I was unclear before – we do not interact in our community as our actual selves with the exception of an annual retreat when we all come as our truest selves, tell our truest stories, and get to know one another. We find that we are no good at compassion if we don’t have it for one another and having it for one another requires that we know one another.
It may not be among America’s finest summer camps, but our annual retreat takes place at a small campground in Michigan. We rent three adjacent sites, two nearby cabins, and invite the entire community out from Thursday – Monday.
Cooking, living, and eating communally helps us to reinforce that community takes precedent.
We do one annual event to embody fictional characters. People love this event, it’s fun to be Holden Caulfield or Mrs. Dalloway but we don’t find it to be an entirely valuable exercise. These characters were already created and written by some very compassionate and thoughtful authors and we find that just reading the books is an empathetic and compassionate enough experience.
But people love this event, especially when it’s less frequent. It’s kind of our Halloween with people thinking of and discarding and doubling down on ideas for the event all year. The most common conversation when it’s over and people have returned to being themselves is who they’ll be next year.
Last year, I was the main character from Gone Girl. Blame it on a recent break-up or simply on Gillian Flynn’s uncanny ability to help me relate to angry women while trying to be an agreeable one. It was very fun to be this sociopathic, pissed off, wronged woman who recently disappeared herself to hurt and frame her cheating husband. By complete surprise, someone arrived to the party as the male lead in this story. We had a lovely time hating one another, flirting, spending the night together, hoping we show up to another event in the future as complementary characters.
We have one celebrity event a month. Each member chooses one celebrity to become. They can be any era of that celebrity. I usually just alternate between different eras of Cher because I find her career to be completely fascinating.
People often choose more controversial celebrities just so that they can act wild and say bullshit all night and get away with it. I understand this desire, it is fun. I was Miley Cyrus one month while she was attracting all sorts of cruel and unfair media attention. It was fun to act sexually uninhibited, I spent most of the evening with Lena Dunham. We were both having these very female-in-public-eye experiences, and discussing them, and being similar in age but completely different in public perception.
We recently disallowed and political figures, it was becoming too controversial to try to have a grown-up discussion with Donald Trump or Kellyanne Conway without it becoming a farce and taking everyone out of the moment.
These events are our best opportunity to let loose. We get the dinner catered in, we have a bar, and people seem to really enjoy this event. Many of our members like to attend this event in drag, extending their compassion to include acknowledging the feelings of the gender they don’t usually embody.
We have a weekly news meeting where each person tells a current news story or controversy in the first-person perspective. This is important for a couple of reasons – it gives the person telling the story a more intimate experience with the story, so it’s no longer just a story about a woman who has her body grabbed, without her consent, by the future president of the United States. Now it’s a first-person narrative of a woman telling us how violated she felt, how worthless she suddenly was, how powerful misogyny is and how little culture cares about the usually-woman victims of powerful men. And secondly, it gives the people hearing the story more of a compassionate relationship to what happened. It’s not some unidentified woman getting her pussy grabbed – it’s our friend, with a heart and feelings and a memory.
Now, ever since about 2015, this has been one of the bleakest meetings of the week. Everyone’s story is about a trans person in the military wondering if her service was going to be terminated and her benefits withheld, a child fleeing gang violence in Honduras journeying on foot towards the United States where her mother plan to legally seek asylum, a journalist murdered and dismembered by Saudi representatives in Turkey.
It has been a really difficult time to be human on Earth and we feel that it is our duty to recognize some of the emotional nuances of these stories rather than focus solely on the political and cultural meaning of these stories.
None of us in the group have personalities or histories of our own – one of our rules is No Personal Disclosures. We are all whoever we were in our most recent presentation. This makes for some very interesting discussions – an American woman who was sexually assaulted by the man who later becomes president having a casual conversation with a little girl seeking asylum in that very country is astounding.
One of the first practices we encourage is first-person story-telling. Take any story you know well – whether it be your favorite movie, your favorite childhood fairy tale, a song you love, or a story that happened to someone close to you – and tell it with yourself as the star of the story.
I like to choose the movie Boogie Nights and tell the entire story from the perspective of Julianne Moore’s character Amber Waves. Introduced as Burt Reynold’s partner, Amber goes through so much in the course of this film. She has a promising porn career while struggling to get custody of her kid. She helps a new actor rise to prominence in the field only to find her own success eclipsed as he finds mainstream success. She loses her children indefinitely, is shamed for her career and choices during a custody hearing, and descends into drug addiction while also trying to mother her fellow actress Rollergirl.
Her entire life is comprised of experiences and associated emotions to which I cannot relate at all. For this reason, I feel more empathetic and well-rounded when I tell her story as my own story. I assign the emotions I assume would fit to scenarios I cannot imagine. I feel different types of relationship and their strains.
Once a week I meet with another member of The HCC and we tell one another stories. I’ve been meeting with the same member for over a year now and I don’t know a single thing about her as an actual person. Once she told me her story as a muse for a fashion designer in haute couture London of the 1950’s. Another time she was Hannah Horvath – a voice of a generation.
To us, it is important to see the world through different vantage points.