The Wellspring: Reflections from Sarah Goettsch
I recently connected with our friend and community member Sarah Goettsch, who’s been in relationship with the Whidbey Institute from a number of perspectives: as a program participant, a program leader, a volunteer, a substitute caretaker, a donor, and more. Here are some excerpts from our conversation. —Marnie Jackson
Marnie: Thanks for being open to sharing your story in our Gratitude Report!
Sarah: You’re welcome! In preparing to have this conversation, I kept coming back to gratitude—gratitude for the wellspring of the ecosystem of the Whidbey Institute. I’ve had all these different connections and experiences. Each one is another instance of showing up, as we are, in any particular moment, in one of the vast variety of ways of being human. That’s one of the things that’s really been a treasure for me.
Can you describe being here on the Whidbey Institute land? What feelings or qualities come to mind?
Resonance comes to mind. If I were to put it in the body, it would feel like closing your eyes, plugging your ears, and humming for a while. Welcoming yourself, and in that way welcoming all of the Universe. Other words that come to mind are arrival, anticipation, and acceptance.
I’ve been thinking about Fritz saying, in one of our meetings, that he’s been spending a lot of time listening. Maybe that’s one of the aspects of the place that we call the Whidbey Institute. It’s kind of like somebody’s turned their head to you a little bit and given you their attention. Maybe their eyes aren’t even open, but you know they’re listening. Arriving on the land feels like arriving at a safe place.
Safety is an interesting word, because sometimes we need to feel a certain amount of safety in order to get out of our comfort zones, to let ourselves be vulnerable enough to take a risk and grow. We aren’t always comfortable on our growing edges.
I think I’ve learned a lot there when I’ve been really uncomfortable—maybe uncomfortable in my own history, my own story, my own not knowing. I think about being in Powers of Leadership (POL) when I had just come out of a brain injury and a really big shift in my work. I remember feeling, “I don’t know who the heck I am,” being in a room with all these professional people, and thinking, “oh, crap—I’m the artist in here.” And it was ok! And there was a lot to learn there. I remember another time, trying to co-lead a workshop with two people that I didn’t have a lot of history with. I was new to teaching, and the land made hosting with Bethany and Tyler feel safe enough to try.
Are there any magical moments or particular memories you want to share in relationship with this place, this organization, or these people?
I always try to take the same path when I first arrive at the Whidbey Institute. I park in the lower lot and I take the path that goes across the creek, over the little bridge, and then up the side—the zigzag. I like the practice, the same patterning as I come into a place and then go out. I always notice if there are birds along the path. “Oh, hello! Who are you? I don’t know you!”
There was a time when I was hiking out on one of the trails and my thoughts were just chewing themselves up. A bee came and buzzed around my head. The bee kept reminding me, “you’ve got a busy little brain! A busy little brain” The bee would go away and I would relax out of my thoughts. Then, I would notice, “oh—I’m back in that thought swirl again,” and the bee would come back! That was a magic moment.
I think of all the ways that everyone is continuously generating energy— like Thomas roaming, or Madisun, how her touch enlivens everything like a firefly. How each person associated with the Whidbey Institute has a certain magic to them as well. I might talk a lot about the land and the critters, and maybe not always the human critters, but we’re magic too.
The last time I was meant to be on the land was with Bethany and Tyler to do a writing retreat. It was going to be our second one, and this was right at the start of COVID. The Whidbey Institute board and staff made the decision to cancel the programs for safety’s sake. I remember appreciating that the board and staff, as a collective, had the consciousness to make a decision that was protecting the community.
What lessons have you learned or practiced through your relationship with the Whidbey Institute?
I’ve practiced reciprocity, and generosity. I think about how it feels when we’re volunteering: we get our assignments and we all go to do whatever project it is that we’ve been assigned to do, or that we’ve asked to do. Then, we come back and share a really delicious, comforting meal together. I think that feels like how I leave the Whidbey Institute as well—I leave clearer about my task in the world, and I know I can come back and have this really beautiful, nurturing space on the land when I need it, in whatever way that is. If I have money, I can pay to go to a program. If I don’t have money, I show up with my hands and my body because these are also ways to connect. Learning to value myself in that way has been a real blessing.
I’m working through some old stories of value and worth. That’s been a really tough one for me, around money specifically. When I first showed up to volunteer, I thought, “well, I’ve got to do that because I didn’t pay full price.” That was in my head, and it was a heavy story.
