Train Wreck: When Your Writing Retreat on the Train Goes WAY Off the Rails – Part Five (Lessons Learned)

Photo by Rahul Sharma from Pexels

If you’ve been following my most recent posts, you know all about how my Rhythm on the Rails Writing Retreat (ROTR) to Vancouver, BC, went WAY off the rails and why I’m writing about it here… to let you know you’re not alone if you’re a retreat leader/planner, to reflect on the lessons I learned, and to offer a few tips to leaders and participants, alike, to help ensure your best experience, regardless of what transpires.

My first post in this series was about how ROTR was born. The second post was about the planning that went into the most recent ROTR in Vancouver, BC that went way off the rails. The third post was about the execution – the most lengthy post in this series – and what went wrong.

My last post was about the aftermath – what occurred between me and one of my retreat participants after coming home and why she sued me. With the story told – from my perspective – and it now behind me, I’d love to offer the lessons I learned and what I’ll do for future retreats, as well as some things I encourage you to consider for your own future retreats, whether you’re a planner/leader or a participant.

For participants –

  • Read the web page for the retreat thoroughly. Retreat leaders create web pages so you’ll have all the information you need to make a sound decision about whether the retreat is right for you. If there is no web page, take the initiative to contact the retreat leader and ask for the hotel name and address. Then, do your research. In the end, it’s your responsibility to determine if the accommodations, group activities, restaurants, and all else are right for you.
  • Be prepared to “go with the flow.” Know that, despite the most earnest planning, on your part and on your retreat leader’s part, sometimes things go wrong. People make mistakes, things get by them, the planets decide to do some wacky dance in the heavens… When this happens, trust that your retreat leader has done everything she could to provide you with a good experience, that she’ll do what she can to make things right, and if she doesn’t, tell her what you need or do it for yourself to make the most of the situation.
  • Read all documents you sign carefully. Know what you’re agreeing to.
  • When going on a writing retreat, go with a writer’s mind. View life as an endless provider of fodder that will feed your creative practice. (Most writers don’t write about everything that went well… they write about life’s struggles.) Embrace surprises, the unsavory, the detours. It’s all life, and that’s what we write about.
  • Take responsibility for your experience and your emotions. All the retreat leaders I know do what they do because they want to provide memorable experiences for their clients and participants. And even in the remote circumstance when/if this isn’t true, remember that your experience and what you get from it is up to you, regardless of what happens. We all go through difficult times in life. If you are at a place in life where you find yourself “in recovery” and easily “triggered,” consider forgoing trips, retreats, and overnight activities. Stay home, take care of yourself.

For retreat planners and leaders –

  • Do thorough research. This is a no-brainer, I know, yet I still encountered a problem. It isn’t practical or financially feasible for many of us to travel to the place we’ll hold our retreats beforehand. Search online for reviews of the hotel (which I did), info about the neighborhood and street of the hotel (which I did not), and ask people you know who are familiar the area (which I did not). Had I done the latter two, I would have known about Hastings Street.
  • Create a web page for your retreat and provide links. I did this for my retreat and still had problems, so in the future, I will…
  • Remind participants and potential participants to follow the links provided and to read about the hotels, restaurants, and other venues included in the retreat. I will also encourage them to research the area on their own to make sure it’s right for them.
  • Maintain a business mindset: Carry liability insurance, and require that participants sign legal documents. We, unfortunately, live in a litigious society, and many people these days have a profound sense of entitlement. This isn’t to say that we ought to be cavalier or thoughtless about what we offer our participants, but for those who have this sense of entitlement, many require perfection from everyone around them. They allow no room for human fallibility, and many lack compassion – for themselves and for others. Remembering the business side of the retreat will protect you from potential oversights (errors and omissions).
  • Pay attention to red flags. I saw a few red flags when I first started working with Ophelia… before she had even signed on as my client, yet I let them go because she was a referral from someone I thought I resonated with enough to trust that a connection with Ophelia would be within some sort of workable realm. I was wrong. And as I learned, due to Tracy’s quiet complicit-ness, she and I don’t resonate as I first believed.
  • Don’t let yourself be bullied. We’re all going to encounter people who are grappling with issues that have nothing to do with us, and many of them have become skilled in using manipulation and bullying as survival mechanisms. The best thing we can do for ourselves and for them is to stay in our emotional lane, stay in our integrity, and not be pulled into their chaos while maintaining compassion for them and their struggles.
  • Take responsibility for what’s yours. I never once tried to pass off the hotel as “acceptable” after we stepped across the threshold. I apologized many times, and I made all the efforts I could think of to compensate for extra costs and discomfort. That, I was willing to take on. To me, this is not only good business sense, but it also creates a positivity around us and within our lives when we own up. But being responsible for someone else’s emotional response is not burden to bear.

