I remember what she said in Circle. "I have never spoken of this to anyone before..." I can still see the Celtic cross by the window behind her, highlighted by the blue of the sea outside. The cross somehow seemed like a supportive hand holding her up, giving her strength while at the same moment she dissolved into tears. "I have never been able to speak of this before. It is only because of the unconditional honoring and listening, that each of you here has offered one another, that for the first time I can trust enough to speak this about myself." Through her sobs and gasps for breath, she slowly labored to find the words. "I am a woman who has lived with the guilt of having killed someone... taken a life... committed murder." And so her story finally burst forth. It was the second to last day of our weeklong retreat when Janice opened the pages of her heart to us. Now I understood. The week of struggle I had endured in coping with this woman's fear, hostility and difficulty in blending with the group, now all made sense. So also did that inner voice and intuitive prompting from deep within myself, which had said... there is a reason for her to be here... there is a reason she has chosen to stay... there is a reason she was called at this particular time, to this particular group. Trust. Trust the spirit. Trust the circle.
In the holy silence which filled the room after she spoke, she allowed herself to be embraced and held and lovingly rocked by everyone present, bathed at last in forgiveness for an act committed in youth, done in self defense. The cloud that had veiled her was lifted and her face became radiant as one reborn. As I saw her in this new light, I was brought back to my first encounter with Janice five days prior. She had just climbed off the bus that had driven her to the ferryboat which would carry us across the channel to the island - our home for the next week. I walked up to her and greeted her, introducing myself. She took one look at me and then one look at the island in the distance. "I have made a mistake in coming" she said. "I want my money back". She was like an animal that had suddenly become trapped. She was panicking. She wanted out.
I had to gently explain that while she certainly did not have to attend the retreat and that her money could easily be sent back to her, we had another problem. All transportation had ended for the day, it was almost dark and there was no guarantee she could find accommodation except on the island. Also there were few places for her to stay this late in the day, given there was a wedding and all the inns and hotels were booked. Plus it was cold and a storm was approaching. Would she consider staying one night with the group and then depart the next day if she still wished to cancel? Little did I know the journey that was about to begin. Under any other circumstances I would have arranged for her return journey and said goodbye. But a synchronicity of events had conspired, in that Janice had come this far with no other place available for her to stay than with our retreat group. On numerous occasions in the days that followed, I questioned why I had not just left Janice where I had first met her to fend for herself... why I had let her come to the retreat house... why I ever let her stay another day. Despite her obvious dislike of me and resentment of being trapped on the island, the retreat group nonetheless tolerated her negativity and scooped her into its folds. Her lone walks along the shore during our group sessions became fewer and fewer, as she chose instead to join our circle and listen to the stories being told by the 13 of us gathered. Granted, the wild weather drove her indoors, but I noted it was into the hearth of the circle she came, and nowhere else. As I held the deepening field for the group, I also had to learn to hold myself in the extreme discomfort of having no way to connect to Janice or make the obvious strain between us diminish. Nothing I did to try and 'fix' the situation was working.
As the 'retreat facilitator' I was rendered helpless in smoothing it all out - in making the shadow stuff disappear. I was being asked to simply surrender to sitting in the fire of the tension and let it be... and burn. And to my surprise as I did this, so it was that the group - as each honored the guidelines of the circle and stayed true to themselves and their own experience - were also willing to step in and hold the tension along with me. Somehow, through this shared holding of the discomfort, we together made our way into new territory...into a quality of embodied presence and being present to the fullness of one another that moved us to a beholding of each others deeper nature. We had truly crossed a threshold beyond authority and judgment, labeling and assumptions of right or wrong, to where we were able to trust and reveal ourselves to one another in a different way. The healing possibility that opened as a result I had never experienced before, especially amongst those who a few days earlier were strangers. And then Janice spoke... I will always be grateful for that week , the extraordinary men and women who showed up for the retreat and to Janice... Janice for teaching me what conditions it takes in order to speak of what is sometimes hidden so deep within our souls... that which has never been spoken before... yet once spoken into the sacred well of circle, will heal us and set us free!
