In late August of 2004, I traveled to Marsh House on Whidbey Island to learn how to contribute to the world from Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea of PeerSpirit. The Circle Practicum was called “Building Communities of Reflection, Adventure and Purpose”.
Each day for a full week, we sat in circle in a beautiful building tailor made just for that. On the third day, Christina Baldwin said to me, “Barbara, you are like a kitten with a ball of string.” That was a diplomatic way of saying, “Barbara, you don’t need to respond to or comment on everything. Listen.”
As an uber extrovert, I knew she was right. It was embarrassing. We all had the little cards with the guidelines. It looks so simple, but it is a process that can quickly go astray if you don’t pay attention and internalize those simple instructions.
After nearly severing my tongue several times a day, I stopped thinking about what I was going to say next. I started really listening to Christina and Ann and the other women with all my being. My brain was being rewired. It took total immersion away from all distractions to internalize circle practice.
This was contrary to how I was raised, how I had engaged in conversation my whole life, and how I listened to others. For ten years I had worked a state job with the Alaska seafood industry, and I was used to being the only woman in the room. When I spoke, it was a Speech or a staff meeting or testimony before the Legislature. Here at Marsh House, I was conversing with interesting and fun women from all over the country.
As we were leaving, Anne Fitzgerald from Boston said she was going to a Gather the Women conference. Gather the Women! I was immediately drawn in. Later, I flew to Los Angeles and met with Anne, Kathe Schaaf and others, and my long association with Gather the Women was born.
In ways we still don’t understand, shortly after I got back from PeerSpirit, my friend Darcy and I found each other in Juneau and began to talk about community building. I told her about Gather the Women and circle practice, and she told me about coaching. We began holding circles in Juneau building on what I’d learned at PeerSpirit. The room would always be set up with the chairs in a circle. A simple tableau in the middle would have a colorful scarf, a candle, and the talking piece. My Tibetan bells sat in my lap and I explained that we would use those to pause when needed, and that anyone could ask me to ring the bells to ‘pause to re-gather our thoughts or focus.”
We gently asked women to scoot their chairs up so the circle was complete, and that we wanted everyone to see everyone else’s face and not to have “leaks” in the circle. There were always one or two women who felt uncomfortable once the circle was complete. They would scoot their chair out a bit and, using gentle humor, I would have them “plug the leak”.
With PeerSpirit, the third practice of Council is to “contribute to the well being of the group”. This is one of those things you know isn’t going well when you see it, but what do you do? One afternoon, we had a large group of women show up for a circle we held at the senior center. I explained the three principles of circle and the three practices of council. Darcy went through the four agreements. I rang my Tibetan bells and explained how we would use the bells to call for a pause and then ring them again to resume.
This was all new to the women who were used to sitting in rows of chairs and being talked at. Going around the circle, we asked them to briefly tell us their name and one sentence about what drew them to our event. One by one, the women shared their reasons for coming in a few sentences. As is often the case with the Safe Harbor Effect of circle, several got teary-eyed just giving their name.
Then one woman gave her name and immediately launched into her recent and very bitter divorce. Everyone started to get fidgety. It was my first experience with a woman who simply would not stop talking. I rang my Tibetan bells. The sound filled the room and then slowly faded. Everyone sat very still. I explained that we were pausing to re-gather our thoughts, and that I needed to ask that we honor the time in order for everyone to share. It was the first time I’d ever done that. It worked.
It is my firm belief that Gather the Women Global Matrix is having a real impact on the world in circles large and small. Each circle creates ripples that expand like sound waves in all directions. I’m so grateful to be a part of it.