Seven years ago, sixteen women gathered at the edge of a lake in Ontario to learn The Circle Way with Christina Baldwin. I was one of those women, having longed for this opportunity for ten years, since I’d first read Calling the Circle: The First and Future Culture.
As is almost always the case when like-hearted women gather, our conversations quickly took us into deep and reverent places. It was the kind of nourishment I needed in that middle place I was in at the time – at the threshold of leaving full-time employment and launching my new business.
Punctuated throughout our circle time that weekend were the sounds of gunshots from across the lake – geese hunters, we presumed. The harshness of the sound (and what we assumed was the result) was in sharp contrast to the gentleness of our circle.
It dawned on us how symbolic this was… on one side of the lake was the softness of feminine energy, while on the other side was the aggression of masculine energy. The two were at odds and neither knew how to integrate with the other.
I went for a long walk one afternoon, and though the woods were quiet and peaceful where I walked, the ongoing gunshots reverberating across the water troubled me. Somewhere in the woods, I had the thought… “I really want to row out to an island at the centre of the lake, to meet the masculine there. I want to be a bridge-builder, a healer of this divide.” At the end of that walk, before returning to the retreat centre, I was surprised to find a weathered old sign pointing back in the direction I’d come. There was one word on the sign – Lifeline. I couldn’t help but think it was meant for me.
What I didn’t fully understand at the time was that the healing work I wanted to do at the centre of the lake was not only about healing relationships between other people, it was about healing the relationship between the feminine and masculine within myself (and how I related to the masculine in others).
Perhaps it was because of that personal divide that, for the next several years, my work focused primarily on women. I gathered women together in retreats, created resources for them, and wrote articles for them. It felt good and right, and yet… I kept feeling like something was missing. I couldn’t forget the vision of the island at the centre of the lake.
Gradually, I began to incorporate more men into my circles, but it wasn’t always easy. Sometimes those men brought too much of the unhealed masculine into the space, dominating the conversation and interrupting without self-awareness. And sometimes the women silenced themselves or became awkward when the men entered the space. And sometimes my own social conditioning came into play, and I deferred to male voices instead of holding them accountable.
And yet, despite the challenge, I knew that this was important work and that I couldn’t back away from it. So I worked on healing myself so that I could offer healing to others.
Last week, I flew to Germany to participate in a global gathering of practitioners of The Circle Way. I wasn’t sure why I felt so strongly that I needed to be there, but I kept hearing the nudges, and so I decided to follow them.
I didn’t know then that the gathering would represent some of the healing I’d wanted to find on that island in the centre of the lake.
Near the beginning of the gathering, on a beautiful piece of land in the Eifel forest region of Germany, we were invited to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony, a tradition that had been passed down to the owner of the land from his teacher, a Lakota elder. For personal reasons, I did not participate in the ceremony, choosing instead to sit at the fire and watch the fire-keeper feed hot stones into the lodges.
There was a binary nature to the ceremony that was troublesome for some in our midst (including myself). Men sat in one lodge and women in another and there was no space for those who fit within the non-binary space in between. In addition, the women in their moon time were not allowed into the lodge (in keeping with Lakota tradition) and though they were told they shouldn’t enter because they are particularly powerful at that time of the month, they didn’t feel very powerful, sitting at a separate fire at the edge of the ceremonial area. A man lead the ceremony (even entering the women’s lodge at the beginning to offer teachings and songs) and a man served as fire-keeper.
In the sharing circle the next morning, a few people mentioned their discomfort with the ceremony and the way it divided us and excluded some. Nothing was resolved in that conversation, but some of us continued to have conversations on the sidelines.
Though the ceremony challenged us, I think it was a valuable place for us to start because it offered us a base from which to grow. When we turned away from the ceremony and toward other things, something began to shift, helping us evolve out of the patriarchy-imposed binary and into the space in between.
There were playful moments when it seemed the trickster was in our midst, messing with what had divided, excluded, and wounded most of us throughout our lives. Once, in the middle of a long afternoon of conversation, when we’d settled back into the circle after a break, a platter of cake was brought into the room by two people who’d gone to the kitchen to get us a treat. Instead of what we might have expected, it was men who brought the food and served us one-by-one. At another moment, when women gathered in a small circle to talk about their wombs and what they carried, an open-hearted man joined in. And then there were the two people who slept in tents at the edge of the property (while everyone else slept in comfortable beds) like warriors guarding the village. Those two people (myself included) were women. And then, in the only session when we weren’t in circle and there was a more visible hierarchy (with people at tables and the hosts standing), all four leaders were women.
There were personal things happening as well. One of my favourite conversations, that stretched from supper until midnight, was with two men (one of whom kept getting up to serve me every time my glass was empty). We shared vulnerable and authentic parts of ourselves, and at no point did it feel that our gender differences created any awkwardness or disconnection. Each of us was able to hold space for the others in ways that crossed both gender and language barriers (for both of them, English is a second language).
By the end of our time together, it was my impression (which was confirmed by others in the group) that we had arrived at a place of much more gender fluidity, playfulness, and possibility. If a new ceremony had emerged at the end of our gathering, I’m convinced it would have looked quite different from what we began with. Our time together changed us. Together we were learning to integrate our own masculine with our own feminine and dancing with others who were doing the same.