When she shared what the year had been like for her. A year of planning, scheduling, knowing, looking forward to doing…and then suddenly without warning an interruption, a major interruption. A film that came over her eye that she tried to wipe away, thinking that it could be captured in a tissue and thrown away like a wild hair caught in the corner and then tossed.
But here she was with the light shining in one eye and then the other; that bright light that illuminates all that we can’t see with the naked eye. That light of truth that says, I don’t think you’ll be taking a train, or a boat or a plane. I don’t think you’ ll be frolicking with your daughter, your son, your nieces or brother.
And there the suitcases sat. Full and ready for the journey, wondering to themselves – what happened to her jolly self. And the clothes – the latest styles of pink and turquoise sat, wondering what happened to her jolly self. You mean we’re not going to be worn? Oh I can just imagine the chatter that filled each piece of luggage. And his luggage shouted over to her luggage with a genuine concern “do you all know what’s going on, where is she?” It’s time to rock and roll!
And there she sat, as the DOC said, “Oh honey you’re not going anywhere.” Not today or tomorrow or next week or next month. And, Oh, you mean listening to Dallas on the TV – eyes can’t even take looking at that TV screen.
What shock and dismay would befall her. Not me she would proclaim. And there she was lying face up and then face down and then face down again. The memories of what was to be danced playfully, messing with her mind- having her think she could be up and at um in no time. Oh just a little interruption!
UM, I guess it’s time to get traveling insurance. Something I think she never thought would be uttered from her mouth.
But the reality was, time had marched by, what a surprise. Where had the 80 years gone? Surely, she thought she would always be able to do whatever she wanted to do anytime she wanted to do it. After all she had her health – all of her health.
And now, one eye seemed blurred most of the time and the other one tired after 20 minutes of trying. Oh what was to become of all those beloved books! The freedom that she once knew with her foot on the pedal, as she lowered down the top of her convertible, while the wind blew her golden brown hair, this she would not know again.
She was dependent – oh what a thought, to think that she actually needed others.
While ending her recent visit, her daughter made a quick stop and gifted her with a necklace full of bubbles. She wore them on her neck and blew them to others. As she passed them around the circle and we puckered up to blow, we were reminded with the wet residue, of the joy that can come from the tiniest gift of laughter.
And now I am reminded to give back to her what she has given to me over and over again. Drive over real soon with that top down, pick her up and give her that sensation once again – of the wind blowing in her hair. She’ll probably wear those leather pants; you know the sexy ones! Make sure I stop just at the right time, so that cute guy in the next lane, the one with the sunglasses looks over at her, and with a smiling glance says “Sweetheart, you are way cool.”
I love you Nancy!
THE POWER OF INQUIRY
I remember what my friend said in circle…
In circle, recently, some of my friends were thinking about how to have a conversation with others who hold strong political opinions, which differ from their own. I remember what I heard my friend, Linda, say once, when we sat in circle. She responded skillfully in a frozen moment, when the group had been taken by surprise by a strong political statement that differed from the majority point of view of most of the women present. The moment felt very charged, given the strong political division in this country in this decade. At times, I have wanted to avoid conversations, which surfaced these strong divisions, feeling that to pursue these conversations might put friendship on dangerous ground.
