This review is LONG overdue (and long.) To be honest, here's the reason it's taken me so long to write it: I feel like I was given so much from Bonnie and the rest of the retreat leaders that I wanted to perfectly convey my feelings and all the emotions the retreat gifted to me, as well as the crazy amazing success of my business that is a direct result of my experience at Illume. But perfect is just never going to happen, so here's my imperfect account of what went on at Illume, and how this retreat was the best investment I've ever made in this business (Bonnie has pictures of my stats if she wants to prove it), even though I really couldn't afford it at the time. Here it is, from my perspective, pieced together from my journal and memory... apologies to grammar freaks about switching between past and present tense...
Monday, October 26th
We're aborting our landing. This cannot be a good sign. One of the flaps is stuck down and the angle of the flap keeps pushing our plane up.
Okay, we're finally landing.
I've gotten my rental car but I have a bad feeling about this. The plane aborted it's landing, I am in debt up to my eyeballs to come here, and I'm not really even sure I'm a creative. Am I? I mean, I blog... I make the graphics for my blog and take the photos... but no one even looks at my blog. I've been at this for almost two years and can't keep a client. Maybe it's time to switch businesses? No. That's dumb. There's already a lawyer out there doing what I want to do and her stuff looks really good. I could never do that. I'm not creative enough, people would think I'm a sham. She makes jewelry and sells it on a shop! My etsy shop has only sold like, three things. I suck.
I just got to my room. Alaina Olive, my roommate, is already here. Kinda crazy, 'Alaina' was the name of my wedding dress. She texted me to say she's at the pool but I'm not going to go. Oh my gosh, her stuff looks SO cute. How could I go to the pool? [I creepily walk over and pick up her bomber jacket and carefully place it back down so she wouldn't know...] She is so tiny! There's no way I'm going to the pool. I'm too fat. I need to figure out where the nearest mall is, the clothes I brought are awful- what was I thinking? I'm never going to fit in with these girls.
Maybe I don't have to go to the welcome dinner. Maybe it's fine to just go to the workshops and skip the rest. That's why I'm here, right? But I did get these clothes... [I walk in and Alaina is there]
"Hiiiii! So good to meet you!!"
"Hi! You too! I'm just getting back from Target... I, um, I didn't like the clothes I brought."
She laughs and tells me they were probably fine.
"Let's go to the dinner together. I'll wait for you." Alaina chirps.
"I don't know, I mean, it's going to take me awhile, and, oh gosh, look it's already 6:17, it started 17 minutes ago! You should just go, I'll stay here."
"No really, it's okay, I'll wait for you."
Welp, now I have to go. She's really nice... I shouldn't keep her waiting.
6:30 pm (Welcome Dinner).
Alaina and I have made some small talk on the walk up here and I've already gone full nerd on her. Why am I so uncool??? She was talking about Stella and Dot and I have to go and tell her that this area of Texas used to be underwater and that if she looks close enough she'll find shells in the rocks??!?? What is wrong with me?? Oh gosh and here we are. Oh, man, it's beautiful.
A really, really pretty girl is approaching me in a backless maxi. I want that dress.
"Hiiii!! I'm Shay!!" she says as she hugs me. She turns and gestures towards Bonnie, "and this is Bonnie!!"
"ble, um, ah, hi, I um, wow, I, ah, um, I don't, Hi Bonnie!" I finally stammer out. I'd been following Bonnie on instagram for a while now- long enough to know she is a really big deal and super cool. Way to make a first impression. You're so dang starstruck Christina that you couldn't even talk. You look like a weirdo. God you are weird, it's not too late to tell them you feel bad. Oh, who's this?
"Hey!" a girl with the most beautiful skin I've ever seen says as I turn towards her. "I'm Laura!"
I do better this time. "Hi, I'm Christina."
"Where are you from?" she asks as if I'm the most interesting person on Earth.
Oh, yeah, small talk. Okay, I can do this. "I flew in from Atlanta today. But my plane had to abort it's landing." Wow Christina, way to go with the totally unnecessary and weird details. Seriously, just leave. No one is going to want to know you, you'll just be the weird girl. Go. Now. FLEE.