I really appreciate you calling that out, and noticing it, just because it’s such a prevalent story—that you either earn your keep, or you pay for your keep. The fact is, everybody deserves the healing of the land and the support of community.
Yeah! It’s taken me a while to land in that in a way that feels safe, because I feel really gentle and that’s not always been ok. That’s definitely one of the things about the Institute: coming back and knowing that people there see me in a way that’s very true. It’s such a gift.
One of the things that happens there is that we help one another access our tenderness. Exploring that as a community, we can allow some of the hardness to slough off. Generosity and reciprocity is also about noticing when the little door has gotten a little further open around your heart, allowing you to give whatever you can without expectation.
Are there aspects of what you’ve experienced here, as a volunteer, donor, program leader, program participant, caretaker, visitor, friend, or something else perhaps, that have shaped how you are in the world or how you are in other spaces?
Lots! All the ways! A consideration for others, a really interactive web of caring, trust in the way everything weaves together.
Over the winter I hung this rope chair from the rafters. It’s the kind that shrinks down when no one is in it, but then you kind of scootch your bottom in and the whole chair envelopes you. You can sit there and watch the fire, or relax back. So maybe, being involved in so many different ways, those threads all stitch together. I have this cocoon of relations that interact in a way that supports me.
That’s been a deep need of mine, for that support. I think of Christie in POL, maybe in our first meeting, saying, “you don’t do this by yourself. Don’t do it alone.” I remember thinking, “what? That’s not what I’ve learned!” I had X number of years’ experience that gave me a different story.
That’s been a major learning for me with the Whidbey Institute—that our stories can be lived and understood, and woven together, in so many different ways. Concepts and imagination and love keep growing, surrounding, and supporting us. We’re in this vast web, and it’s all connected.
I think of all the ways I’ve connected with the Whidbey Institute—meaning the people, and the place, and the caretakers that are there now, and all of you, and the people who come and go. I feel like each time I visit, I’m learning something that is important for me to know in order to more deeply be myself.
I love that—learning to more deeply be one’s self. What else do you take away from this place when you go?
I can feel that question in my heart, Marnie! It’s really interesting. I think I take a calmer sense of myself, so I feel more arrived, and stilled, and clearer about my own place and person.
Is there some way you see for the Whidbey Institute to be more welcoming, inclusive, or relatable for you or others?
I’ve always felt very welcomed. When I arrive for programs, there’s time for me to move through the liminal space, space to transition into being present, and I’ve always appreciated that. That works for me, as an able-bodied person who has access to a vehicle.
For several years, I didn’t have a car, so my thoughts go to that. I’m curious what’s possible for those who don’t have cars, who might be in cities, and are looking for that access up to the island. I’m a biker, but that’s a haul. I think access in that way, of literally transporting a body from an airport or a train station, could be a place to look at. How can that conduit be clearer?
What is the Whidbey Institute’s super power?
I love that question! One word that comes to mind is tender—tending, to tend.
Tender is chiming loudly for me, in both of its meanings. The Whidbey Institute tends, but it is also a place where we can soften, become more gentle with ourselves and one another.
I also think of words like anchor, gratitude, and welcome. There’s something about arriving at the Whidbey Institute that feels like shelter.
I was at a writer’s workshop two years ago on the Zumwalt Prairie in Northeast Oregon. We were sitting in a circle, and we were supposed to give directions without using place names. I shared the directions for getting to the Whidbey Institute from my house in Seattle, and as I got to the end where you make the last left turn the woman next to me shouted, “I know where you are!!” She got the undulation of the hills, on the highway, that turn, and that turn, and that turn. That something that I feel, in that last turn, she could feel in her body too.
What lights you up? Institute related, or not?
Mail, post mail. Letters. Stamps. That sound you hear when you open the mailbox. That kind of lengthy communication between people.
I love walking in to libraries. I’ve thought of the Whidbey Institute as a sort of a library, but shelving different things—not tomes, but a catalog of perspectives and stories.
Birds, definitely birds. There’s a common goldeneye that sits out on the log out in the lake lately, and this morning I saw an osprey. Those are some of my treasures.
When my partner Jim and I came to the Whidbey Institute and stayed in Hermitage one time, we came back to our cabin and a flicker had roosted on the light. As I opened the screen, the flicker went inside. It left a feather on the pillow. It felt like a blessing, a moment that was so inspiring and welcoming. And also, we had to say, “bird! You can’t stay in here! There’s no food!” We helped her out. There’s learning in those interactions.