I arrive in San Jose on Thursday, Sept. 20. After picking up my hybrid from Hertz, I drive up the windy, narrow roads to 1440 Multiversity, which rests at the top of the Santa Cruz Mountains in Northern California. I am so mesmerized by the scenery that I actually forget to be nervous about being in this unfamiliar situation: my first writer’s retreat, my first time meeting the other ladies from my online writers group face to face and my first solo trip for any reason in over a decade.
My stomach begins to churn the moment I take my place at the back of the 200-plus person check-in line. However, it isn’t churning because of the length of the line. It is churning because I am the only black person in it.
Craning my neck to look as far down the line as possible, all I see are natural blond ponytails and top buns, whose wearers look like they were born holding a yoga mat in one hand and a Mason jar in the other.
The “Brave Magic” retreat is described on the website as “An invitation to Curiosity, Creativity and Courage” with powerhouse authors (and besties), Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed (authors of “Eat Pray Love” and “Wild,” respectively). The cost of the three-day program, which excludes lodging but includes meals, is $450. I’ve flown up from Los Angeles and rented a car, so my total ends up being somewhere upward of $1,800. I’m trying to see it as an investment in my fledgling writing career (and I really hope the IRS sees it that way, too). Up until the moment when I take my place at the end of this long line of fresh-faced white women, I am pretty happy about how I’m spending this money.
As I look further down the line now, I can see a few silver-haired white women. I see three or four brown women (Middle Eastern, Indian or Pakistani?) and five Asian women (one I meet tells me that she is Korean-American). I find out later that there are 11 men in attendance also. But once the line that forms behind me is as long as the line in front, I am stung by this most unfathomable reality:
I am the only black one.
There are over 600 people here.
I’ve been the only one before. I was the only black student in class many times when I was in grade school, I was the only black parent (many times) when my kids were little, I’m often the only black person in my recovery meetings, on the tennis court and in workout groups. But I didn’t know that my first-ever retreat would be so massively big. And it hadn’t even vaguely occurred to me that out of 600 people, I might be the only black one. I am more than just shocked, I am deeply saddened.
While I continue to stand in line, I notice that some of the women are now craning their necks to make eye contact and smile at me. I smile back self-consciously, all the while trying to imagine how any of these yoga mat-carriers would feel if they’d arrived at a retreat where absolutely every one of the 600 attendees (and all of the facility staff members) were black.
They’d probably slip away nervously and call someone, right? Or maybe they’d turn around and head back to the airport without saying a word to anyone.
I feel irrational tears pressing against the backs of my eyes.
Really?! How is it that an event this big, in twenty fricken eighteen can be so incredibly homogenous? How is it that I can be the only one ― STILL ― AGAIN at age 54?!
I think about getting back in my car and driving down that crazy mountain road back to the airport. Would anyone blame me if I did?
Gripping my car keys in my left hand so hard that my palm hurts, I use my right to send a group text to the women from my writers group, saying that I’ve arrived and that I’ll be “easy to spot.” Moments later, Stephanie appears (she lives in Portland, Oregon) and then Dana, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. They are both so happy to see me that it relieves a bit of my self-consciousness. Soon we have drifted into the dining hall. We’ve now been joined by our other two members, Amy who lives in Oakland, California, and Riva who lives in Toronto.
I am, as they used to say, quite obviously the fly in the proverbial buttermilk here, so, together the five of us sit and try to figure out why I am the only one who looks like me.
“You know, it is Liz Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed,” says one of them. “I’m not that surprised, given who their fans are ― and there are a lot of fans here. Maybe only half the people here even identify as writers.”
But in this age of “Hamilton” and inclusion riders, how could the organizers of a 600-person event, where everything is planned so thoughtfully, down to the abundance of water bottle filling stations, have not even considered the optics and possibility of an all-white audience?
After the first evening’s Brave Magic session concludes, I say goodbye to the girls and walk alone back to my room across the Multiversity campus. The crisp night air smells of firewood and pine needles. All around me are small groups of white women in cashmere shawls (did they pass those out when I wasn’t looking?) huddled around various firepits. The whole scene looks like it could be a spread right out of Goop Magazine. I am virtually unnoticed as I pass by each pit, catching fragments of intense conversations here and there:
“And then I put my arms around my inner child and just cried.”
“Didn’t you love when that man read his letter today? Wasn’t that brave of him?”
“I was just so moved by Liz’s story. Everything begins and ends on the bathroom floor, right...?”