However, Linda moved into this more risky arena very skillfully, when this woman said that she had voted for Bush. Some people looked around, not knowing how to keep the developing conversation going. My well-practiced friend found the skillful question, made several useful inquiries, which allowed this person to open up further so that we could all truly understand her thinking. “What leads you to vote for Bush?” The conversation developed into a discussion of basic democratic and republican ideologies. Another question: “How do you see these ideologies playing out today?” It was a question that all of us could reflect on. Everyone present learned more about each others viewpoint, and we raised further questions that led to considerations further afield and circled back to core philosophical reflection. We each respectfully listened into the thinking… into the heart, of others with opposing viewpoints. The conversation became noteworthy and we were collectively thankful for the depth we experienced. Of course, one can find guidelines on “how to ask questions” in difficult situations, which help to open, rather than to close a conversation. But, the primary guideline, it seems, is Caring. It was the tone and spirit of the inquiry, which created openness, more than the words. I was touched by Linda’s gentleness and true curiosity and I found myself reflecting: “What is my purpose in asking a question?” Is it to learn? How can I keep love alive in ordinary difficult conversations? Linda role modeled peace and possibility. Can I ask questions in a way that truly inquires into another person’s values and best intentions, or are my questions simply a disguised rebuke or opinion. A question which begins with “don’t you think….(?) is really a disguised statement of belief. Can I courageously state my own opinion as an opinion, and THEN ask a true question, a question born in caring and loving? Can I keep my heart open to BEING WITH this other person or am I seeking to surround myself with like minds because it is so much easier? Lessons learned
I remember the first time that I heard of the Power of Inquiry, when being introduced to the practice of Collective Dialogue in Circle, as presented by such practitioners as Meg Wheatley, Glenna Gerard, and Sarita Chawla. The question was posed: What if, regarding the topics of our heart, we could stay “In The Question” throughout our time of consideration. What if, instead of coming to conclusions, our speaking would lead us to the next and the next question?… continue to raise questions? What if we let go of our need to be right, our need to form a consensus, and opened to our NOT KNOWING? Of course, inquiry without true listening is not so useful. To stay in a state of inquiry AND listening allows us to consider ideas, topics, or dilemmas within a field of openness. It is important to have a safe and sacred setting such as the Circle where people agree to go slowly, speak one at a time and LISTEN. If we are inquiring into something like “The right to life” or “war”, can we suspend our judgement long enough to listen to the other and formulate a loving inquiry, or do we separate ourselves from the person with whom we are experiencing difference, maybe doubt? Various guidelines have been developed which assist us in phrasing inquiries in a useful way. (For instance, questions which begin with “what” or “how” are often more useful than questions which begin with “why”).
There are also some mindsets, which I find useful as reminders…
What prevents me from doing this? A little self-reflection reveals that in circle…
Together, in sacred circle, we have a practice field for inquiry, listening, and doing the difficult work of holding opposing or multiple points of view. In circle, I am reminded to develop my “muscles” of inquiry and listening.
"How is it between us?
When one of my sisters in circle gave me feedback about my shortcomings for the third time, while acknowledging strengths in others, I could feel the tears coming. I told her "I feel like a bad little kid and that you like the others better than me". Bless her soul--she was not defensive and owned it. And I could look at what was true in her comments about me. It broke our circle open to a deeper level of authenticity, candor and love. Each part of the process created our evolution: her words to be helpful, my tears, my little kid comment, her openness, the support, and acknowledgement of the group, the risking to go to a deeper place. The phrase we use is "How is it between us?"
I remember what she said in circle….
When she talked about we all have an assignment. I had heard her say it before, but this time it fell on me like she was speaking directly into me; as if she had called me over, sat me down and said “now listen up.” Like she had asked me to bend over and I in anticipation of a whisper, had heard a loud and roaring yell that said, “wake up.” That word “assignment” just landed deeply in my lap with a whoop and has made a clankety, clank noise ever since.
I turn around and there it is like a ball and chain, but it feels more loving. When I think of the word assignment, I go back in my memory to the days long gone of my teachers and having homework. There were favorite subjects, and not so favorite subjects. I had a tendency to tackle the things that I liked first, because it was effortless and caused my heart to sing and dance. And then there were the times, that I found myself missing a special activity or trying to keep my eyes open in the wee hours of the night, because of those subjects that pulled and tugged, as I wondered, “why do I need to learn this stuff.” And in the end, they were both assignments of a different kind and simply replicated the polarity of LIFE, the cycles of LIFE.
