to the movement in a way that fit best with my core strengths. I also integrated nature more into my daily life with gardening and hiking. I continue to encourage others to see the doctor or acupuncturist, eat well and exercise, and take care of themselves so that they can stay strong for the long haul.

With the 25 days of Windcall campaign, myself and other Windcall alumni are hoping to bring some of what we learned about self-care and staying power back to our everyday lives, and to our comrades and friends in the movement. It’s not necessary to go to the mountains for three weeks to have a clearer vision, a stronger sense of balance, and a more sustainable pace to our work. But I think it might be necessary to bring a little bit of Windcall into our lives every day to help us be the best we can be as organizers, movement workers, and warriors for justice.

All it takes is a little willingness and a lot of courage.

Feature photo: Mural – Where the Wild Things Are, photo – Bruce Tanner, licensed under CC BY 2.0

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