If you know her, you’ll agree it’s not wise to refuse her. When she asks a favor, it’s like the Universe is demanding something from you and resistance proves futile. Though she takes up only a tiny amount of physical space with her 4’9″ eighty-seven-year-old body, she is a force. She’s outspoken, gregarious, sometimes ornery, and often uncensored. Her skin has aged like the best of the aboriginal faces in photography coffee table books where each line tells a story you want to hear — her eyes deep wells.
Her name is Dot Fisher-Smith.
I met Dot shortly after meeting my husband twelve years ago. Dot and her husband John (now 89 years old) are well loved elders in our small community. They are active social justice warriors, steadfast spiritual practitioners, accomplished artists, and genuinely down-to-the-salt-of-the-earth good human beings — wrinkles and all.
I reconnected with Dot when a friend invited me to attend one of Dot’s retreats. I agreed to attend because I was curious. Rumor had it that Dot’s retreats, for women only, were unstructured and free-flowing. This appealed to me. I imagined myself lying in bed for most of the four days with nobody bothering me — no husband, no clients, no phone, no computer. I’d read from the stack of books I’ve been dreaming about getting to.
On the other hand, a circle of unfamiliar women without a purpose signaled danger. It triggered my allergy to idle gossip, mindless circular conversations revolving around tedious emotional content, and catty undercurrents of competition.
“But Dot is an experienced Zen practitioner and has years of mindfulness training, ” I told myself. I imagine she’d do some version of holding space or facilitating, giving me hope she’d fend off the unbecoming impulses we women can fall prey to. As long as I’d have access to a bathtub, I’d be okay. So, I decided to go.
Over the course of those four days I experienced the best of what’s possible when women gather with an intention to hold, to listen, to co-create, and to empower. The possibilities for genuine transformation and impact are endless. The retreat reinforced my knowing that the herding of women away from gossip and competition and towards collaboration, healing, and feminine leadership is integral to my personal development and my work in the world.
Plus, I fell deeply in love with Dot.
One year later, in the autumn of 2013, I attended the retreat again. A new circle of women gathered with some repeats from the year before. I spent most of my time in my room at my desk, looking out over a meadow enclosed by woods, working on my memoir, Being Selfish. Because the format of the retreat is unstructured and each woman is supported to nourish herself in whatever ways feel good to her, I was supported to isolate and write. While I sat in my room penning my internal landscape onto paper, other women were sharing poetry, walking in the woods, practicing yoga, and making music. Free-form had a way of cohering us into a tapestry of creative and meditative threads, while Dot wielded a light force in her facilitation, keeping the gossip at bay.
It was the following year when Dot made her request.
She was tired of hearing me talk about my memoir and was ready to read it.
“I’m done waiting, Sarah,” she yelled at me as I arrived, practically tackling me with a bear hug. “If you’re not ready for me to read it, then you’re going to have to read from the manuscript as it is to the whole group while you’re here. And that’s that!”
And that was that.
The next night, I read the first section of my book to a circle of eighteen women gathered around a blazing fire. At first, I felt uncomfortable with my reading voice. I read too quickly. I didn’t give enough breath for the story. I was distracted by wondering what my audience was thinking. But, by the second chapter, I started to find my groove and, as I proceeded, I slowly began to feel my heart. It was getting bigger. More accessible. More transparent.
I had stepped over the threshold of writing my story, to sharing it.
I read for over an hour that night. Some of the women trickled off to bed, but a cozy huddle of us remained until the fire cooled down. We moved close in as if I were reading a bedtime story, kindling memories of childhood for each of us.
I realized that, because I speak to topics many of us generally keep hidden, my story invites belonging. Though writing my memoir was a lot about me and my own healing, I saw that night that the story was no longer mine. No longer for me. It was for them. It’s for you.
Over the days that followed, many stories were shared about pregnancies, abortions, cults, and religion. Conversations ignited over the breakfast table about the right to make decisions about our bodies and our beliefs. As we traversed personal landmines and shed layers of defenses, a testimony to the need for and power of being mindfully selfish emerged.
Each woman had an example of taking on a role, or a career, or a responsibility that did not originate from her own heart’s desire or life purpose. Caught in a deeply entrenched tradition of serving others, every woman in the circle had, somewhere along the way, forsaken her unique desire to express herself in the world in ways only she could. During that retreat, we gave birth to what became the being selfish meme — determined to redefine what it means to be wisely selfish. This meme supports individuals to reconnect with their own self before they commit to take on another role or responsibility.
Tears were shed, traumas reactivated, and a tender field generated. As I drove away from the retreat site on the last day, I realized that besides a meme being born, a tradition had been started. The following month I began to regularly host Selfish Salons in my home, where I read from the developing manuscript and gently facilitated conversations on redefining being selfish. Since then I have held salons in Oregon, California, Texas, New York, Michigan, Canada, Mexico, Holland, England, and Poland.
In 2004, when I emerged from my decade of retreat, I brought my zealousness into the world. I wanted to get everyone I met to begin meditating in order to find the still place inside so they could express a life that was truly their own. After a few years of proselytizing my message (apologies to those of you on the receiving end of my temporary myopia), I realized that it was not meditating that I was passionate about even though it is one of my favorite things to do and I view it as an incredibly valuable tool for many reasons. What I am passionate about is supporting people to locate, remember, and ultimately live their own unique life. I want people to feel free to live their life — not somebody else’s idea of their life. I advocate for this form of self-knowledge because it’s the gift I received from my ten years in retreat.
I want everyone to be free to be their unique self.
I want you to be wholly and holy your self.
Turns out my unique self loves introspection, contemplation, solitude, and silence. So, social gatherings and parties are not something I have ever gravitated towards, even in high school and college. Yet, a part of me has always yearned to participate in what I imagined could be the pleasure of being with other people, dressing up, eating good food, celebrating something. Turns out Selfish Salons are the perfect solution. They’re social gatherings, with good food and drink, in beautiful places, and they have a focus: to share intimately and respectfully while exploring ways we can each be more wisely selfish.
Selfish Salons are parties with a purpose.
Just my kind of party.