A warm welcome to Rose Woods, the Whidbey Institute’s new Programs Host!

Rose has quickly made herself an invaluable member of our team – assisting program leaders and their participants, greeting visitors to the land, and helping to create an atmosphere that supports the Whidbey Institute’s mission and purpose.

Rose is not new to this place. With the help of the Hull family, her work here actually began with an imagination for the Storyhouse Stage and the creation of an outdoor Shakespeare Festival in the space.

I had a chance to sit down with Rose in her new office overlooking the Westgarden. It seemed rather fortuitous, listening to Rose recount some of her history with the Whidbey Institute and the island and about her hopes for the future as we look to commemorate the past 50 years and embark on the next.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to the Northwest?

I grew up in Northern California. I moved to the Pacific Northwest because my mum was diagnosed with cancer. I came to care for her, thinking that she only had a year to live. She ended up living for more than a decade after her diagnosis! During that time, I settled in. I made dear friends. I created a Shakespeare Theater festival. I did all kinds of things to fill my heart space while living here, all the while thinking I was going to ultimately move back to California. And, clearly, that’s not how it turned out. Although, I actually went back to California after my mum passed away to work through my grief. Eventually, I came back. I’d missed Whidbey.

I lived in Seattle for a while and there’s a lot I love about the city, but I’m not a city person and Whidbey Island has some kind of strange hold on my heart. I think that’s true about a lot of people who come here. There’s something that draws us to this island.

Tell me about your theater background.

I think the first show I ever did was Peter Pan. I played Tinkerbell. I was probably nine and my mum really supported it. All I wanted to do was play the piano, write stories, do theater, and rescue animals.

My mum allowed me to join the wildlife rescue team in our community. She was always my greatest advocate. When you’re a little kid and you say, “I’m going to be an astronaut and a veterinarian and write books and go on adventures.” She always said, “Of course!”  

When I got older, I studied writing and theater at Stanford and did a lot of theater in the Bay Area. When I came to Whidbey Island, thinking it would be temporary, I found I really missed the work. I had been running a theater company and doing Summer Shakespeare festivals out in the California redwood forests. I met Timothy and the Hulls. I shared with them that I wanted to create an outdoor Shakespeare festival on the island somewhere. They said that they might have a perfect place that could host such an event. 

So, that’s how it started. We all cleared a part of the forest that had a little natural amphitheater. The first show was As You Like It. We continued doing plays for three summers on the land. It eventually outgrew the space and the decision was made to move it to Langley. After about seven years of running the festival, I stepped away to take care of my mom and move on to do other things. And it’s still going every summer.

Now, I’m writing and working at the Whidbey Institute. Right now, those two things are everything.

The Hulls have since sold the Storyhouse land to the Whidbey Institute. And Fritz and I continue to talk about what else we could do in the space, what we could bring? Could we bring a music festival? What creative ideas could we bring that are in keeping with the vision? This continued creativity is really very exciting. 

Do you see yourself in your role as Programs Host, curating events at the Whidbey Institute at some point? 

Yes. Absolutely. One day. In the meantime, I love that I’m the person that holds space for the people that come here. I meet people who are coming from their various lives, sometimes challenging, and in a few days or a week, they leave a different person. There’s something really profound and sacred to me about holding this container for them by being the host here. I love that I get to do this. 

“I love that I’m the person that holds space for the people that come here.”

Originally, Chef Christyn had told me about the position. At the time, it was still linked with the Caretaker position. I love my home and my pets, and I just couldn’t live here on a full time basis. When I came for an interview, I said if this position is ever split, I’d love to have a conversation. A few months later, that’s just what happened.

 

You must have had some expectations about the position and about working at the Whidbey Institute. How has your experience so far lived up to those expectations and what have you learned since then?

I think I thought I would be a mindful concierge. I don’t think that’s exactly what it is all the time. I’m hauling luggage or riding around in the golf cart, making sure chairs are in the right places and all of those things are really, really important, too. It’s a little bit of the chop wood carry water idea; there are aspects to this job that are really physical and just mundane and wonderful, but without that, participants might not have the experience they come here for. I can say I am still learning. I feel like this is a job where you just continue evolving and learning and then eventually you feel like, “Oh, I’ve got it.” But then, something will change and you’ll do something else or add something new to your position. Right now, it’s high season at the Whidbey Institute, with group after group arriving on the land and I’m on a pretty steep learning curve.

Looking ahead, I can see that there will be lulls where we won’t have so many people coming in and that will be a time for me to think about other creative ideas here, like collecting books for the Sanctuary Library or dreaming up program ideas or other kinds of ideas that we all may have. I love being part of this team.

