Finding Awe at a Spinning Retreat

words and photos by Lisa Mitchell

The day had finally arrived 

It was September 2022. Here in the Pacific Northwest we were just beginning to come back together. The small groups with masks had begun to yield to larger groups outdoors without masks. It was still precarious, but my husband, Greg and I, had decided to hold our first Guanaco Spinning Retreat. It was something we’d had planned for years. Ever since we moved to Whidbey Island with our small herd of guanacos in 2018, Greg and I had the intention of sharing the space with others. We wanted to invite people to experience the magic of the farm and these rare and regal animals. But the pandemic made us wait. And the waiting felt heavy. Like maybe it would never happen. The magic that had once sparkled here on our farm had become a bit cloudy. Our awe of the land and the animals had begun to fade.

But the retreat day arrived. Spinners flew and drove, shedding their mainland footholds, then made their way to the island via ferry. They traded the solid grounds of their various homes for a water crossing. They left the concrete worlds and their busy lives and arrived in nature. Traveling up the gravel drive, they turned left at the Guanaco Lane sign and we greeted them with ridiculously big smiles. Welcome! Like Fantasy Island or Love Boat greeters, Greg and I were so excited to see our retreaters and show them what was in store.


People, place, and things sync up 

In my mind, three elements allow a retreat to become something special. The people, the place and the things. When the combination is just right, there is the possibility that awe can come rushing in. When people are in sync with one another and the place in which they gather gives rise to rich experience, when the things they do and see are beautiful, a sense of awe can create skin tingles and broad open smiles. 

There is an actual name for what happened that day at our spinning retreat. It’s called collective effervescence. The way I felt deserves a fancy name like that. When it happens, according to Dacher Kelner, author of Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder, it activates the vagal nerves, which slow our heart rate and deepen our breathing. And it triggers the release of oxytocin, which promotes trust and a sense of well-being. When this happens, our minds open in wonder to the interconnectedness of life.  

 I’ve experienced awe before at music concerts. There’s often a point in time when the musicians and audience all click into synchronicity. It feels as if we’ve become one organism and nothing else matters but that very moment. 

 Sometimes I feel it in the yoga studio. Mid-practice there will be a sudden flash where awareness of myself as an individual melts away and I am moving my body in unity with others.  

In this age of conflict and uncertainty, since the pandemic and even before, most of us have been awe deprived. With so much of our lives going online and group gatherings not happening, we’ve been sapped of that collective sense. Those experiences that remind us of the magic of being alive have been squelched by so much. But here it was happening at our retreat on a misty fall day. 


The moment of awe 

I’d been a bit apprehensive. I didn’t know if it was too funky to hold a retreat in an unheated barn. We did clean for weeks, and I bought an indoor outdoor rug that looked a bit like it’d been handwoven and dyed with indigo. We set up big tables and chairs. Fixed some tea. And then they arrived.

Here came the beautiful people who wanted to hang out with our animals and spin. This wasn’t a hotel or conference room. It was a barn. And there we all were, dehairing guanaco while Alma, our most curious female guanaco, looked over the barn gate. 

 Guanaco is a double coated fiber. The guard hairs are coarse and long and the undercoat is downy and short. Our first moment of collective effervescence came when everyone had settled in for the long slow process of removing those guard hairs from the prized fluff. Dehairing the guanaco requires focus. Complete with head lamps for better light, eyes lowered to hand cards, we all quieted. Breathing slowed. As the minutes ticked away, the downy fluff accumulated. There were smiles of appreciation and comments about how soothing it was to sit and listen to the birds. In the hush of our work, the calm felt soothing. We had clicked into awe. 


A memory not to forget 

It had been a bit chilly that morning, but that afternoon the sun peeked through the clouds and shot a ray into the barn. We opened the warehouse doors wide. Breaking for lunch, before Michael Kelson’s instructions on blending for and spinning woolen, the herd came close to the fence for the fresh grass there. We ate our salads with the guanacos. We sat and basked in the sun and each other’s company. Having come from all over the country, the retreaters relaxed. Travel and busy lives felt far away. Their hands had guided them there. 

I know this much, with more experiences of wonder we can suffer less. Awe lessens anxiety and depression and increases joy and trust. Shared awe helps us feel more bonded and relaxed. The collective awe we experienced when those three elements – people, place and things – all sync up is something special. It was a day many will remember. 

Lisa Mitchell is an art therapist turned fiber farmer. She and her husband raise guanacos for their exquisite fiber on Whidbey Island in the Pacific Northwest. Lisa’s retreats and podcast, A Fiber Life, focus on ways in which caring for wild animals and making things with fiber by hand teaches universal life lessons. Her farm page can be found at 

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *