Among the seven grandchildren in my family, I have always been “The Reader.” From the time I learned to read, I have spent many family gatherings deep into a book, ignoring all life around me.
My grandparents have always encouraged my reading. When I was little, they sent me Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. During college, I would stay with my grandparents in the summer, and my grandma would bombard me with book after book that I absolutely had to read, many courtesy of her feminist book club. Having nothing but time on my hands, I would read them, love them, and spend hours discussing the books with her over coffee. One fall, she decided to take our shared love of her book club’s recommendations to the next level: a feminist reading retreat in Minnesota where we would stay with a dozen other women and discuss a group of books arranged around a theme.
For three chilly months, I read my way through seven books by female authors to prepare for the retreat. I read the books everywhere that fall: in Starbucks while waiting for a job interview, on my commute from the suburbs, curled around my dog in my parents’ house. As I read through the books, I would take tentative notes, trying to pull together my English major sensibilities with the lens of a “feminist reading retreat.” On the day that I left for the retreat, I couldn’t tamp down the questions: Why am I going on this? What exactly is a reading retreat? Who are the women that go on these things anyway? How could I have ever let my grandma talk me into this? With those questions flitting around in my brain, I flew to Minnesota with a backpack full of feminism (and wool socks).
In the span of a weekend, we discussed the seven titles all under the theme “Our History is What Defines Us: What Do You Know About Yours?” The retreat is associated with Minnesota Women’s Press and BookWomen, two organizations involving my grandma’s book club leader. We would spend the morning on one author, and then after breaking for lunch and free time, we would discuss a second author in the afternoon. After dinner, we watched videos and read children’s books relating to the theme. All of our discussions worked with the worlds of the books and the ways we understand our history, which meant that it soon seemed like the authors’ lives were entangled with ours. By the end of the weekend, we all felt so familiar with each writer that we called them all by their first names during discussions. I left with a long list of books to read and an intensified love for all things reading and women.
At the time, I was a college senior, which made me significantly younger than the other women on my retreat. This became abundantly clear on the first night when we were asked to describe ourselves at 18 and how that shaped us today, including the year in which we were 18. I opened my sentence with “I was 18 in 2010.” Three years had passed since I was 18, but decades had passed for them. This gap made me nervous to treat my experiences as weighty or important. However, I found that the respect I had for our group’s experiences was reflected in the respect they had for mine. Despite the decades between us—or perhaps because of them—the discussions opened my eyes to new readings of the books I had already enjoyed.
Before the retreat, I knew that I consistently prefer books with strong female characters (see a deeply dramatic journal entry from around 6th grade titled “I have a heroine addiction,” pun very much intended). But, after the retreat, I found myself giving more weight to women’s personal experiences, whether or not they had been put into writing. I had spent three days ensconced in a group of women who had everyday strength. During our discussions about personal history, they talked about things like the unbearable loneliness of divorce and the challenges of starting a NOW (National Organization for Women) chapter in their town. Their honesty and openness, combined with the books that we read, taught me to hold space for and give weight to personal experiences, because they deserve that treatment, if not more. Published stories are not the only ones that deserve your attention. If, as the theme of the retreat posits, “our history is what defines us,” I want to make sure that I know as much as I can about those around me.