Some experiences we just love and some experiences we just hate. Yes, it's true, I do have an assignment that needs to be completed. And like the teacher who collected my homework, graded it and reflected back to me with an A or a C, and heaven forbid those one or two D’s, the time has come to turn it in. It’s time to pay the piper – no matter if the feeling is my heart singing and dancing, or my missing out on a special activity or two, while trying to keep my eyes open in the wee hours of the night or brightness of the day, or rejection or, or, or. No more excuses it’s time, time, time. She, who speaks, knows her assignments and has come to a place of perfection in completing it over and over again. Untarnished by the critique, she rises like the phoenix touching the fabrics of our hearts with that prickly kind of sensation known as truth. Yes, its that’s critic. I must make friends with her!
Do I have the courage to turn in my homework; to wait with baited breath and trust that I pass with a high score? Can I live with myself if I don’t turn it in? Am I so fragile, that I can’t take the grade, no matter who or what it turns out to be! These are the questions that now make that clankety clank noise, oh is that coming from me? Like a long slender index finger pointing directly into my large brown eyes, my assignment curls and beckons, come sweep off the dust and breath life into me. The world is waiting!
"I remember what she said in circle, speaking with heartache of her 90-year-old mother on the East Coast, memory gone, luminously living in the present moment. Another sister spoke of elderly and frail parents in Florida far away. Another had been driving many miles every day to make sure her mother’s care in the hospital and rehabilitation center was adequate.
The next sister spoke of her increasingly frail mother, spunky and resistant to help in her home. Another talked of her elderly male cousin, her only living family member. The next sister was involved in looking out for an elderly friend and former neighbor who is no longer strong enough to open her front door. Another worries about her 90’s aunt, holding on in New England, another about her mother in New York.
Eight of the ten women gathered. We’ve been together for fifteen years, lived with and supported each other through the death of a close colleague from AIDS, the death of one of our circle sisters from a swift-moving ALS, and the readjustments of retirement. And now it’s that time in the cycle of life to be with aging parents, knowing that death will also be part of this, that our own aging is on the horizon. How grateful we are to be in circle together. "
I remember in circle when she said, “I want to call in bloodline”.
Bloodline I thought, ah because she is a new grandmother. She was there for the birth. She caught him actually. She takes care of him every Monday while her daughter is working. She’s thinking of how the bloodline continues now;… relieved probably that the lineage will continue. In another way all the concerns of bringing a new being into a world with such basic problems as clean air and fresh water maybe that’s why she’s called in Bloodline.
Later I find she is also thinking of bloodline in other ways. She’s thinking of her mother and how despite the bloodline they don’t share the same vision, never have really. What is in the bloodline that carries, that unties, that is the thread ?
Bloodline takes me to another circle. I see each woman sitting dressed in ceremonial velvets. We sit tall and bring our full presence to the circle. We call in our mothers by their full names, and their mothers and theirs and theirs. Some of us can go back 5 generations. I represent my mother Betty Grace Burke, and her mother Cassie Marie Mayfield, and her mother Nora Grace Cook, and her mother Blanche Leininger. The room is teeming with women now. It is a world event. The names have pulled in our European bloodlines, and Middle eastern, African, and Asian. We are the point at the front of a long line of fine women. I see them sitting in the shadows behind each of us. We are part of a tribal gathering. I am here to represent my bloodline. It is my turn. I call on them to inform and support me.
I am glad she called in Bloodline. It made me remember.
"I remember she said in circle, 'My daughter is considering getting married.' I was struck by these words because almost two decades had passed when this circle was formed and Leah was pregnant with Shayla. Including the birth it has been Shayla’s coming of age rituals that have marked the passage of time for this powerful circle.