What have you found to be your new favorite place on the land since becoming the Programs Host?

There’s something really sacred to me about the hilltop area around StoryHouse. But I have to say that now my favorite place is easily my wonderful office. I love my tiny office in the middle of the Heartland. I still have my old favorites like the Listening Circle near Storyhouse and the walk from there to the Heartland. Possibly the most charming cabin for me is Bagend. And then, of course, there’s the Labyrinth and the beauty of it. 

How do you approach your work here, given that many of us feel there is a larger kind of work and meaning behind all that we need to do to keep this place going and providing visitors, participants and program leaders with the kind of experiences they expect?

I am a great believer that you can find meaning in everything, whether you are in an urban situation or on 106 enchanted acres. I approach my days quietly and try to stay open. I think that the overarching vision from the very beginning has been one of bringing an ethos of learning, reflection, and a kind of spiritual sustenance to people who may not have that in their own lives.  Holding space for this is essentially my work. That may include listening as people talk about the cosmos or creating space so that people can rest and have some form of meaningful and transformational ease.  

Someone asked me, “What’s the one thing you all do there?” I thought, there is no one thing. Every group is so dynamic and so different. They all come for different reasons. Some come to do  sacred art, some come to rest, some come to feel nourished, some come to have a personal experience. I’m still learning what all that means. 

In his book, A Wild Idea, Fritz Hull shares the history of this place and I am thinking about how to bridge some of those early dreams with what we’re doing today, with the programs we host, the events taking place, and what people are seeking when they come here.

Part of our work here is holding a mindful space for other people to do the work that they need to do in the world. And, I think one of the things that I really love about my position is having that connection with people’s experiences. Already, I have had moments where I’ve felt someone else’s experience, where they are leaving with tears in their eyes and an open face of transformation. One recent group left and they all said as they left, hugging me, “I feel like a different person than when I arrived.” One woman, who could barely walk because of a disability, was walking better by the time she left. It was as if she was just more in her body by the end of her program.

It’s moments like that where I feel like I get to be in the front row of people’s transformation. There are times when people come in and you can feel them bringing in their life from the outside, and then when they leave, you want to think that they’re taking this place with them back out into the outside world. And it’s magic. It’s just like an enchantment for me.

After having had some of these experiences, could you describe your position now if someone were to come up to you and ask, “What do you do?”

I really think I feel like I’m the Welcomer. If I were to give my position a new name, it would be the Welcomer! I’m the person that gets to say, “Welcome, I’m so glad you’re here.” I have to find a stillness inside myself and be a container for them to really arrive into this place. I’m the Welcomer. 

If I were to give my position a new name, it would be the Welcomer! I’m the person that gets to say, “Welcome, I’m so glad you’re here.”

In a practical sense, I greet people. Someone might think of me as a concierge and that’s fine, because I do help facilitate getting them to where they need to go and getting their luggage in their spaces and all that. Sometimes I tell people I’m the new Thomas because people who’ve been coming here for years often ask, “Where’s Thomas?” and that’s all they want to hear about in the orientation. They don’t care about where to put things or the logistics during their stay. It’s just, “Where’s Thomas?” So I often feel like I am stepping into some really beautiful and profound shoes by taking on the Program Host position.

Can you share some of your thoughts on the future of the Whidbey Institute and what you would like to see or new directions to explore?

One of the things I love most about how the Chinook Learning Center and the Whidbey Institute got started was that there were these beautiful, incredible people who came to this place, who lived here, who taught, created workshops and led retreats. I’d love to see more programming that comes from us in addition to being a center for other program leaders.

Being part of a retreat center is amazing because you get these incredible people coming here from wherever they come from and bringing whatever it is that they offer to the world. We also have incredible people who live on the island, or live nearby, or work at the Whidbey Institute, that have amazing ideas, artistry and other offerings they could share. That’s a really attractive thing for me to imagine, how to continue our work as facilitators as well as our roles at the Institute. We all have something to offer.

I would also love for the world to know more about who we are and to share our story with a wider audience of participants. This place is beautiful and so are the people who know about it and love it. So how do we share that with more of the people who don’t know about it and have no idea what magic happens here? That’s my dream; to open up our communication with the rest of the world a little more and share about who we are and perhaps get back to some of the roots of the original vision. To share a little more about Fritz’s vision of the Center for Knowing Home. However that might manifest remains to be seen. I’m honored and thrilled to be a part of it.

Written by Bryan McGriff, Communications Manager

January 10, 2024

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