My lessons –

  • Be willing and confident enough to charge more. Because I wanted to keep costs down and make the retreat more appealing and doable for people, I went with a lower cost hotel. What I thought was doing people a favor, in the end, created a problem. Some might say that this approach comes from a scarcity mindset. I’m open to contemplating that more than I already have.
  • Create an application for all people interested in future retreats. This is a great way to qualify people and determine if they’re a good fit for me and my retreat. By asking the right questions, we can learn a lot about people.
  • Add a new section to my retreat web pages that offers a list of reasons why “This retreat is for you if…” and “This retreat is not for you if…”
  • Qualify my clients. After this experience, I will provide all potential clients with a questionnaire to learn more about them, where they are in life (emotionally, spiritually, mentally) – how mature they are, and how prepared they are to delve into the long journey of writing a book.
  • I’ve come a long way. There was a time in my life when I would have royally beat myself up for a long time for the hotel mis-step. And while I certainly didn’t disregard the unfortunate circumstances that occurred or take it lightly, I was ultimately able to practice what I was teaching on the retreat: self-forgiveness, self-compassion, and self-love.

I found it profoundly ironic that the retreat’s focus and content – the concepts specific to the Heart Chakra – came directly into play. We were all being presented a first-hand lesson in the Heart Chakra concepts. While I was in the middle of it all doing my best to do my best, I was also able to step outside it all and notice how each person on the retreat – myself included – managed the situation and was able to (or not) practice forgiveness and compassion – for each other and for ourselves – as well as who became protagonists, antagonists, and supporting characters, depending on each person’s point of view. (There was far more to tell, but these posts were already lengthy, and I wanted to spare you even more detail.)

The reason I offer retreats is that I like to give people experiences that will take them outside their usual go-to mindsets and day-to-day experiences. The reason I’m a coach and teacher and the reason I’m a writer is that I find humans, human behavior, and the human condition fascinating.

We all have our individual, like-no-other experiences in life that shape us and cause us to desire, fear, and behave in the ways that perpetuate our programming. When we write stories, we explore what re-programming might look like and what it takes to make it happen. And when we live life, we can do the same.

Writing is about life, and if we’re to write from a deep place that seeks to grapple with its difficulties, we’ll be called, time and again, to face its nitty gritty underbelly. And when this happens, we can either continue to do what we’ve always done, or we can do what we expect of our characters: elevate, grow, and transform.

I do have regrets that the hotel situation occurred on the retreat. I also know that, in the end, a lot of good happened on the retreat. My research on the chakra system hasn’t been solely to create my Writing Through the Body™ method which serves as a tool to help my clients and workshop/retreat participants write more deeply… I’ve research the chakras because it’s a system that helps me live my life better.

It helps me see the big picture, and it helps me understand people in a way I wasn’t able to before I found it. It helps me understand why people react as they do, even when their reactions and behaviors seek to hurt me. And it helps me to forgive and feel compassion for myself and for them.

If you’ve read this entire series about how my Vancouver, BC, Rhythm on the Rails Writing Retreat went way off the rails, bless you. And thank you. I appreciate you taking the time.

I hope you read something in here that will help you be a little kinder to yourself and to others when they make mistakes. And I hope something I’ve said will help you have a quality retreat experience next time and in the future.

