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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...bought...Kleenex...to...stuff...in...my...bra." 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."
What was scary and liberating is that improv is an instant art. Handed a situation—you are Republican fund-raisers in an inner-city Laundromat, you are frat boys at a day care center—you make the best of what you've got. You can't control it, you don't know what's coming next.

"Doesn't that sound like life?" said Katie to the workshop group. Yes, said some of us, rolling our eyes. Life is not, after all, a series of five-year plans but of improvisations. Who forgot to tell us that?

When I wasn't onstage. I had a chance to eavesdrop on my daughter at work. And to see the way she was empowering the women—listening and encouraging, pushing and reassuring, empathizing and leading—as little by little we actually did get out of our own skins: "Be present." "Let go of trying to control the scene." "Trust that everything you need is already in your head." "Go with it." "Go for it."

I don't know exactly how it happened, but she created an atmosphere where it was safe to take risks. I was astonished when one restrained young woman found her punch line—to laughter and applause—by whipping off her shirt.

Did I ever drop my Mom hat? Of course not. At one point the subject was relaxed concentration—how to replace anxiety with the calm energy needed to create—and one part of my brain was thinking: Calm? They're taking advice from Katie about calmness? This is the kid who started walking at 8 months and didn't sit still until she was 20.

But for the most part I stayed busy learning. Sometime Saturday afternoon we began to talk about the enemy; there was an inner critic hanging around the workshop, the same self-monitor that gags us at work or in relationships. The unwelcome voice that shuts us up or steps on our best lines.

In one emotional moment, the artist in our workshop, who had hung back, blurted out that her inner critic had the voice of her dad. Every time she tried to jump into the improv game, she heard him spewing a stream of negatives: "You can't." "You're stupid." "Hurry up." Katie stopped and worked with her, urging her to talk back. Finally the artist yelled at that critic father: "How the hell do you know what I can do?"

As a writer, I am on intimate terms with my own inner critic. But watching and listening to the others, I saw how to keep the self-censoring downer at bay. When the voice calls you while you're onstage, you can answer back: Not now. When the inner critic is rude or dismissive, you can tell her politely, Excuse me, could you rephrase that?

Prompted by Katie, we decided to try to transform the critic into a coach, a coach whose inner voice is actually on our side, not promoting our weakness but insisting on our courage.

The exercises weren't just head work or a series of spiritual tips. I had a chance to try out other roles. Who was that woman with the ten-gallon hat on her head and the Texas twang? Who was that woman in the wig with the long yellow braids? Certainly not the woman Bill Safire once described as "the usually sensible Ellen Goodman." I gradually—not always comfortably—got out of my own skin, put aside the "distinguished commentary" of my day job, and went for the gag. Sometimes I flopped and sometimes I actually made fun.

If my daughter could do it, couldn't I? Couldn't I at least try?

By the last morning I was finally, freely, happily making a fool of myself.

I was playing a prude in a sauna, trying desperately to cover too many body parts with too few hands. An hour later I was a cop at a drive-in, creating an operetta with Otile.

As the scene ended, one of the women in the workshop said, "Well, I see where Katie gets it from."

I wanted to stop her and say, "Whoa, no, wait a minute, I got it from Katie."

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

Carl Jung once said that the second half of life is meant to explore the things you missed in the first half. But my God, it's easy to get stuck. Maybe we've become experts at our work, our relationships, even the way we set the table. Maybe we have titles: syndicated columnist, editor. It's scary to push aside those identities and become beginners again. But there's a lot to be said for jumping into our kids' sandbox. I got another chance to play and find a freer spirit. I got a beginner's lesson.

By Sunday I could see and feel change in the women around me. Maybe it was just two days of laughing out loud, but there was a lot more sparkle and energy in the air.

I started to think about the strains between two generations of women— or between two directions of the women's movement: the political, skeptical, analytical folk trying to change the world "out there" through legislation, organizing—Government 101. And the more spiritual, emotional, intuitive souls doing the interior work—Growth 101.

The younger generation may be better able to see that these are not opposites but connected. In the double helix of change, growth is an inside and outside job. We can learn that. From them.

One day after our weekend, long after Katie had flown back to Montana, my friend Otile and I sat over a harried midday lunch. For a few days, I said to her, a group of women had gotten together and laughed. We came away both lighter and stronger. I got a chance to take myself foolishly. What a gift from my guru.

Faye Wattleton deciphers the world with her daughter's help
Faye Wattleton and Felicia Gordon
When Faye Wattleton, exhausted after 14 contentious years as president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, faced the painful prospect of quitting the job she loved, whom did she confide in first? Not her colleagues, not her friends, and not her mother, Ozie, a fire-and-brimstone Church of God minister who had always disapproved of her daughter's fervent pro-choice crusade. (Later, told of the resignation, Ozie commented only: "My prayers have been answered.") No, Ozie would not be a comfort now, even though she had been, in her devotion to what she believed, an imposing example. Instead the confidante Wattleton went to was the person she calls a powerful mentor: a woman named Felicia Gordon, who happens to be her daughter and was 16 years old at the time.

