My Slow Dance with a Stranger

I’ve been away a while. Now I’m back and I have a story to tell.

Let’s start the story here.

Growing up at a summer camp I never took the leap and became a full-time counselor. My time alone is precious and I suppose I’ve always been selfish with it. That said, I still spent my summers manning the Trading Post, hosting meals as the Dining Hall steward (because every meal needs an introduction), packing meals for overnight camping groups and getting pulled into ridiculous activities on a semi-regular basis.

One summer day at camp I got recruited on “Wacky Wednesday” to be a hug-o-matic, but no one really explained the details. While standing in the middle of main field with hundreds of children running towards me, I realized just what being a hug-o-matic meant. I was to accept these children’s’ hugs and give them points. In the search for more points these waist-high children tried to bribe me with foot massages, holding my hand and other physical horrors I have never been equipped to handle. Luckily I was able to send them away and remain unscathed by thinking on my feet and offering them extra points to do creative things that didn’t involve touching me at all. With all the kumbayah, hugs and affection found at summer camp I never really embraced…well… being embraced. I love people. I love love. However, I do not love hugging, holding hands or being physically near people I do not know well. And so it’s remained all these years — I don’t hug strangers, I don’t do forced emotion, I really do enjoy my two feet of personal space.  Not until last week was my space ever really tested.

And then I had to go on a leadership retreat for work with 75 strangers.

Scheduled from 6pm to midnight on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 10 to 10 on Saturday and 10 to 5 on Sunday, I knew it was going to be a lot to deal with going into it, but I didn’t realize how much until I got there. I’ve been to leadership workshops before. Usually I know the drill. We do trust exercises, debrief. We help one another move from point A to point B as a group, debrief. We lead each other around obstacles while one wears a blindfold, debrief. Through this we learn to work as a team.

And so at this most recent retreat when I had to walk around a room, look strangers in the eye and tell them what I found most unattractive about them I momentarily freaked out. Then I found a neutral statement to offer after being denied the opportunity to leave the room. It was uncomfortable, but I survived.

Later they turned off the lights, we all had to sit on the floor and take a journey in our minds through the woods and into the wasteland of our emotions. We had to put on metaphorical armor, then rip it off to free ourselves. After freeing ourselves from our emotional garbage we were told to visualize a box that contained the thing we most desired. Mine contained a chocolate candy bar.

When working with partners at this retreat we were required to form diads. If you’re not familiar with diads, they are when two people sit in chairs face-to-face, one with his knees pointed outward and the other with his knees together and placed between the other’s legs. Knee to groin would be the way that played out. In diads we had many conversations, stared deeply into one another’s eyes and even role played. In the dark, in diads, we had to hold one another’s hands, pretend the person sitting across from us was our mother and tell her how she hurt us in our life. Then we had to switch chairs, hold hands and as our mother explain why we did the things we did. Switching chairs yet again we had to forgive her. Then we had to repeat and role play as our fathers. I believe there’s a 30 Rock episode in which Jack Donaghy and Tracy Jordan participate in this very activity.

We also had to scream at one another while in diads. “What matters to you?! What matters to you?! What matters to you!?” My answers ranged from recycling to knitting to grass-fed beef. Of course Regan, Jack, love and family matter to me, but it felt insincere to have to scream that at another person.

It also felt insincere to be asked to line up and hug a line of people for extended amounts of time while Rod Stewart and Enya played softly in the background, but I did it. And I did it all with a pretty straight face. The only time that calm and understanding facade began to break was when I found myself standing across from an ex-con, holding hands and staring into his eyes while Lennon’s, “Imagine” played. He had a tear in his eye and all I could think of was slow dancing at the 7th grade dance. I felt just as out-of-place then as I had 17 years before in that gym, holding the sweaty hands of some boy while wishing it all would just end.

Knitting, sewing and general projecting will resume after I manage to recover from this recent trip to a very strange and unfamiliar world where people crave emotion in a way I do not and where personal space is a foreign concept.

Note: Some people absolutely loved this experience and got a ton out of it. I’m not discounting their experience. It just wasn’t my cup… at all.





11 responses to “My Slow Dance with a Stranger”

  1. Patti Avatar

    WTF? This is a leadership retreat? It sounds like a therapy session at the loony bin. Glad you survived, and maybe I’ll see you give our free hugs on the street?

  2. Cindy Avatar

    Oh, Claire! The introvert in me died about 5 times as I read this. If this happened to me, I would need to be alone in my home for several days to be okay again. What a nightmare!

    1. Claire Avatar

      Cindy, you might be surprised at how well you could handle it. Regan was convinced I was up to something else since I came home each day less scarred than he imagined I would arrive! 🙂

  3. Amber Avatar

    I would hope that I would not be considered one of the 75 strangers in the room. It’s still traumatic for me as I am now having dreams about the “group” living in my home, stealing my cars, and me freaking out. Want to get away…far, far away!

  4. Abbie Avatar

    Claire — I saw your post through facebook. This made me laugh out loud. It reminded me of that leadership camp that we went to in high school. Hope you’re recovering from the retreat 🙂

  5. Patsy Avatar

    Claire: This was a work sponsored retreat? I find it too too invasive and personal for work.
    I’m all for emotional healing – and this is what this was… but what is work doing poking into that? Tell me this was sponsored by something else!

    1. Claire Avatar

      It was indeed a work sponsored retreat for all of us on staff. The self healing part is where I stumble as well. I believe we were all a bit mislead on the definition of “leadership” retreat, which accounts for why everyone except my co-workers and I seemed to embrace the experience completely.

  6. Katie Avatar

    Oh, Claire… This gave me chills. I can’t decide if being prepared for my turn (as you were not at all prepared) is good or bad.

  7. Kristi Avatar

    Oh, Claire, how I miss you! I must say I would have been terribly uncomfortable if I’d had to go through that with you, but I wish I could have heard your account face to face.

    1. Claire Avatar

      I can still tell it to you face to face 🙂 It’s been way too long. I miss you, too!

  8. […] were in order. This weekend the rest of my co-workers wrapped up the leadership retreat that I attended at the beginning of the year. Perhaps each of them had a remarkable experience, but just in case […]

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