Thanks for reading, and as always… I send you mad writing mojo.

Bright blessings and creative courage,

Johnnie
XXXX

 

 

 

 

Train Wreck: When Your Writing Retreat on the Train Goes WAY Off the Rails – Part Four (The Aftermath)

In my last post, I wrote about how my Rhythm on the Rails Writing Retreat to Vancouver, BC went WAY off the rails. I outlined the details of the events that led to a less-than – even disappointing – experience… not at all what I had in mind or would ever want for my participants.

The six weeks that followed the retreat were fraught with an ever-devolving encounter between me and Ophelia. Ultimately, what happened was that, for the first time in my life, I got sued. Here’s what happened…

We returned home from Vancouver, BC on a Sunday afternoon and parted ways at Union Station in Portland. I headed home and focused on my own self-care – unpacking, getting settled, and relaxing while doing my best to remove myself from the fallout I sensed was around the corner… and the self-beating I was holding at bay. Just one night, I thought. I’ll give myself one night to not be ensconced in the drama.

The next morning, I woke up and set to work calculating the difference in hotel bills for Ophelia and Tracy, as well as their cab fares, based on the receipts they had given me on the train and the difference in U.S. and Canadian currencies. I sent them their money via PayPal and drafted a long email to each of them by, I believe, the Tuesday of that week.

In my long email, I again apologized for the condition of the hotel and let them know that their relationships mattered to me and that I wanted to do what I could to make things right with them. I asked that they view the circumstance as a mistake made by a well-meaning fallible human rather than a malicious act to deceive or disregard anyone’s needs and/or feelings.

I offered them each a complimentary hour of coaching and 10% off any future trip I might offer, indefinitely. I also, in an effort to empathize and let them know I understood how they might be feeling, wrote that I could understand how it might feel that trust had been broken. Little did I know, my choice of words would be used against me.

Beyond a “Thanks!” email from Tracy for the money I sent them, I never heard from her again and have not to this day. She neither accepted or declined my offers. I heard from Ophelia soon after when she wrote to tell me that she wasn’t ready for her pre-scheduled coaching with me that Friday because the whole incident in Vancouver had triggered her CPTSD, which had activated her autoimmune disorder. She said that, because of this, she was not ready.

The reality was that she hadn’t done any work on her book to date – even before the retreat. I wrote back to say I was sorry to hear that the weekend had had that effect on her and that I was happy to schedule her next session for the end of the month to give her some time to recover.

I didn’t hear anything for a few days, and when I did, she informed me that my offers weren’t going to work for her. She expressed that she had been triggered and that she felt abandoned on the trip. She asked if I would be willing to process her emotions with her – because trust had been broken.

My day was full with other clients and obligations, and I didn’t see her email until later that evening. I wanted to make sure that’s what she asking of me before responding, so I decided to sleep on it. She wrote me the next morning, frustrated (angry?) that I hadn’t responded yet. I explained why and promised she would hear from me soon.

Meanwhile, I had scheduled an email to my list on a variety of topics, one of which was the train retreat. I didn’t feel ready to talk about the retreat as a whole (the sub-standard hotel part of the story), because I didn’t know where the situation was going to land with Ophelia, so I held off on that facet of the trip. No out of denial and not to be sneaky or disingenuous, but to give the situation time to breathe, evolve, and settle inside me.

What I did mention in the email were some of the highlights from my perspective, which happened to be our afternoon activities at Queen Elizabeth Park and our group dinner at Chambar on Friday night… activities Ophelia and Tracy had opted out of. Between my lagging response to Ophelia’s email (in her opinion) and my email to my list, which Ophelia was on, she became enraged (my perspective). What followed was a show of aggression that comes from, in my opinion, a striking sense of entitlement (and other things I’m not professionally qualified to label).

She informed me that my email was “distasteful” and that she “took it personally.” She said that because trust had been broken and because of this email to my list of people, she could no longer work with me as a client. She unsubscribed from my list and requested a refund for coaching.

