It was easy to feel sorry for myself on the first morning of our retreat, as melted butter light poured onto the bamboo floor of the jungle house. The faces of my co-retreatants around the orientation circle were open and relaxed. My head felt woozy, congestion oozing silently behind the bridge of my nose, my sinuses throbbing and packed. I had booked the trip last June, while still uncoiling from the shock of a personal crisis. My intent was to give myself a gift of pleasure and joy, among friends, to dance and recharge, refilling my well of spirit, love, and vitality, drained by months of worry and instability. That first day, I found it hard to stay present to the glory of this place with the exotic name, Xinalani, fighting the sunken feeling of a heavy cold and the press of new anxiety, another crisis on the home front, more chaos, out-of-the-blue. It’s been that kind of year for so many of us. I had to sit out a couple of songs to rest, which isn’t like me.
The trip here was a blur. Not surprisingly given the stress of the prior week, I’d come down with a cold. A sore throat came on sharply as a papercut Thursday night while I was packing; it blossomed into a stupefying head cold by pre-dawn Saturday morning when the cab picked me up for the airport. At Logan, I was still deeply engaged in difficulties at home, parrying texts and firing off emails, my mind flickering from the bag drop to the phone to the security guard who raised an eyebrow in irritation and spoke to me as if explaining TSA pre-check etiquette to an inattentive child. “Your passport, ma’am,” she grumbled pointedly, probably for not for the first time, as I juggled phone, boarding pass, passport, my reading glasses. I stopped for Kleenex and cough drops at Hudson News and nearly left my wallet sitting by the gum and candy bars. “Lady, lady, don’t forget,” the cashier called after me. One of the friends I was traveling with met us at the gate. “Oh, boy, you look thumped,” she said.
Yet cold and crisis be damned, I was on my way to Xinalani, this idyllic spot, where I now write from my gently swinging hammock. When words fail to come, I look out, through the rough-hewn posts of our balcony, painted mustard brown and lashed into place by coiled rope, at the distant ocean. There are humpback whales out there, and bottlenose dolphins. We crossed over to Xinalani from Puerto Vallarta on a shuttle skiff. Two humpback whales breached not thirty yards off our port side, their knotty spines arcing gracefully through the water and disappearing like an old-fashioned roller coaster into the depths before – wait for it! – the fluke appeared, a high-five from an ancient world. “Ahhhh!!” we all squealed in childlike awe. We see the whales again from the balcony of our casita, announced by a spurt as they surface, and also at lunchtime, where we can trace their movements by spying glasslike patches on the sea surface where the water grows still before a sudden spout heralds their arrival. Awesome, in the purest sense of that overused word. At dinner one night, a woman in our group I’ve just met, Megan, an expedition leader on Alaskan nature cruises, tells us about the time she led a group of kayakers in a glacial bay paddle. A pod of humpbacks was “bubble net feeding,” a collaborative fishing technique where whales circle around under the surface, using air bubbles to corral their meal. Megan was only yards away when several humpbacks emerged, headfirst like synchronized swimmers, mouths open to drink in the fish. She froze, not daring to move in the face of this massive coordination. Such prodigious things happen below the surface. They take us by surprise.
There is little about Xinalani and this long-awaited respite that is anything less than awesome. The people, I gotta say, these women who dance and celebrate, who live with intention and courage, compassion and humor, they are my tribe. They are intellectual and curious, artistic and activist. Young Amy is a twenty-something farmer from Virginia, “dragged” along with her mother, yet still so open and interested. She eschews cellphones and the web; she is wise beyond her years. Grownup Amy tells us sadly of her impending divorce the Tuesday after we return: it’s the right thing, perhaps many years overdue, but still, it’s bittersweet. How could it be otherwise, after thirty-plus years? Kayla is a hospice nurse with two young children at home—she used to be a tour guide in Mexico and she’s a killer salsa dancer. We celebrate her fortieth birthday on Wednesday by singing Happy Birthday to her forty times. Alanna just sold her flower shop in British Columbia and is moving with her husband and eight-year-old son to become a rural lavender farmer. She sometimes sits out a song to watch the rest of us dancing, moved, her eyes brimming. Kay is a seventy-eight-year-old college professor; we talk about Jane Austen and the Brontes one day at lunch, and she tells me she still loves to teach. Kyra from Colorado (our group numbers two Kiras) is a smoky voiced veterinarian from Boulder. We sit on the beach after dinner one night while she discreetly smokes a cigarette, and she describes her complicated family life, a father married five times, a wonderful step-mother (wife number two, I believe) who raised all the children as if they were her own, two siblings lost to untimely deaths. Robyn and I laugh like college girls in our shared casita; Lisa and I salsa together, loose-hipped and grinning. We tease our pal Massachusetts-Kira about doing homework for her online course in her palatial room, and she glows in response. Every woman I meet in our group is beautiful, thoughtful, vulnerable and strong.
