Three powerful women give rise to three powerful teachers. Ellen Goodman learns how to go with the flow, thanks to Katie. Faye Wattleton deciphers the world with Felicia's help. And Maureen Howard stands back and marvels at Loretta's urban fox-trot.

First up: Ellen and Katie Goodman
To be frank, my idea of a retreat had always been one of those Renaissance weekends where public-policy folk sit around discussing the International Monetary Fund or global warming. So why was I heading to a spiritual retreat in the Berkshires, smuggling a small stash of contraband coffee?

The short answer was the lanky, dark-haired and green-eyed woman sitting next to me on the front seat: my daughter.

You know how many stages of parenthood come without names? There's the first time you discover that your kid knows someone you don't know. (How did that happen?) There's the first time they rebel, seeking their own path. The first time you talk, really talk, as peers, with the give-and-take of friends rather than the restraints and expectations of parent and child.

Now we had entered yet another stage. At 59 I had the learner's permit. At 32 Katie was the instructor.

For two years Katie had been running workshops for women, using improvisation as a way to help them kick back and open up, to touch some inner funny bone and take some creative risks. "Improv for the Spirit" was an offshoot of her work in theater and improv comedy as well as of her spiritual work.

This time I went not as a mother would go to her daughter's piano recital, waiting anxiously to hear her hit all the right keys. I went as someone who wanted to rescue a lighter spirit and to find another kind of creative energy. I wanted to take more risks, to be more spontaneous, to give up some of the burden of control.

"You're my guru," I said to Katie after my friend Otile and I had signed up for the weekend. We both laughed at the image...and at the reality.

When I was Katie's age—ah, but what a way to start a sentence. At the drop of a hat, my generation of feminists will tell you how tough it was when all those barriers were up and then carry on about how "the younger generation" doesn't know how easy they've got it.

Nevertheless...when I was Katie's age the women's movement had just broken out and many of us were just breaking in. This was especially true for me as a young journalist trying to find my voice.

My daughter absorbed her feminism in the crib. It's still alive and well...and funny. Not only has she run a couple of women's theater festivals, but she has created a troupe at home in Bozeman, Montana, called Broad Comedy. It lives up to the name.

If our women's movement began with consciousness-raising, hers has grown with consciousness-expanding. If we wanted to have it all—work, family, "the whole catastrophe," as Zorba the Greek calls it—hers wants to have a life that encompasses spirit.

Can't we learn something from that?

The other 25 women, ranging in age from 21 to 68—teachers, bankers, stay-at-home moms, two CPAs—arrived at the Kripalu Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, for Katie's workshop Friday night. We'd been asked to bring a photo of the self we most liked. In one portrait a woman was joyfully sticking her tongue out at the camera. Otile shared a wonderful, goofy head shot taken at Katie's wedding. I had chosen a photograph captured at a rare moment when I was dancing unrestrained.

Only one or two of the women had ever played an improv game. A tall and tense banking executive came because she wanted her sense of humor back. Somehow she'd lost it at the office. Another woman, a mother and teacher who had just turned 40, wanted to just plain have fun—where had all the fun gone? Still others wanted to loosen up, lighten up. They all wanted to find creative energy, to dare.

Me? I wanted to be able to make a fool of myself. Do you have any idea how hard that can be at my age? How hard it can be—after you've spent a lifetime working to be taken seriously—to be free enough to be silly?

As we introduced ourselves, Katie outed me without self-consciousness, and the others seemed amused by the parent in school. For the next 36 hours Katie encouraged us to train the laughter muscles that had gotten flabby. And to find that lighter spirit.

As a warm-up exercise, to get us working together and free-associating, she arranged us in a circle. We built a story, one person and one word at a time: "Yesterday..." I was relieved that I didn't freeze when the plot came roaring my way without a second to prepare. Next we played an alphabet game, the easy ABC of improv. One woman's contribution began with an A word, the next picked up with a B word, until we had created a small tale—each person's line beginning with the next letter of the alphabet. Then we moved on to a standard improv game called "story, story, die." Again we had to pass the plot from one person to the next, and anyone who stumbled over it or came up blank had to "die," collapsing theatrically to the floor.

More than once this mother who makes a living with words was at a loss for them. I died dramatically and often. As a writer, you never have to see your first draft in public. As a journalist, you're a designated observer, not a performer. You're removed, you hold back. You—I—watch. Not here.

"Our children, especially our grown children, are not just our legacy. They give back. And forth. Kind of like improv."


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