“There is nothing so wise as a circle,” Rainer Maria Rilke said and I have found that to be true of people gathering in a circle, facing one another. (My partner Sarah finds wisdom in drawing and painting sacred circles as mandalas.)
In the circle, we learn to listen. We learn to be heard. We put our dreams into words and get in touch with them again. We tap into what my friend Judith Rosenberg calls our spark of brilliance.
Writing has always helped me to clarify where I am, reflect on where I’ve been, formulate my intent for today, this week, my life. Writing in community in a circle offers a supportive container where each one of us is a leader.
When I began learning about ancient cultures such as those of Crete and Anatolia (Turkey), it was the ceremony in community that interested me. The celebrations of life passages, the changing seasons, the every day.
Wherever our ancestors lived, they would have gathered around a fire to honour the seasons, rites of passage, one another. I follow guidelines in the writing circles I offer, learned from Christina Baldwin who wrote Calling the Circle: The First and Future Culture. She and Ann Linnea also wrote The Circle Way: A Leader in Every Chair.
The guidelines and their intentions offer structure in the circle. As Christina has said: “We cannot follow the story if it loses its narrative thread; we cannot hold the space if it has not been laid down with intention.”
If you visit www.thecircleway.net, you can link to “the process” and from there to the guidelines I’ve been following since 1997 when I started offering women’s writing circles in my Toronto living room.
I have seen women in the circle sit with their joy, their fear, their grief. They reveal layers of themselves not shared in their usual day-to-day lives. Besides writing circles for women, I have taught creative writing in classrooms (where I rearranged the desks into a circle) and there I’ve heard the desire of men to do more writing and less work at the office, in the lab or on the job site. To be so enraptured by love and life that it inspires them to write poetry again.
During the fall I offered two women’s writing circles with the themes of “Gifts from the Journey” and “Maps of Possibility.” There are have been gifts from each six-week circle including the witnessing of one another’s stories and an honouring of epiphanies and insights about the practice of writing.
In one of the circles as we wrote about our introvert and extrovert selves, I realized that I could honour both parts of myself in the circle. As an introvert, I like to stay in bed to muse, to stay quiet through breakfast, to write dreams in my journal and to reflect on the day at the end of it. I stay up late reading and have done so for years because it’s the quietest time of the day. In fact we introverts may wake up during the night because we have musing to do, without interruption.
As an extrovert, I like to read my poems to an audience, to attend readings and chat with fellow writers. I read to others in a writing circle – my own work sometimes and most often, excerpts from the longer work of others, and lots of poems. My introvert and extrovert self meet in the circle. As I write along with the others in the quiet of the circle, we uncover and discover. We get in touch with what matters to us.
For many, the sparks are a distant memory due to the effects of living with a mental health issue. I have had the honour of seeing those sparks come to life again in circles I facilitated for Spark of Brilliance, founded by Judith Rosenberg, in Guelph, Ontario. (Many others in the community offered workshops as well.) And in more recent years at Open Minds Open Windows, a drop in program initiated by Ron Plecas in Nanaimo. People, feeling welcome in the circle, could come out of their shells, remember what they loved, who they are. They were proud of themselves and were glad to honour small, daily victories.
In an article entitled “Third Way Leadership Turning to Arcs, Circles and Spirals to Find Our Way Home,” Nina Simons wrote for Sacred Fire Magazine, she writes: “May we rediscover the power of circles, of sitting in council to listen and learn; the power of trusting the wisdom that emerges from the voices that are quietest, least valued or that we least expect to learn from. May we recall the power of listening patiently for the intelligence of the whole to emerge, without rushing toward conclusions.”
We may write on our own but as one woman said in a recent poetry circle, something happens in a circle that is unexpected. My friend Andrea called it alchemy when we used to co-lead women’s retreats in Elora, Ontario, offering art and writing as we travelled deeper and deeper together, in a gentle way.
My circle mentors Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea said in The Circle Way: “With Ann’s dedication to nature adventure and environmental education, Christina’s dedication to journal and memoir writing, and our mutual dedication to helping people make great leaps in the direction of their dreams, goals, and contributions, we have taken the circle back to where it came from – a fire for the night and the power of story to help us make our way.”
I thank Christina and Ann for their work in the world and for the others now continuing the “The Circle Way” work around the world. And I’m grateful to all those who shared their stories and their desires, getting in touch with their own wisdom, in circles in various settings including most recently in my own living room.