The place itself is magical: Good Lord, I have to think, what an extraordinary planet you have gifted to us. Rippling mountains tufted green with jungle flora plunge to the Pacific, the beach dotted with surf-smoothed boulders, the water aqua and clear. It feels like a bazillion steps up the hill to our tree-house room, set on posts into the mountainside. “Fuck,” Robyn mutters that first afternoon when we arrive, dog-tired after ten hours in transit, as we follow two resort employees up the switchback staircases, our over-packed suitcases bouncing jauntily on their shoulders. But we grow used to the climb. Jungle birds screech and caw, waves murmur far below, washing the shore with a variety of sounds, from soft shush-shushing to muted slaps to thundering cracks as water smacks the rocks. I sleep luxuriously well, in my cocoon bed, gauzy white linens on all four sides, the ocean’s distant susurrus a gentle lullaby. A generous swig of Nyquil seals the deal.
I don’t know what I did in this life, or any other, to possibly deserve such an experience, recuperating from a strained year in this luxury, fed three lush meals a day, offered facials and massages, cooking classes and hikes, sipping a Corona overlooking the local “cascada,” falling asleep in a nest-like bed with curtains drawn against any little bugs that might dare to disrupt my rest. I dance, I perform sun salutations, I laugh with my friends, old and new. I feel myself recovering some lost equilibrium, a hibiscus unfurling in a time-lapse image, minute by minute. I am so very fortunate, and grateful.
On our last evening at Xinalani, our leaders Al, Vickie and Jill design a lovely closing ritual in the meditation hut. It sits at one of the highest points on the property, an open-air pavilion with soaring views across the jungle treetops out to the sea. We are ringed in a circle. One by one, each woman steps into the circle and works her way around, stopping in front of each of us to receive a word describing something about her that inspires us. It’s intimate, and we speak softly, but some of the words float into the air, audible on the evening breeze: “beautiful,” “brave,” “spunky,” “healer,” “graceful.” It’s touching, looking someone in the eyes, mind searching for a pearl to give her: “sister,” “beloved,” “kickass’.” My turn comes and I am moved by the ways in which I am seen by my peers. Afterwards, we dress in white and clamber down the hundreds of steps for dinner on the beach, followed by salsa lessons in the bar with a Cuban dance instructor named Jiadri. He is spindly and tall, with beautiful skin the color of dark chocolate and hips that gyrate faster than Vitamix blades. In heavily-spiced English, he teaches us to count the salsa beats, impressed by how quickly we “pretty womans” pick up the rhythm. Apparently, no one has told him we are on a dance retreat. He punctuates the steps with a little jingle: instead of “One, Two, Three (and) Five, Six, Seven (and),” he says, “ Sexy, Sexy. Sexy, Sexy. Sexy, Sexy, All the time.” We laugh and dance, sipping through straws from a communal margarita in a giant glass that reminds me of the Scorpion bowls at Trader Vic’s in New York when I was in high school. The poker-faced students on yoga retreat sharing the resort this week sit on the sidelines, looking askance at our unruly enthusiasm. We have not been without incident: one of our group leaders is stricken with Montezuma’s revenge early in the week, a friend from Massachusetts leaves ahead of schedule with a sciatica flare-up, another breaks a bone in her foot disembarking from a boat and is carried up and down the resort stairs by the young Mexican bartenders and busmen. Yet we are, for the most part, happy and relaxed. We all needed this “me-treat” so badly.
On the flight home, I think of words for everyone in my various families: my Xinalani Nia tribe, sisters and goddesses, warm, sage, compassionate, exquisite. For my father: generous and protective; for my mother, overcoming and devoted. For my sister-in-law: loyal, indefatigable, resourceful. For my younger brother: insightful, intrepid, open-hearted. (Also: heroic.) I could go on and on: John, my heart and soulmate, visionary and profound; Nate, brainy, sensitive, free-thinking; Lucy, creative, brilliant, gorgeous; Mia, intelligent, passionate, sparkling with music. And my older brother: witty, caring, beloved friend of so many people. These words dance around my heart, holding hands sometimes, breaking off into solo motions at others, wafting on the forgiving breeze of a universe that inextricably mingles beauty and heartache, snowstorms and beaches, good years and tough ones, loving it all.