"Ohh. wow that's awful! I'm sorry...hey, oh, OH! Look! We're seated next to each other!" Laura exclaims.
OH THANK GOODNESS. Everyone is making their way to the table for dinner. Bonnie is welcoming us. Oh, oh darn. Who is that sitting down the table from me? She looks so familiar...familiar but different. Oh, OH CRAP THAT'S KAT SCHMOYER DON'T FREAK OUT, DON'T FREAK OUT!! I DID NOT KNOW SHE WOULD BE HERE. YOU WERE ALREADY WEIRD WITH LAURA AND BONNIE, JUST ACT NORMAL. NO, JUST DON'T TALK! THEN SHE WON'T KNOW YOU'RE AWKWARD AND WEIRD!"
Suddenly, I glance across the table and see someone I know but she also looks different. Bonnie finishes her speech and we start to get up to get food, which is not my strong suite. Like, seriously, I can't be the only one in the world that accidentally throws tomatoes across the room with those stupid catering tongs. Don't do that tonight Christina... I'm trying to remember her name...
"Kristie!!!" I shout. "Is that you?"
She looks at me quizzically and says, "It's Kirstie, like 'thirsty,' and...oh! oh hi! ...Christina?"
Now I feel like a jerk. I have literally had dinner with this woman and worship her on instagram, I just called her the wrong name. Miraculously, I make it back to my seat with my food intact and not spilled all over myself and manage to have a pretty great conversation with Laura. She's really deep and complex, and somehow pulls out some of my biggest dreams and secrets.
Bonnie pauses the dinner before desserts are served and asks us to each go around and introduce ourselves. As each girl shares who she is, what she does, where she lives, and what she wants to learn at the Illume Retreat, I start to feel more and more at ease. I'm surrounded by mothers, calligraphers, designers, philanthropists and photographers. Thank goodness for Laura. When it's my turn to go (my heart is beating out of my ears), she pipes in as I finish with one of my secrets that I had forgotten all about in the moment- the secret is the whole reason I'm here at Illume!! I feel better now that it's revealed. The Moscow mule (in this amazingly beautiful mug!) is helping as well.
After dinner, I get to meet everyone a little more and Alaina and I make our way back to our room. Alaina is the most amazing sleeper I've ever met and goes to sleep instantly. I am at ease as I lay down for the night, but then the panic that I'm not good enough, not enough like everyone else starts to seep back in.
I love hotels. This one is pretty exceptional to boot with all the amazing windows and beautiful morning light. I feel a new sense of confidence thanks to the way cool and entrepreneur-y outfit I grabbed at Target yesterday. I'm ready for today (and also I know this hotel has a breakfast that is going to knock my socks off...) I got up early to get ready and do my hair, I feel like if I look pretty the other girls will like me better. Alaina is up now. Holy cow, she went from asleep to gorgeous in less than 10 minutes.. I've been getting ready for over an hour... Crap, I need to hurry up.
Alaina and I walk to breakfast. This resort is beautiful- I never would have guessed something this beautiful existed so close to downtown Austin. We must be early, no one is in the breakfast area. I'm relieved no one is there and I LOAD IT UP. They even have gluten free toast and entrees that I pile sky high on my plate.
Alaina and I have a great conversation about her floral shop. I realize no one is there because we're way late, and everyone is already filing into the conference hall for the first workshop.
I walk into the conference hall, which is BEAUTIFUL. Words cannot describe it- it's the kind of place that belongs in a wedding magazine with the large panel desks topped not only with welcome packets and ridiculous amounts of swag (see above.) I take my seat, (next to Kirstie Marie!) and we get started. Bonnie welcomes us once more and introduces us to the first speaker, who is Laura of Paper and Honey! I'm so excited to learn more about her after talking to her last night. She's not decked out to the nines, which is a relief for me and instantly makes me like her that much more for being herself in an outfit that's cute but not over the top. Her talk makes me question my vision and process, and it's the perfect intro for the next talk.
We take a break and head into a hall full of the most beautiful concessions and flowers (seriously, the retreat was a good chunk of change but I didn't think I paid enough to be treated this well). I'm starting to feel more at ease around the ladies and realize that the presenters (and Bonnie) are humans too.
We go back in and take our seats to finally hear what this brilliant and quirky photographer has to say. I apologize world, but before I went to the Illume Retreat, I had no idea who Shalyn Nelson was (I know, I'm sorry!!!) and I had signed up for Jenna Kutcher's email list but forgot who she was because my junk mail folder had been eating her communications (I'm sorry Jenna!!)
So Shalyn starts her talk and basically describes my life (minus one very important, tragic thing that I have not the first clue about.) I feel so connected to her story of moving around and being the outsider at her new school (I moved every two years or less until I went to college.) I mean, I loved this Zoey Deschanel twin before she presented but now I really loved her.
And then, there was...
12:30 pm LUNCH.
Kat and Laura pull me aside after Shalyn's talk and tell me they want to sit next to me because they saw I was going to be at Creative. Still trying to be cool, and knowing Kat and Laura wanted to talk to me, I tried not to pile my plate too high, even though the food looked amazing (and oh, by the way, was surrounded by the most beautiful friggin' flowers ever-- thanks Kat.) They wanted to know where to put me at Creative with my strange background, since I was not like, a Photographer with a capital P or something. We had a great time talking about how Kat got to where she is today. Her 'short' rise (it's all relative) to success shocked me- I thought she'd been doing this forever. I have a great lunch sandwiched in between my two new girl heroes. I choke on some food for a hot minute but Kat either didn't see or was enough of a lady not to embarrass me.
I am overcome with an urgent need for a nap because I have taken in so much knowledge. Bonnie is giving her first presentation and I have completely re-arranged my views on work-life balance and scheduling by the time she is done. She is turning out to really be the person she is on Instagram, which is a really amazing person. (Since then I've seen her many times and I am continuously shocked by how big her heart is. She feels so much for so many people. I don't know how she does it but I love her for it.)
We have a little break and then make our way over to the garden where we had dinner the night before. It's styled shoot time, and Kat and Bonnie have NOT disappointed. The garden house is brimming with fresh flowers, wooden spools of ribbon, gold flatware, antique china and fresh macarons. Like little kids with bowls of candy in front of them, we all smile and nod through the presentation about styling and then with the discipline of Charlie Sheen in the Playboy mansion rush to the tables to grab the biggest peony, the brightest sage and the whitest foam board. We all take pictures and Instagram the crap out of our afternoon, but alas, Shalyn is the real winner, getting the best pictures with the least amount of effort.
DINNAH TIME!! Oh thank goodness there is wine. I sit with a new group of ladies and we talk about some fun stuff. Chrissi Shields is at our table, who is hilarious, and keeps us entertained for the next hour and half with stories about her kids and dirt biking, while Katie Selvidge has the impeccable ability to turn any story into a life lesson worthy of cherishing forever. We've had some deep conversations today and I've learned a lot, but nothing life-altering. Kind of what I was expecting, until...
Campside Chat Time. Whoa. This is where it got real. Jenna, who remember, at this point I still have no clue who she is even though I follow her on instagram (obviously I wasn't that active at the time, I know, I know people...) calls us all out. She tells us she knows our lives aren't this perfect, and we need to drop the Pinterest-perfect life we're all trying to convince everyone we have. I feel like she's talking right to me, even though she still doesn't know me and we haven't actually even said 'peep' to each other at this point. As we go around the circle and share things that were never shared before and will never be shared after with each other, we actually finally learn who we're really surrounded by.
By the time it is my turn, the staff is already breaking down the tables for the night and it's clear we're getting kicked out. I want to tell everyone how much I appreciate them and love them at this point, and hug them for what troubles them, and rub their back for what scares them, and cry for an hour... but we don't have time for that, so I cut right to the chase- I tell the group the truth. I tell them that I feel scared- I feel inadequate and unequipped for what I want to do and so I'm afraid to start.
This may have been the turning point of my whole career. Everyone is heading out and back to our hotel rooms and Jenna walks right up to me and starts telling me I need to do what I am called to do. She told me the story about how she got into photography, and about the first time she told someone she was a photographer, and how liberating it felt. She gives me some of the best advice I've ever received and we hug. I walk back to my hotel room, still feeling scared but not alone.
I get on instagram to follow Jenna. Not only am I already following her, but Oh. My. Gawsh. I'm so glad I didn't realize who she was before we talked. I would have pooped my pants.
Breakfast again. Still amazing.
Bonnie talks again (not diminishing this but I am hungry and I've now been writing this story for 6 hours...)
[no longer writing times- hanger kicking in!! Here's the rest of Day 3]
Katie is incredibly open and vulnerable in sharing her story. Then she scares the bejewels out of all of us and tells us everything has been taken away. Our social media, our reputation, our clients, what do we do? And for the remaining time, we workshop about various things in our life that don't serve us, that don't help us, and that basically, aren't really us. It is one of the most enlightening things I've ever been through about myself. She talks about the core of what we really are- she's not an editor, a writer, a freelancer or a ballet dancer- she's a story teller. "What am I?" I think... I have no idea and it scares me. I have to remind myself she's a magazine editor and not a therapist.
After lunch, we have a good bit of free time before Jenna's talk. I am sitting on a bench away from the group about to cry because I've been riding the high of Illume and when I left Katie's workshop, I get a text from my bank. I have basically NO money. The text said, "Hey Christina, you dumb idiot you spent all your money on this stupid blog and yoga business that never went anywhere. Don't forget- you left a very good legal job to do this! And now you have no clients. You want to start another business? A legal business? You're freakin' crazy dum dum. I bet it will have another stupid blog too huh?" Okay, it didn't literally say that. But it may as well have. I look up from my phone and see Katie walking towards me.
Katie sits down and doesn't say anything for a few moments. Silence is not uncomfortable for her. I'm sure I said something really topical because I'm still not 100% okay with silence. Either way, our conversation is not full of fluff. That's not Katie. She asks me what I want, like we've known each other for years. I tell her, "I want to be a lawyer for creative entrepreneurs, but..." and I pause. She would never interrupt someone but she takes advantage of the pause to ask me why I can't start? What do I want to leave behind as my legacy? Our conversation is over in less than 10 minutes because we have to head back in for Jenna's talk but I am left questioning the legacy I want to leave. "What do I want to be remembered for? What do I want people to know me for?" I ask myself over and over.
And then Jenna does it again. Her talk is about instagram. Kind of. It's about instagram, but since it's Jenna, it's so much more deep than that. Jenna cements in my mind what a legacy is and what it's like to leave one. Not by telling us a story of someone who left one, but by telling us a story of someone who didn't, and what it meant to her and her husband, and how it changed their life and their approach to what they do.
It's late afternoon and the days have shortened up quite a bit since summer, but it's really nice out. The windows were closed awhile ago, and the AC turned on, but it still smells like fresh air in the room. The light is harsh and slanting through the window like little halos of fire. It's quiet. At this point, none of us in that little room will ever be the same. Everyone in the group has been irrevocably changed by someone leading or in our group. People must think I'm a paid ambassador for Illume or something because I tell everyone about it (and just spent 8 of the busiest hours of my life writing and editing this story.) I'm not paid, I think that goes without saying. But I have such a deep, deep place in my heart for everyone I met and re-met at Illume, and that that bond will never be broken. It's impossible to describe what Illume will be like, or what you will get out of it.
For me, it's led to where I am now. If I hadn't gone to Illume, I would not have had the courage to talk to Bonnie, or any of Bonnie's friends (including Davey, Krista and Natalie at the Rising Tide.) If I hadn't talked to Krista, who pointed me to Davey, I would not have had the chance to throw out my idea to him, and he would not have had the chance to accept it and present me with the opportunity to create a series of educational webinars about legal topics for creatives. And had that not happened, who knows if I ever would have had the chance to connect with so many of you and hopefully help you create your own legacies.