Friday, June 1, 2012

Change #33 Annual Red Tent Story Retreat

Hi Birth Peeps,

Birthing From Within’s Red Tent is unique. Our first Red Tent was held in Taos, New Mexico about a decade ago. Right from the start, the idea was to create a conference-retreat exclusively for our certified mentors, one that not only provided advanced training but also offered personal and spiritual growth. Typically in childbirth organizations, annual conferences offer lectures about a wide range of birth-related topics; registration is open to all aspiring and certified members. However, as I gained experience as a birth professional, I personally wanted something more from birth conferences—something that really helped me mature professionally in a holistic way, beyond informing me.
So when our first BFW childbirth mentors and doulas became certified—and also wanted something more—the idea of having a special retreat for personal and professional growth, exclusively for certified childbirth mentors, was conceived. Around that time Anita Diamont’s book, The Red Tent (1998), was published, so we named our retreat the “Red Tent.”
Because of the popularity of the book, there are lots of “Red Tent” gatherings across the country. There are Red Tents for healing, for women’s groups, for sharing life stories, and some specifically for telling birth stories. Our Red Tent centers around storytelling, too, but in a very unique way: We do not share personal birth stories. Rather, we learn Great Stories, myths, or folk tales that map the hero’s journey or convey a teaching to the listeners.
In past Red Tents, one Great Story was told, then throughout the retreat, mentors continued to explore its deeper meaning in break-out sessions, birth art projects, and story ceremonies, finding relevance both in their own lives and as it might apply to parents in the childbearing year.
Our Red Tent retreats are still intimate; about 20 women came this year to beautiful Synergia Ranch near Santa Fe. We enjoy meeting up with old friends we’ve met at previous trainings. Meal times and hikes are a time of joyful sharing of mentoring creativity and birth politics from around the world. Experienced mentors learn from and teach one another advanced mentoring techniques and share case studies.

BFW's  Red Tent May 2012 theme was inspired by the novel Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami (2011).  Thus, we modified our former theme: instead of presenting just one Great Story, we invited seven mentors to tell seven stories.Here’s a little background:
In his book, Damascus Nights, Schami weaves a delightful tale of Salim, an old storyteller, who is visited one morning by none other than his Story Fairy, who, until that fateful visit, he never even knew existed! She tells him that it is she, who, for sixty years, "breathed life into his dusty, wooden words and mad them grow into a magical tree of tales" and that it is she who picked up the thread when he forgot where he was in a story. But now she is old and gray and wants to retire. And when she does, she warns him, he will lose his voice. She knows he is not ready to retire as a storyteller. So, she tells him she has asked the Fairy King for a favor, which he granted—with the following conditions: 
From this moment on, he has only 21 words left to speak before he becomes mute. If, in three months time, Salim receives seven gifts, he will be given a new, younger, story fairy and his voice will be restored; he will go on telling stories. Sure enough, 21 words later, Salim the storyteller goes mute.
Salim has seven good friends who try to help. They gift him everything they can think of from seven great meals, to seven great wines, to seven trips.... Time was running out. Finally they decide to each tell a story to Salim-- a Gift of Seven Stories-- And with the seventh story, Salim is granted a new Story Fairy and he begins to tell stories again.

At our Red Tent this year, seven Certified BFW Mentors told seven fabulous stories. (And not one of them was a birth story!—and yet every one of the stories could be Medicine for mothers during their childbearing year.) 

Carolina Quintana from Guadalajara, Mexico told a story she created about Mariposa (Butterfly) and described an amazing butterfly mandala process she has developed for pregnant women; Erika Primozich from Colorado told the sacred story of White Buffalo Calf Woman; Guina Bixler from Atlanta, Georgia, led us in a clay art process; Rachael Adair from California told the Celtic story of Cerridwen; Monique Paris from Hawaii told the story of Seal Skin, Soul Skin; Leticia, also from Guadalajara, shared a gift of Rebozo; and Virginia Beall from Idaho told the Lakota story, Jumping Mouse. (During our Mandala Painting workshop just before the Red Tent,  Stephanie Rayburn, a Bear mentor from Colorado, told us the story of The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams). Her rendition was so moving, you could have heard a pin drop… that is before we had to pass the tissue box.

In truth there were more than seven stories told. Because within every story is a story, and within every mandala is a story, whether it was a personal journey or a Great Story, we were gifted with seven times seven stories! Five of our storytellers made a Story Mandala representing the story they were planning to tell. . . so we also had a journey-image of the story—which we had watched emerge slowly by the hand of the storyteller. This was doubly rich for both story-listeners and storytellers.

(This is Erika, a BFW Mentor and Advisor, who told us the story of White Buffalo Calf Woman, with her finished mandala. Erika had never told a Great Story or painted before--so this Red Tent was a milestone in her personal and professional journey--and an inspiration to us all.)

A storyteller needs a story-listener: Linda, Rachael, Guina, Monique, Donna
After telling her story, the Storyteller would invite the story-listeners to reflect on the meaning it held for them personally, as a mentor, or as Medicine for parents during the childbearing year. The sharings were as delicious as the story.
 Storytelling is an integral part of the lost art of mentoring. Storytelling was the original form of teaching. A Great Story, a hero-journey myth or folk tale, is "indirect" or ambiguous, which means that every story-listener can draw from the story unique meaning or Medicine that speaks to where she is on her journey. And, each time the story-listener hears the same story, she will draw still yet new meaning because she is hearing it with new ears on a new place in her journey. 

During a Great Story-telling, the story-listener identifies with one of the characters or a particular event in the story; it is in this emotionally- or imagination-charged identification that something within the listener begins to stir. She begins to feel instead of think, she remembers who she is, or she envisions a new solution or possibility. Oddly because a Great Story is not a personal birth story or a story about birth directly, the Medicine is even more potent and has a "slow-release" effect. In labor, when a woman's rational mind recedes to the background, her imaginal right-brain becomes more accessible.  It is then, that she may recall and  begin to draw strength from the images she made while hearing a Great Story during her childbirth preparation. A Great Story becomes an "inner map" guiding her--not toward striving for  a particular outcome (which is more typical of direct stories or birth stories)--but more importantly, into her infinite wealth of unconscious resources and creativity and self-awareness.

BFW Childbirth Mentors know this to be true, because women returning from birth testify to the power of a Great Story, and how, in the throes of labor, they recalled the hero in the hero's journey story and found inspiration or a different kind of knowing.

This is why BFW believes that Awakening the Storyteller in Midwives and Doulas and Mentors will change birth in our culture. When we change the stories we tell and the stories we hear, birth in our culture will change. The most powerful teachers are the Story and the Storytellers.

This was one birth event and Red Tent no one wanted to end. Before it was over, the consensus was to make at least one change: instead of having our Red Tent Story Retreat every other year, we should have it every year.

We will continue... and I hope you will join us in the future.