Their soft laughter reminds me of the “chimes” option on my iPhone timer. Ahead of me is a sign that reads “Sleeping Pods” with an arrow pointing down a path.
Did other black writers choose not to come because they didn’t want to sleep in pods? Did they choose not to come because the Santa Cruz Mountains are so chilly and remote? Do black writers only want to attend truly diverse events? (Do those events even exist?) Was it too expensive? Or maybe unlike me, “Big Magic” and “Wild” aren’t books that profoundly changed their approach to writing. Or maybe they just didn’t want to risk traveling all day to get here, only to feel “othered” when they arrived.
That night in my (private) room as I am waiting for Netflix to load on my laptop, I lean back against the stucco wall, picturing myself asking some of the black aspiring writers that I know, the questions that keep ringing in my mind;
Hey! Did you guys know it would be like this? Is that why you didn’t come? And how come no one told me?
On Day Two of the retreat, Liz and Cheryl begin the session by asking people how far they’ve traveled to be here. One woman raises her hand and says she’s come from Poland. Two or three shout “Australia” in unison. “London,” shrills from the far corner. “New York” yells the woman at the end of our row. I and the rest of the ladies look around as Cheryl starts throwing out names of random states and people’s hands shoot up with a collective whoop.
“Black people?” (OK, she didn’t really say that).
But I still picture myself standing up with the rest of them and shouting, “I’m here! I’m here! Happy to represent the black people of the world.”
Later, during Liz’s “Tribal Shaming” session, we’re instructed to write letters to the people or dynamics that we are betraying or abandoning. (Like: Dear ex-husband, I’m going to betray you now because I know that I will never be the kind of wife you were hoping for and, frankly, the fact that I continually disappoint you is killing me.)
But since I’ve already written that letter (yeah, that’s another story), I decide to write my letter to the black families at my sons’ schools who always try to get me to go to church with them.
Next, we’re to find a perfect stranger with whom to read it, so I look around and pair up with a redhead from the row behind me. She and I sit cross-legged in the aisle next to the row facing each other. We lean in close, so that we can hear each other over the cacophony of 300 women all reading aloud to their partners at the same time. After we introduce ourselves, she asks me to go first.
“Dear black parents...,” I say.
I look up abruptly as I am unsure what the sound she’s emitting indicates and see that tears are streaming down her cheeks.
I smile with what I hope looks like empathy and then return my eyes to the notebook page. When she doesn’t actually say anything after a few seconds, I decide it’s OK to continue. But the moment I say, “at my sons’ school,” she loses it and begins to wail, letting her arms fall to her side. Mortified, I look around to see if anyone else is paying attention before I put my notebook down next to me.
“Are you all right?” I lean back a bit, so I can better assess what’s happening.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “It’s just that I have such an affinity for African-Americans.” She accepts the tissue I’m handing her. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to be African-American ― but I’ve always felt like I need to do more for African-Americans, you know? I feel like we could all do so much more.”
I will my eyes to keep their composure. Her pink-hued, freckled face is so full of earnestness and compassion.
“I protested when that African-American boy was killed by the police.”
OK ... and which one?
“And I don’t know why but I just have always felt more comfortable with African-Americans.”
Oh, please do stop saying African-Americans.
I decide the best thing for me to do is just give her the hug she so clearly wants and finish reading my letter to her before Liz asks us to return to our chairs.
* * *
Heading back to the airport the next morning, I can’t help but wonder:
What if it wasn’t an oversight? What if the event organizers just really didn’t care whether black people came to Brave Magic? Which leads me to another (and slightly existential) question: Do black stories matter?
I mean, I know that they matter to us black people. But do they matter to the rest of you? Do you even want to know what it’s like to walk around like me? In skin like mine with hair like mine? Do you ever wonder what it’s like for black people to fail, love, grieve and triumph? What it’s like to raise black sons and daughters? What it’s like to be hated or feared on sight? Not for how or what you believe but simply because your skin has a threatening hue?
Do these stories matter to you?
I’m not asking if they matter as much or more than your stories, mind you. I’m asking if they matter at all? Do you think my story about feeling “othered” at Brave Magic might be as interesting and impactful as some white woman’s account of feeling right at home at the same event?
I think Roxane Gay would say yes. Toni Morrison might say, “Right on, sister!” And maybe even Ta-Nehisi Coates would give me some words of encouragement. My final questions are: Will writing about my experience at Brave Magic change anything? Will the 2019 organizers be more conscious of diversity and inclusion?
Is Brave Magic only for white women? I guess I’ll have to go next year to find out.