I wrote back to explain that I could understand feelings of being “triggered.” I also reminded her that she had signed an agreement with me stating she could stop coaching at any time and that there were no refunds. Still doing my best to understand and empathize with her fragile emotional state, I offered to give her a three- to six-month pause so she could process her emotions and feel stable enough to begin coaching again. She responded with threats of legal action and a public review.

I decided to stop engaging. I had done everything I could think of to make up for her discomfort and dissatisfaction.

Two weeks later, I received a demand letter from an attorney. I didn’t read it (I had been exposed to as much caustic energy as I could handle), and I promptly acquired an attorney myself. I knew Ophelia didn’t have a case, but I wanted to put a bow on the entire situation and move on with my life.

My attorney submitted a letter to Ophelia’s attorney recapping the situation, detailing all my offers to make up for the hotel, and a reminder that she had signed a coaching contract stating there were no refunds, as well as pointing out that her emotional responses were not a provision of the contract. (I had also received signatures from all participants prior to the retreat stating, among other things, that they were psychologically and physically well enough to take the trip. More about these in my next post.)

We received a second demand for part of the money being requested in exchange for a non-disparagement agreement. Our answer was ‘no’. By this point, I was over the emotional charge of the situation, and I didn’t care (never did, to be honest) that she might write a “public review.” To whom? She was/is one person in a big world. And while she may have smeared my name (may still be, for all I know) to people we have in common and beyond, I felt comfortable knowing that aware, stable people would see the bigger picture.

I wasn’t worried about my public image because, despite my mistake of inadvertently choosing a sub-standard hotel, I know that my level of integrity is high. I know I’m honest, that I care about people – especially my clients and retreat participants – and that this was just one blip on the heartbeat of my work and my life. And I trusted that people who really know me would know this, as well.

My attorney wrote back to the other attorney to say that Ophelia was free to write what she liked so long as it wasn’t something that would damage my business. I don’t know what she’s written, if she has written anything, and I don’t ever care to know. It has nothing to do with me. It’s none of my business.

I support her right to share her experience from her perspective, and I trust that it might even take care of some pre-qualifying of clients and retreat participants for me because anyone who might read her account, if written honestly, would know that in the big picture of life, unfortunately, mishaps occur and people – even retreat leaders and coaches – make mistakes. Or, they were to consider me a thoughtless piece of shit, I wouldn’t want to work with them, anyway.

So, the “story” ended there, in terms of our interactions with each other. I confirmed with my attorney that I could write about the ordeal – from the perspective of a “retreat gone wrong” and what I learned from it (because I know I’m not alone when it comes to retreat mishaps), so long as I didn’t use Ophelia’s real name.

My hope in sharing this story is that if you’re a retreat planner/leader and have experienced something similar, you won’t feel so alone. Or if you haven’t had a similar experience, maybe mine and what I learned, which I’ll share in my next post, will help prevent you from ever having to navigate this kind of predicament.

And… if you’re a retreat participant, I hope some of the tips I have in my next post will help you in choosing future retreats to ensure you can have the best experience possible, even when things go “off the rails.”

Please check back for my next post – Lessons Learned, which offers a few points for retreat success and other thoughts about what it means to be a retreat leader and a retreat participant, and well as a writer and a human… all from my humble, limited perspective.

As always… I send you mad writing mojo.

Bright Blessings and Creative Courage,

Johnnie
XXXX

 

Train Wreck: When Your Writing Retreat on the Train Goes WAY Off the Rails – Part Three (The Execution)

Photo by Javon Swaby from Pexels

In my last post, I wrote about my considerations while planning my Rhythm on the Rails Writing retreat to Vancouver, BC. I take pride in my ability to help people feel safe and nurtured, and that was my goal  on this retreat – in addition to creating an opportunity for plenty of luscious writing time.

Before I delve into the story about how my writing retreat on the train went way off the rails, it’s important, I think, to know the cast of characters for context, and because, as I always say… to have a story, to have the conflict that makes a story, you need the people. And conflict we had! (In the interest of everyone’s privacy and because the purpose of these posts is to illuminate how things can go wrong despite our best (so we think) planning, I’ve changed the names of the participants.)

