There is a mystical phrase that goes something like “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” This sentiment applies to Melanie and her experience: she was ready and she found Rise Gatherings.
A Washington D.C. native, 59 year old Melanie has always had music in her life. She began piano lessons at a young age and grew to be a singer throughout her childhood. Despite fantastic talent, Melanie lacked confidence. As she tells it, she grew up in a society that constantly told her she was too dark, her hair was too kinky, and her body was too big.
“You wouldn’t go to a mall and see brown skinned women on the advertisements, and certainly not large women and certainly not women with their natural hair. That just was not even on the radar screen,” Melanie recalls.
She repeatedly absorbed one societal norm of beauty – light skinned women with long hair. Consequently, she internalized that if that is beauty, she must be ugly.
“For a little girl, the message that you're getting is that you're ugly. You are not beautiful. No one's going to want you,” Melanie said. “It's what you don't see and don't hear that reinforces that message. You don't see anyone that looks like you out there.”
Despite her despair, Melanie brightened the world with her voice and her inner spark. Though she longed to sing professionally, her parents pushed her toward the University of Wisconsin in Madison to study conservation.
“I always have had a real love of music, of all kinds of music. But when it was time to think about college, my parents were like, ‘No, you can't study music. That's not a career that you do,’” Melanie said. “It's nice, but it's not something that you do.”
Still, music called to Melanie, and after two years of school, she left the University of Wisconsin, returned home to D.C., took voice lessons for a year, and she was accepted into the Fine Arts program at Howard University. She was thrilled to be pursuing her passion at Howard until she became pregnant and she made the sacrifice to leave school and get married. Her family became her central focus for the next decade.
“That was a 10 year journey that was, well, I don't even know how to really describe it. It was hard. I'll just say that it was very hard,” Melanie said.
Tragically, Melanie’s daughter passed away from SCID, a disease that causes infants to be highly susceptible to severe infections. But with a resilience that seems unfathomable, she continued forward raising two sons, and she did her best to keep music in her life and find some joy.
“I would sing at church and sing at weddings and things like that. I sang with a few choral groups. So I always kept music in my life,” Melanie said. “But it wasn't at all what I really had envisioned for myself.”
When she was 40, Melanie got divorced, and she poured even more energy into raising her two boys into adulthood. Tragedy struck a second time when, in 2019, her son was murdered.
“When my son was murdered, that was like a hard stop. Because of course, nobody anticipates that,” Melanie explained. “You don't anticipate somebody being murdered. And so when that happened, it was just like my life came to a really hard stop. And I didn't really know what to do. All of a sudden, I didn't know what was going on. It's almost like one day you're walking along and walking along, living your life, and all of a sudden, a hole opens up and you just fall down it. You don't know where you are. You don't know which way is north, south, east, west. You just find yourself in this place, and you don’t know what's going on anymore. And that's kind of what it was like.”
Melanie's grief manifested in complete disorientation. After months of roaming, Melanie began to realize there was so much she wanted to address about her past and herself. The loss of her son acted as a catalyst for Melanie, forcing a self-examination and dissection of her grief in order to find some path forward from pain.
“Especially as a woman, when you have kids, it's so easy to push things in the background, because you're so busy with your kids and taking care of them and making sure their needs are met,” Melanie said. “You may be taking care of your physical needs. You may look put together. You will be successful. But a lot of times there's that stuff in the background, that emotional stuff, that says tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.”
In the Spring of 2021, two years after losing her son and experiencing the pandemic lock-down, Melanie was ready to be a student of healing. She began googling retreats, and at that moment she most required a teacher, Rise Gatherings appeared. Just two weeks before the 2021 Weekend Getaway, she signed up.
At Rise, Melanie’s experience with meditation was transformative and powerful. She described that through the meditation workshop, she found power through peace, and she drew new strength from her core intuition and wisdom she developed over the course of her life.
“What I took away from that meditation was my value. It was like a reaffirmation of my value, as a woman, as a person,” Melanie said. “Getting back to realizing my real value, that I've always been valuable, I've always had worth, I've always been beautiful, that meditation in that particular session, really, I don't know how, but it just came to me.”
During the Weekend Getaway, a Rise facilitator approached Melanie to film a video diary to share who she is with fellow participants and others in the Rise community outside of the retreat. Still working toward appreciating her own value, Melanie was unsure her story would resonate with others.
However, when the video was released to the Rise community, every piece of feedback Melanie received brought her more reinforcing moments of joy and awe – the same way the Rise community members felt as they watched and learned about her power.
“I was very open with her in that video and very vulnerable, very honest about my life and things I had experienced. So when people watched that video, I guess that's maybe what people were looking into,” Melanie said. “When you open yourself and you take off the mask in your life, like ‘This is who I am,’ it’s kind of really ‘This is who all of us are.’ We can all relate to the struggles.”
Accepting she was an inspiration encouraged Melanie to continue her self analysis and continue to appreciate her life and the woman she is today.
“We have all these gifts and talents and things, but if we don't know it ourselves, then we can't access them. We don't use them,” Melanie said. “You have to know for yourself.”
Finally, for Melanie, Rise re-emphasized the importance of women coming together in a patriarchal world and the strength we can draw from one another.
“It's really, really important for women to come together and to nourish one another and to reaffirm our power, because we are so powerful, and too often so minimalized. It's just really important for us to do that and be there with each other,” Melanie said.
Since Rise, Melanie has continued her professional career in the nonprofit sector, working every day in organizations that help others. She is so thankful for Rise and the haven it provided her at a time when she needed an oasis in which to heal.
“It's just a safe place for women to come. And we're there with each other. And we are connecting and celebrating, and it's a sanctuary. It's a sanctuary,” Melanie said.
“I think Rise, whatever happened there for me, it was like it opened up a door in me, and then from there I've just continued to, like a balloon floating up, I've continued to rise. Because my perspective of who I am changed. Then you can only go up from there.”