First there was a blessing way for the birth of Shay. Then when she came into her menses she requested a ritual from this group, her mother’s circle, but adamantly insisted there be no “New Age stuff.” The young woman didn’t want to be embarrassed by anything too foreign for her practical and down to earth sensibilities. She brought a friend to the circle, and we all spoke the history of our own coming of age with deep truth-telling. We showered her with gifts as well. When she was grappling with the adult issue of getting married, Shayla came to her mother’s circle once more, where both Mother and daughter trusted the wisdom, support, and nonjudgmental field that this gathering had created through the years.
It is deeply moving to me that this circle of women, through persistent attention, has truly established a bond that can be trusted by a young girl, turning woman."
"I have known Daphne longer than anyone. Daphne and I sit in circle together. Daphne has liver cancer. She has chosen not to have medical treatment, and we are watching and sharing her journey toward certain death. We are listening attentively to her as she tells us how she feels the afternoon we are gathered in her living room.
I remember when she said, “I had an overwhelming sense of JOY as I woke today”. She is thinking of her late husband, Otto, and how he is waiting for her. She says tears fell as she lay back on her pillow. Daphne says she has found a large silver cross he had bought her in Sweden, and it’s by her bedside. She asks one of us to get it for her and bring it to the circle. It is quite a lovely design, actually three crosses of heavy silver superimposed, one on another. We each hold it in our hand and feel her energy.
Daphne has a spiritual director from Hospice. They have short walks and long talks. Daphne is taking 12-hour pain release pills that cause her to slur her speech when we visit on the phone. Daphne reads me Psalm 84, “How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the Lord: my heart and fleshsing for joy to the living God.” I tell her that she was the first person to greet me on my arrival in San Mateo, and that I expect her to be the first person to greet me on my arrival in Heaven. She will say, “Come on in, we’re having a party.” My heart is breaking, but the circle is holding us both. Writing now I like saying her name, I like saying her real name, Daphne, it keeps her with me."
"I carried a “glow of being loved ”from the Deepening Circle in California with me all the way to Chicago, where I arrived on Monday at 4pm. I found I had a 4-hour delay due to the bad weather, but managed to get to Louisville by 10:30pm. I was feeling so happy to know there was just one more hour ahead of me to reach home. I took off from the airport with a song in my heart... Which soon turned to a moan... As I realized all the roads were slick with black ice. I was driving our old 5 speed shift pickup truck which is a 4x4 (no help on ice). There is just one bridge available for me to cross from Kentucky to Indiana. As I approached that bridge from the east, there was a 5 car pile up and several miles of traffic. I thought I was really brilliant to turn quickly enough to go down an off ramp, drive several miles and turn around, to approach the bridge from the west.
I drove back on the freeway to the bridge approaching it from the west, thinking how smart I was when all of a sudden I had to make a quick stop to avoid piling into a stopped line of traffic backed up for 3-4 miles. Nothing moved. We had to sit there for over THREE HOURS before the bridge was cleared of another accident. It seemed quite the coincidence that both approaches to the bridge had multiple car crashes at almost the same time. It was cold and snowing and we had to turn off the truck engine because we were running out of gas As I sat in the icy cold truck for those three hours, I remembered what she said in circle about previously feeling homeless and unloved until she made the circle commitment and found her real family. Remembering how she described her life making a radical shift due to having a new support system, kept me feeling warm and fuzzy inside. I realized how that had actually happened for me also. Having just left the circle of 15 beautiful, kind and loving women, I continued to feel their love and caring while sitting for those three hours in stalled traffic. It was memories of our weekend filled with laughter, play, love, nourishment and sharing that kept my attention off my semi-frozen toes as well as keeping my mood positive. . That, plus half of a wonderful tuna fish sandwich Momma Jean had made for me early Monday morning to take on the plane. At 2am they began letting traffic cross the bridge. I crept home over icy roads and finally arrived at 3am, all in one piece….and running on gas fumes, Feeling the love in my heart guided me safely home driving the last 40 miles over black ice."