Daniella – a client at the time of the retreat, early- to mid-40s. We had been working together for several months before Vancouver, and she had made impressive progress on her book. She had been driven, focused, and committed to getting the book finished. A dream client and a pleasure to work with.

Coral – a past train participant, mid- to late-60s. Coral came to Seattle with me for the maiden voyage of ROTR last fall. She’s also very self-directed, and while she isn’t a 1:1 client, we had done a couple of Discovery Calls in the past, so I was aware of her project focus/genre and her strong writing skills.

Tracy – a networking colleague, late 30s. I hadn’t worked directly with Tracy aside from a Discovery Call in the past about her book idea, during which I shared my thoughts about how she could organize it and move forward when she was ready. She had been a big supporter of mine, sending me referrals and telling people how much she had gotten from our call.

Ophelia – a newer client, referred to me by Tracy (they are close friends), late 30s. Ophelia had hired me as her coach two months prior to the retreat. We met for a couple of VIP days, created a framework and plan of action for her project, and we were primed to start moving her book project forward. She felt she was off to a slow start, not having produced any pages by the time the retreat came around, but I was positive about working with her, as her topic was compelling and I knew she could write.

A week before the retreat, I offered everyone a 90-minute virtual class on the Heart Chakra and Antagonists/Supporting Characters – content from my Writing Through the Body™ method. My intention was to offer a context for the trip for those who wanted or needed it while working on their books.

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

The day of our departure from Union Station in Portland, we all met at Zeus Café in downtown Portland for a pre-retreat lunch. This wasn’t a “typical” retreat that would allow for a lot of group conversing and bonding because we’d be engrossed in our writing on the train writing. I wanted to create space for an entry point for camaraderie between them all. I also wanted to be sure everyone had a focused plan for our eight-hour train ride so they could make the most of their time while in motion, which is the central point of the ROTR retreats.

I walked into the familiar McMenamins atmosphere at Zeus Cafe to find everyone there, and I was happy to see them all, excited and ready for our productive weekend of immersive writing. After distributing their swag bags, we settled in, and placed our orders.

Coral and Daniella each had a clear focus – their books. Ophelia had plans to start work on her book, and Tracy wasn’t sure which of her two book ideas she would focus on… she wanted to use the trip to gain some clarity. And for me… my goal was to continue work on the first draft of my Writing Through the Body™ manuscript, which was due to my editor in a little over two weeks.

I went over some of the requests I had made at the beginning of our virtual call, one of which was to respect each other’s privacy and solitude because Ophelia had mentioned to me her concern about the latter due to the close relationship she shared with Tracy – they had both told me how much they enjoyed their long conversations about their work and the podcast they were creating.

After lunch, we headed for Union Station in our Lyft rides, and because all the tickets were reserved at the same time, Amtrak seated us together, assuming we were travel companions and would want to be near each other. Little did they know, that was the last thing we wanted. Or… most of us, anyway.

The four participants were in a quad of seats, two facing two, and I snagged the extra single seat by the window across the aisle. While I had created the retreat for my participants, was there to make sure they got what they came for, and let them all know that if they needed anything, I was always available, I was looking forward to some solitary alone time on the train to work on my draft.

Ophelia and Tracy asked to be seated in the two seats facing the front of the train due to the affect riding “backwards” for eight hours would have on them (vertigo, maybe?). Daniella and Coral gladly accommodated them, switched seats, and settled in to write.

Soon thereafter, Ophelia and Tracy moved to the dining car to work, and in passing them a couple of times on my way to the food car for the not-so-bad decaf coffee, I found them sitting side-by-side at a dining car table, laptops open, conversing.

Columbia River Gorge Oregon

Meanwhile, back I my seat, I scribbled away on the printed sections of my book I had completed, leafed through my sources, and filled out sections that needed it. I was on a roll. I occasionally glanced out the window to take in the beautiful scenery of the Columbia Gorge while the rhythm of the rails beneath us provided the meditative environment I had reveled in from past trips and led me to create the ROTR writing retreats in the first place.

