In my birth family, we are all extroverts except for my father. When we were young children, the emphasis at meal time was on cleaning our plate before we could leave the table. As I remember it, the conversations centered on keeping one’s elbows off the table, passing the peas or whatever, and not talking with our mouths full. As we entered the teenage years, there was more talking and more laughter, but it often depended on how dad’s day had gone.
We all thought this was normal until a school friend of my sister’s came to dinner. Christine was overwhelmed by the numerous conversations going on at the same time, the mischievous “Please pass the potatoes,” followed by “Please pass the corn,” etc., so often she would just get her fork to her mouth, and have to pass something else. What was normal for us was not much fun for her, but she remains a friend of the family to this day.
I remember one Christmas dinner at my grandparents’ home in Coarsegold, California, in the Sierra Nevada mountains. My grandmother suddenly raised her voice and said, “Stop! I worked hard on this dinner. We are going to eat slowly, and we are going to have a real conversation.” There was silence. Then a meek little “Please pass the peas.” Grandpa, who worked for the County, started to talk about the snow pack and how there might be more water in the creek in the spring. My mother, who had taught school in Coarsegold, talked about a former student of hers she had run into at the store. Dad said he would go pick up our Great-Aunt Mildred after dinner and bring her to the house for dessert. We were behaving like well-mannered children and adults. My grandmother had taken the role of the Guardian.
When we sit in circle, we can ask for a volunteer to be the Guardian and watch over the energy of the circle. The Guardian will have a bell on her lap, or in the case of Tibetan bells, resting over her knee where one bell cannot reach out to the other. Tibetan bells want to ring. That’s what they do so well. When does the Guardian ring the bell? I’m going to quote from “Understanding Energetics in Circles and Groups”, a booklet published by PeerSpirit and written by Cheryl Conklin and Ann Linnea: “The presence of the guardian is helpful in circle. The guardian is a rotating volunteer who watches over the energy of the circle. He or she rings a bell or other neutral sound maker to call for a pause in the interaction.” After the bell, each member takes several deep breaths to focus back on their own “hoops”, a word used in some First Nations traditions to describe a personal energy field.
Using a bell, a neutral instrument, to ask for a pause is such an effective way to instantly quiet the room. We explain at the beginning of the circle that anyone can ask us to ring the bell. We pause. We regain our focus. We stand up and stretch. The Guardian rings the bell and we find our place in the circle right where we belong.
(GTW has posted the full guidelines at https://www.gatherthewomen.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Guidelines-in-How-to-Form-a-Circle1.pdf)