This time a year ago, at the end of September 2017, I was getting ready to head off on my first solo adventure in thirteen years.
I’d been trying to mentally prepare myself for my trip for the best part of nine months, ever since I found out that I’d won a competition to travel to the heart of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado to attend the exclusive and intimate Leap Retreat, a photography retreat hosted and taught by the incredible Sarah Cornish of My Four Hens Photography. I freely admit to bursting into tears of joy when I unexpectedly got the news on an ordinary January weekday morning that I had been randomly chosen as the winner out of almost five thousand entries.
I’m not really sure where I stand on things like fate and destiny and everything happening for a reason, but this opportunity certainly felt meant to be and I didn’t have to think twice about accepting my place. I knew it was significant.
The last time I’d travelled anywhere on my own was pre-children, way back when the husband and I had not long been together and our relationship was still in it’s very early stages. Thirteen years is a long time and I was nervous. As the year went on and Winter thawed out into Spring, stretching into Summer before transitioning back into Autumn, I knew that the biggest hurdle was going to be leaving my girls. I was only going to be away for four nights/five days (three days of Leap Retreat itself plus a day of travel either side) but I’d only ever left them overnight a couple of times in the past and it felt like an enormous difference to let go and hand over the reins for so much longer than I’d ever done before.
As the big day arrived and I said goodbye to my girls at the train station, there were lots of tears. This was a huge deal to me in so many ways and I knew deep in my bones that I would come home changed. Travelling and stepping out from your comfort zone has a habit of doing that to you.
Of course it was an amazing experience. How could it be anything else? Exploring Denver on my own for half a day; bonding with the other women (all of whom were professional photographers) attending the retreat; exchanging stories and intimate truths and hopes and dreams and fears and worries; being challenged and stretched with each of the three very different photoshoots we took part in; pushing through the jet lag; soaking up as much learning as possible from the incredible depths of knowledge and experience that surrounded me; being vulnerable and letting myself be seen; sharing laughter and tears and hugs and food and beds… it was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced before and I loved every second of it. Even the tough parts.
The part of the retreat that I personally found the hardest was our sunrise headshot shoot on the second day. Letting go and allowing other people who I barely knew to take photographs of me made my skin crawl – the fear kicked in and there were tears. It was intense.
I hate being in front of the camera, preferring to remain invisible and hidden behind it (unless I have a child to hang out with, in which case I’m usually very slightly more comfortable). On my own, I feel incredibly uncomfortable and it shows: my wedding day, where the camera was focused on me almost constantly, nearly killed me! I’m currently writing a whole other blog post specifically about this almost phobic response to having a camera pointed at me: I’m having to dig deep as it’s a rather personal one, so it might take me a little while to get it all out.
Tina and Jessi, who I was partnered with for the first part of the headshot shoot, were wonderful. Encouraging, kind, supportive and willing to go first so I could get an idea of the process involved both in front of and behind the camera. They showed me how to coax nervous clients into being more themselves and they gave me little confidence boosts when it was my turn to both model and shoot. I ended up with a couple of images of myself that I genuinely like and I’m pleased with some of the shots I captured of everyone else.
Behind The Scenes
I wanted to share a few behind-the-scenes shots from Leap Retreat. Sarah arranged for some wonderful families to come and model for us on the three photoshoots we did (a Mama and Me shoot, an indoor/outdoor lifestyle shoot and a sunset family shoot) and I felt it was important to step back and capture the experience as a whole as well as focusing in on the families themselves. It must have been pretty daunting having so many cameras pointed at them at the same time and the families and kids all handled it brilliantly.
What Did I Learn?
It did change me, just as I knew it would. I came home to England with a newly strengthened belief in myself and a deeply rooted purpose to work towards. I knew I had a lot of work to do but it excited me rather than scared me. A year on, all of those things are still very much present and I’ve been taking action to make it happen (some baby steps, some giant ones). I’m slowly getting there and trying to be patient and trust that the pace is right for me.
I learned that having a tribe of women around me (even if they are on another continent) – to lift and encourage and support and share and guide and advise and give honest feedback – is essential. I wouldn’t still be on this journey without them, I know that for sure.
I learned that everyone feels the same way, even the professionals. We ALL have wobbles and doubts and insecurities and ‘not good enough’ moments, and everyone gets sucked into the comparison trap from time to time. That’s ok. Vulnerability is a superpower, sharing our fears makes them less scary and knowing that it’s not just you means that you feel less alone and more forgiving & accepting of yourself.
I learned that fear is there to teach you something. It exists to show you the areas you still need to work on. (I think maybe I knew this already but I’m writing it down anyway as a reminder to myself).
I learned that there’s ALWAYS more to learn. We’re all a work in progress – both personally and professionally – and that’s a good thing. Being able to surprise myself with a realisation or insight is a wonderful feeling.
And I learned that ‘letting go’ (my intention for last year) is an ongoing process. There is no end point to reach where you’ve finally let go of everything – you’d be empty! It’s ok for it to take as long as it takes – being patient with myself, giving myself grace where necessary and knowing that I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got.
Leap Retreat Family
As crazy as it sounds considering I was only there for three days, I truly believe that I’ve made friends for life in the women who attended Leap Retreat alongside me. Sharing all that we did about ourselves with each other in the private Facebook group in the nine months leading up to the retreat and spending so much time in close quarters together over the course of three days meant that we bonded deeply.
Some phone snapshots of our time together:
Our online connections have continued to stay strong since Leap Retreat and we support and encourage each other on a daily basis even now, a whole year on from our shared experience. I think the depth of our friendships can be illustrated by the fact that some of us have been able to meet up with each other despite the geographical distances that separate us – Jessi and Tina regularly see each other, Beth and Christine are attending another photography retreat in California together next year and I even got to see Amy when she and her family visited London briefly this summer on their way to a longer trip around Europe.
I knew that I wanted to try and immortalise my experience at Leap Retreat in a way that was more than just photographs and decided to try and capture it on film so that I could eventually turn into a vlog. It was my first attempt at filming anything (ever!) and as a result there is far too much talking and nowhere near enough footage of the retreat itself. I honestly forgot all about the clips I’d taken until a couple of weeks ago when I was searching for something else and came across them in a folder on my laptop. This is what I managed to put together and whilst it nowhere near captures the magic I experienced in the mountains, it brings back some wonderful memories and I’m so glad I have it to look back on.
This is a bit of a round-up post I guess, a mish-mash of thoughts and learnings and growth and memories. It feels good to have been able to reflect on the experience, to tie it all together and have it all in one place to look back on and remember in the years to come. I hope that my girls read this one day and see that I followed my heart, that I found the courage to step out of my comfort zone and that in doing so I became more of the me that I want to be. I hope they take those lessons on board for themselves because all I want for them as they grow up is to do the things that light up their souls and make their hearts happy. That’s what Leap Retreat was for me.