We arrived in Vancouver, later than our 11:30pm scheduled arrival time due to a suspension bridge being stuck in the “up” position and the operators not being able to get the computer programming to cooperate. Needless to say, we were all tired.

Daniella and Coral were up ahead and quickly passed through customs. Not far behind them, Ophelia, Tracy, and I approached the chipper customs agent at his desk, and he quizzed us about why we were coming to Canada. He also asked us where we were staying. When I told him the name of the hotel, he paused and asked if we had read the reviews.

What? Oh fuck. WHAT?! Had I? Of course, I had. Hadn’t I? In all my researching online, making phone calls, reading and reading and reading during those weeks while planning, surely, I had. I scanned my brain, trying to quickly remember what I had read. A vague memory of a comment that the hotel “[wasn’t] in the best part of Vancouver but was only one block from Chinatown and Gastown” came to me. What did that mean?

 “Is it unsafe?” I asked him.

“No, not unsafe,” he said. “Just complaints about loitering.”

Okay, I think… I live in a city. I see loitering every day right outside some of the city’s best hotels. We’re traveling to a city. That’s to be expected.

“You can always stay tonight, then find something else tomorrow.”

Great. Not what I had in mind…

We walked through the gate to find Daniella and Coral waiting for us, and I broke the news to them. Daniella was set. She had contacted me weeks before the retreat to ask if she could find a hotel on her own, as she would be visiting family while there. Coral said she had read the reviews and saw that someone had reported bed bugs in the past.

Lovely… noooo!

I had called a Lyft for those of us who were going on to the hotel, and while we were waiting, Ophelia said she was “freaking out.” All the emotions – worry that I had missed something and made a bad call in choosing that hotel, shame for missing something and making the bad call, fear of what was to come – were all blooming exponentially inside me.

via GIPHY

We made the trip to the hotel in silence, and when we arrived, one man stood outside. A potential loiterer? And when the door opened, he jetted inside in front of us.

Startling, for sure. (Maybe he was staying at the hotel…?)

When we walked in, my heart hit the floor and my gut shot to my throat. Total shock. Discombobulation. Disbelief.

This “heritage-style” hotel, as advertised online, wasn’t as quaint as the photos suggested. Stale, smoke-scented air make me queasy and a broken-down player piano sat on one side of the spacious lobby filled with awkward groupings of worn furniture. The building itself was rundown and lacked any immediate signs of comfort.

Yes, I had described the hotel as “no frills” on the retreat’s webpage, and yes, I had stayed in far worse accommodations in my life, but this was not what I wanted for my guests. Not by any stretch. The shame bloomed even more while I made my way to the reception counter with Coral by my side while Ophelia and Tracy moved toward the front windows.

I went to talk with them, apologized for the condition of the hotel, and explained that this is not what I had in mind. I went back to the reservation counter to talk with the clerk and to see what other options we had, but Ophelia and Tracy immediately waved down a taxi and bolted.

Coral was gracious… said she had also stayed in far worse placed and planned to stay there for at least the first night. We got our keys, made our way to the second floor via the rickety elevator, and I opened the door to my room on the second floor.

The room itself wasn’t bad. The bedding was clean and bright white. Tacky art hung above the bed, and there was a chunky old-but-not-yet-antique dresser in the corner, which served as a stand for the flat screen TV. The bathroom offered a claw foot tub and makeshift shower (hand-held), small sink, toilet, and an awkward closet that did its job.

Certainly, not upscale or glamorous, but that wasn’t what I was after. That wasn’t what I had offered. Still… the situation had left me with a shaky sick feeling in my gut. I put my luggage in the bathtub and scouted for bed bugs. None, as far as I could tell.

Awesome.

In fact, I was happy to see that the mattress and pillows were sealed in silky plastic zipper bags.

It was safe. 

I was concerned about how Ophelia and Tracy were doing, so I texted them to ask if they were okay, if they needed my help. Ophelia responded to say they had found a room at another hotel to share and that they’d be looking for an Airbnb the next day. Knowing that we were all at least safely situated, I got a spotty night’s sleep and honestly, wanted daylight to come so I could resolve the situation.

Photo by Brayden Law from Pexels

I texted Ophelia the next morning and offered to pay the difference between what they would have spent on their room at our hotel and what they ended up spending for their lodging. I also offered to pay for their cab fares to get them to group activities. And I offered to keep their luggage at my room so they wouldn’t have to lug it around with them until they could check in at their Airbnb.

She responded by saying that the payment for the hotel difference and cab fares “made sense” and that they would rather discuss the rest after they had had their coffee.

I connected with Coral, who had already been out for a walk, and we set out to find a place for coffee and breakfast (she and I both decided to stay at our hotel for the duration of the retreat).

The sick shameful feelings inside me blossomed again as we walked. “Not in the best part of Vancouver” was putting it mildly. I live in downtown Portland and walk past homeless camps, troubled souls, and poverty-stricken people with drug problems and mental health issues every day.

In Vancouver, what I saw was far worse. And I learned (a tip from a police officer) that if I went one block either direction from the hotel, I could get where I needed and not walk through the seriously drug-addled, broken souls.

Had I known that the street our hotel was on was the ONE street in Vancouver that separated the charming Chinatown and Gastown areas and served as home for the city’s homeless, I would not have chosen it. They have my deep compassion, and even so… this was not what I wanted for my retreat participants. Not at all.

Coral and I ultimately settled in at a cozy little spot for breakfast, and I texted Ophelia and Tracy a couple of times to check in about the luggage situation. I also sent a group text about our meeting time for the afternoon group activity at Queen Elizabeth Park. Ophelia finally responded to say that they had left their bags at the hotel where they had stayed the night before.

Bloedel Floral Conservatory, Queen Elizabeth Park, Vancouver, BC

By the time Coral and I arrived at the park to meet Daniella, Ophelia texted to say she and Tracy were too tired to join the rest of us. She said they would also be missing dinner that night but looked forward to our dinner on Saturday, our last night in Vancouver. I thanked them for letting us know and wished them a good evening. (Not having everyone there wasn’t what I wanted, and at the same time, I wanted to give them their space if that’s what they needed.)

Coral, Daniella, and I did our first activity: an exercise to practice writing protagonist and antagonist viewpoints. We each chose a pair of people from the many milling around at the top of the park and imagined their relationship. We then wrote for 15-20 minutes about the story we imagined for them, deeming one as the protagonist and one as the antagonist. After reading our work, we then changed their roles and wrote for 15-20 minutes more. The point being to give consideration to each character’s POV and their stake in the scenario and to see how that shifted, not just in the writing but also in our compassion and understanding of each.

Then we moved on to our second activity in the park at the Love in the Rain sculpture by Bruce Voyce, a vamp on the love locks in Paris. While most people who come to the sculpture in Vancouver do so with the intention of attaching a padlock to symbolize their love and commitment for each other, we each attached our tiny heart-shaped padlocks with the intention of committing to ourselves and our writing, all to highlight one of the messages I reiterate to my clients and followers often: writing is an act of self-love.

The love locks activity meant more to me than I anticipated, and after we finished and took a few photos, we headed back down toward town to rest up and get ready for our dinner at Chambar, which was the highlight of my entire weekend.

What was so memorable about that dinner? The casual, upscale atmosphere, the mouthwatering, unforgettable food (I’m STILL thinking about it), and the magical vibe between those of us who were there. It was an all-encompassing sensual experience, and the hedonist in me reveled in it.

The next day, Saturday, was designated “alone time” for each of us to do as we wished. I spent the morning at a coffee shop in Chinatown writing social media posts, as planned, to send to Amber, my assistant, before moving on to Gastown and then Granville Island to browse shops. I bought snacks at a nearby Whole Foods for the train trip back home and caught a cab to my room to get ready for our last group dinner at Joe Fortes.

via GIPHY

I’d be lying if I said that dinner wasn’t tense. I had planned to do more during our last group meeting before getting on the train, but I had assumed we would have all had shared quality time together before that night. Because we didn’t and because I clearly sensed the disapproval from my disappointed participants, after we had our food, I simply asked that everyone go around the table and talk about what they planned to focus on – in terms of their writing – on the trip back home. 

