hand written letter from allison with necklace over the paper
By Allison Downey

This piece is part of a series offered by the GilChrist community during the month of October about practices of healing, in honor of GilChrist’s 25th anniversary on October 15.

To me, GilChrist has been a place of true refuge. Every few months, for each of the 18 years I’ve lived in Kalamazoo, I would sink silently into the land and the hermitages (cabins), solo. And I would write. Always write. And sit. And walk. And breathe. And watch, seek, observe. And sleep. And I would return refreshed. It was like a tune-up, regular maintenance. Get my oil changed, windows washed, and a good check under the hood. 

Later, it proved to be my place of choice for a deeper reset, for the big decisions and reckonings. I remember reading a quote about the practice of yoga and meditation. Something about how it’s not that you need to do yoga every day, it’s that practicing daily supports you during the times you really need it. The times the engine blows, or the car drives into a ditch (true story—for another time). And like my meditation and yoga, returning to GilChrist has been a practice. It’s been there to support my healing when my life drives into a ditch and my engine has blown. The story in this audio speaks to one of those times.  

When the folks at Gilchrist invited retreatants to share reflections within a story circle at WindHill last September, I felt called to honor the place, the space, and the people who create it for us. My musings were offered to the gathering of GilChrist groupies in the room. However, when Kirstin reached out to me for permission to include the audio of my story here for y’all, I had a few reservations. Here they are:  

  • In listening to it a year later, it feels very heavy, very dark. That is not the whole truth of my experiences at GilChrist, which was peppered with the frivolity of squirrels’ acrobatics to steal birdseed from feeders. Nor is it the whole of my cancer journey that at times vacillated between a tragic comedy and full-out farce.  

  • I am a professional storyteller and singer-songwriter, but this was the first time I told that story and the feels were raw. A couple of months later I was asked to speak at the AIM Melanoma Symposium and I knew to couch the tragic parts in comedy. (I’ve even got a music video of a comedic song about cancer, called “Can’t Take My Heart”—see, I knew better!)  AND, spoiler alert: I’m here to tell about it. 

  • My primary concern about releasing this audio for y’all (sorry, I moved here from Texas), is that I reveal statistics, survival outcomes, and other nonsense that, if I’d just been diagnosed with the same rare disease, I might not want to hear. Not so much. This information was not offered to me: I pressed doctors for numbers to help me in my decision-making. Because of the incredible advances made by angels in white coats, those statistics are no longer accurate. So, there.  

  • And, if you haven’t been to GilChrist, you may not recognize that Jeremiah, Charlie, and Rosewood are names of the hermitages I stayed in and not band members.  

With these disclaimers and corrections, I am happy to offer my reflections on Gilchrist with you.  

With hopes that you may walk the labyrinth soon, 


Click here to listen to Allison's story.


GilChrist retreat center logo with white pine sprig

GilChrist is the public retreat center of the Fetzer Institute. We support the Institute’s mission of helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world by preserving a contemplative environment for healing self, society, and the natural world. We warmly welcome both groups and individuals and people of all faiths and affiliations.