"I was raised in a very sheltered, narrow environment," Wattleton tells me. "No smoking, drinking, dancing, movies. My mother taught me a lot of things, but they had big presuppositions built in—like her expectation that I'd be a missionary nurse in a religious order. Then along comes Felicia, a child unburdened by the notions of insecurity and inadequacy that make you constantly question your values. That is, she saw things with the wisdom of inexperience. Because sometimes experience misinforms wisdom." Unpacking this unconventional adage, I immediately recall a story that Wattleton relates with self-critical honesty in her 1996 memoir, Life on the Line. Determined that Felicia, even at 13, should be allowed to see the world for what it is, Faye takes her on a side trip to a massage parlor during a Planned Parenthood mission in Bangkok. Felicia, obviously upset, insists they leave. "Even now I remain amazed," Wattleton writes, "that I had failed to recognize the emotional significance that seeing the exploitation of other young women, some of them close to her own age, might have upon my daughter.... [She] had brought their pain home to me in a whole different way."

If Ozie's influence was formative (what was Faye doing but the opposite of what her mother had done?), Felicia's was transformative. And not just by making policy issues personal. Now 26 and in her first year at NYU law school, Felicia knows her way around worlds her mother used to shy away from. "Felicia has taken me into the realm of our popular culture in a way I never could have done without her," Wattleton says, "and it opens up for me the wave of the here and now. Which is important not only for my work"—Wattleton is president of the Center for Gender Equality, a think tank she helped to found in 1995—"but because I've spent my life slogging away, trying to save the world instead of living in it."

Which is understandable; aside from the pressure of being America's point woman on reproductive rights, Faye was raising Felicia pretty much alone after she and her husband divorced when Felicia was 6. Single mother/only daughter relationships sometimes have a way of souring, but this one just got closer, and even now Faye and Felicia operate in many ways as a team. "One of the nice things is that we're both single women who date," Wattleton says. "So she can provide clarity, without the rose-colored glasses, about what I may or may not see in people I meet. We also go to parties and hip-hop concerts, take dance classes at Alvin Ailey, and of course shop together. Even when she was 2, when I'd hold up two garments and ask which she preferred, she'd invariably pick out the nicer. Now she tries to get me to wear miniskirts—halfway up my thigh—and I have to tell her, I can't do that, I'm in my fifties!"

Well, she could—Wattleton is a stunner. But perhaps she is not altogether divorced from an upbringing filled with restrictions. "The influence of one's parents is powerful and permanent," says Wattleton. "As for my relationship to my own mother, no, no, no," she adds with a laugh. "I've never been allowed to be a mentor to her. Mind you, I'm on the board of Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and I can't persuade her to have a conversation with me about her specific medical benefits. But that's the way her generation parented: 'What can your kids teach you.' Well, I believe something different about kids. We don't own them, they have their own knowledge. From the start you have to make the choice to listen." For Faye Wattleton, the choice—that central word of her career—has been simple.

Jesse Green is the author of The Velveteen Father: An Unexpected Journey to Parenthood.

Maureen Howard marvels at her daughter Loretta
Maureen and Loretta Howard
My daughter and I sound amazingly alike. So we are told, even by members of our family. If the message on your answering machine is dithery, vague as to the time and the purpose of the call, it's the mother. If businesslike yet gracious, that's my girl. My girl who operates an art gallery, who manages her household (with the aid of that new breed, the helpful husband) and her daughter, Kate, who is 3. You'd think I might pick up her efficiency and grace in dealing with the world, but I'm a slow learner. Like many women with accomplished daughters, I'm amazed at the acrobatic skill of Loretta's balancing act with household and career. In the complex world of money and art, she holds the value of art and of family always in mind.

"You don't need to go to that conference," she says. "Stay with your work." Loretta Howard is talking straight, not speaking business-school lingo to her mother, who can't abide words like prioritize. It's not a simple reversal of roles—advice to the mother who once harangued the child to get off the phone, finish the homework. My daughter is telling me—what I should know after all these years—to give myself to the difficult book I'm writing. She's sorting out what is important from what is unnecessary and, I suspect, reminding me that I'm still somewhat uncertain about my worth, apologetic about the writing of novels, mere stories that have consumed me. It's a matter of public record, my coming-of-age when women, too many of us, had to school ourselves to believe in our working lives.

But my personal history, so entwined with my daughter's, cautions me to be silent as she deals with Kate, who has decided against breakfast. Loretta's clever game that gets the cereal down reflects the same competence I see in her professional life, with the added sweetening of love and correction. We are privileged to live across the street from each other, which makes New York something of a village for us. Almost daily I observe Loretta's enlightened care of Kate. I remember mothering with a well-worn copy of Dr. Spock and an unreliable mix of hearsay and old wives' tales. Many of my friends claim we had it easier. Perhaps, but I'm learning what many women who never had the comfort of staying home have always known—that easier may not be better, that taking your place in the world may nourish the folks at home, as potable as mother's milk.

"Have a great time," my daughter says. The sky overcast, gloomy, I'm heading out for the weekend, my canvas bag stuffed with notes for Tuesday's lecture. But then, Loretta knows how to savor her vacations, how to switch from duty to delight.

"Sweat the onions," she instructs, just back from her course at Le Cordon Bleu. The onions must be limp and golden.

"The little pearl earrings, Mom." I put the big silver dazzlers back in my drawer.

We are in the gallery looking at a gorgeous Hans Hofmann canvas—bleeding primary colors. "What's so wonderful about Hofmann," Loretta tells me, "is the way he connects to the past while breaking new ground."

I believe I'm learning.

Maureen Howard is the author of Big as Life (Viking).

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