The meal went by quickly, and to be honest, I was glad. Daniella and Coral sat on either side of me at our round table. Tracy filled Coral about the podcast she and Ophelia had been working on, Daniella and Ophelia exchanged a few words, and I was notably untalkative, for the most part, while I choked down my Cesar Salad laden with way too much extra chicken.

The energy from the disgruntled participants was palpable, and I was doing my best to manage my regret and shame for my own sake and for the sake of all the participants, even the two who were so upset with me.

At one point during the meal, Tracy mentioned that they had been so “nervous” on Friday that they had to get massages and reflexology. I took this as a “hint” and a hope that I would cover that, as well.

This is when I realized they were holding me responsible for their emotions. Recognizing this made it easier for me to unhook emotionally and make the trip back knowing I had done – and was doing – all I could to make up for the bad hotel situation.

And I reminded myself of the content for the weekend: The Heart Chakra, which in large part, is all about compassion and forgiveness – for others and especially for ourselves. I forgave myself for being a fallible human and decided to move forward, still with the intention of doing what I could to make the disappointing experience up to them.

Seattle King Street Station

Our train was to leave King Street Station early the next morning at 6:00am, which meant leaving the hotel at 5:15am. Coral and I met in the lobby, I settled my bill, and we met our Lyft driver outside.

It had been a bittersweet trip for me, filled with regret, shame, confusion, and sadness, as well as happiness, love, fulfillment, and serenity. And once again, I did my best to put my own emotions aside and get us all back on the train for our ride home.

Ophelia and Tracy were at the station when we arrived. The four of us got in line for our boarding passes and when we were at the front of the line, Daniella arrived. After going back and forth with the ticketing agent to explain that we didn’t need (or even want) to sit together because we’d (theoretically) be writing, our wishes were finally met and they gave us five single-seat passes on the window side.

As we waited for Daniella to catch up to us (she was several people back in the line), Tracy put out her hand to take the boarding passes from me, saying she and Ophelia would like to board and get settled, “If you don’t mind.”

I did. So we waited for Daniella.

Once inside the train, we stowed our luggage and clipped our boarding passes overhead, and I passed out snacks for the trip home. Ophelia and Tracy headed for the dining car to sit side-by-side again for the trip back. I was struck by the level of enmeshment between them and wondered if their weekend would have not been so dramatic had they not been there to feed off each other.

Near the end of the trip, I gave Coral and Daniella a slip of paper and took the same back to Tracy and Ophelia, still in the dining car. I asked them all to write, briefly, why they’re not writing (if they’re not) or what stops them from writing.

Ophelia asked, “Do you mean right now?”

I got the implication – she wasn’t writing due to her experience on the retreat. (Interesting side note: As I mentioned before, she hadn’t been writing – not on her book, anyway, before the retreat.)

“No,” I clarified, “in general… what interferes with the writing on a regular basis?” I told them I would collect the pieces of paper at the end of the trip and would let them know what I had planned for them. And I promised not to read them.

When we deboarded in Portland, I collected their pieces of paper and explained the ritual: I take the pieces of paper to a stream in Forest Park not far from where I live in downtown Portland. I burn the paper to transform the block or obstacle into smoke, which drifts toward the sky and dissipates, and ash, which I set afloat down the stream to be transformed further with the idea that the moving water signifies intuition, emotion, and flow.

Photo by Emre Kuzu from Pexels

Even though I knew I still had more to do to set things right with Ophelia and Tracy, I was happy and relieved to be back home, comfortable and in my familiar element.

What transpired in the following weeks was a true test of my professionalism, my emotional resilience, and the concepts we covered for the retreat: compassion and forgiveness for others and for myself.

The situation went downhill even more.

If you’d like to know what transpired next, The Aftermath explains.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Bright blessings and creative courage,

Johnnie
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