On my flight home, I realized that my dream of an island at the centre of the lake was beginning to come true, and there were others willing to meet me there, willing to heal the wounds of the patriarchy, and willing to dance in the space in between.
Somewhere over the ocean, I started to dream of something more specific than just a mystical island. I started to imagine a gathering of people who want to dance in the space in between. It wouldn’t just be about gender – it would be an intersectional gathering, where all of our parts (gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, ability, etc.) are brought forward in the dance. It would be a place where we could have both hard conversations and playful ones – where we can challenge each other with words, but then engage each other more playfully with art and dance and music. It would be a place where we would share food and be held by the land in a way that would help us imagine the community we once dreamed was possible – where the patriarchy no longer destroys our connections with each other or with ourselves.
It would be a place where the circle would remind us that there is a “leader in every chair” and that differences are not threats when we can look each other in the eyes and listen with deep attention.
I am imagining a learning village that uses Open Space Technology so that the agenda is not fixed in advance but rather there is an invitation to enter the flow of what we could co-create as a village. Anyone could bring an idea and invite others to play and/or wrestle with it. Anyone could call a circle, start a piece of collaborative art, or invite us to dance. All gifts and questions would be welcome.
Perhaps this dream will grow into a living thing in the year ahead. I am open to the possibility. And I am open to whoever wishes to step forward and help me dream it into reality.
P.S. If you want to meet me “in the space in between”, consider joining me at one of my upcoming retreats…
1. Holding Space for Yourself, Oct. 12-15 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia. (Special pricing until Oct. 1)
2. Holding Space for Others, Oct. 18-22 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia. (Special pricing until Oct. 1)
3. Space for an Open Heart, Oct. 27-29 at Kawai Purapura, Auckland, New Zealand.
NOTE: If you are interested in the next offering of Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, which starts January 2018, you may wish to put your name on the waiting list as it may sell out quickly. If you want to be notified when registration opens (next week) send an email to heather at heatherplett dot com with the following in the subject line: “Put me on the list for advance notification for the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program.”
“We are not going in circles, we are going upwards. The path is a spiral; we have already climbed many steps.” — Hermann Hesse (Siddhartha)
**Trigger warning. What is shared in this post may be disturbing to some.**
I hardly know where to begin. I want to write a blog post about the complexity and beauty and challenge that this Fall has been for me, but some of the things going on in my heart and my mind are too big, too complicated, and too unresolved for words.
On the one hand, it has been beautiful beyond words. My work is growing and I am being stretched and challenged and invited into a deeper and deeper understanding of the core of what I teach. I’ve hosted a storytelling circle in a corporate environment, I’ve led women into the hills for a lament ritual, I’ve taught a workshop on women’s power at a gentle retreat for women, I’ve gathered people in a virtual openhearted writing circle, I’ve taught The Circle Way to church leaders, I’ve delivered a keynote speech on the labyrinth, the mandala, and The Circle Way as creative practices for self care at a women’s wellness workshop, I’ve hosted an online seminar on Lessons from the Labyrinth, and I’ve launched a course called The Spiral Path: A Woman’s Journey to Herself.
Wow. All of that in only 2 months. No wonder I’m waking up slowly this morning, with my head spinning full of the goodness of the people I’ve met, the joy of doing the work I love, the excitement of what is still to come, and the humble astonishment that people are trusting me to have enough wisdom to teach them these big and sometimes hard things.
But there’s been something else going on under the surface that is also worth talking about. Something that challenges all of this work I’ve been doing and, in the hardest moments, makes me want to throw up my hands in despair.
I have been triggered. Again and again. In sometimes familiar and sometimes surprising ways. And I have gotten angry. And I’ve wept. And I’ve curled up in a ball in my room not wanting to face the world.
It started with the vigil for Tina Fontaine, the young woman whose body was found in the Red River in my city. I wept for her innocence, wept for girls like her who continue to be exploited by sexual predators, and wept for the many murdered and missing Indigenous women in our country whose lives don’t matter to those in positions of political power in our country.
I took that weeping to the hills of South Dakota. I invited other women to walk the hills with me, weeping and holding ceremony for the grief we carry from centuries of wounded, exploited, abused, and silenced women. We resolved nothing, but we gave ourselves permission to feel the weight of the sadness. We clung to the belief that releasing our tears opens a doorway to our collective healing.
But then, not many weeks later, our country was rocked by a story of another kind – a story that was both dramatically different and yet eerily connected to the Tina Fontaine story.
One of the most famous media personalities in our country, a man we all wanted to trust because he was smart and savvy and asked intelligent questions and had even taken women’s studies in university, was fired from our public broadcaster. We were in collective shock and many of us rushed to defend his right to make choices in the bedroom that we ourselves wouldn’t make. But then the truth exploded in our faces. He had a long history of being a sexual predator, of perpetrating violent acts toward women (and some men) without their consent, of harassing young female employees and getting away with it, and of using his celebrity status to walk away from everything despicable act like the Teflon Don.
Suddenly the world erupted with hundreds, maybe thousands of stories of women who’d been subjected to the kind of treatment that this man was being accused of and had never reported it. (Check the hashtag #beenrapedneverreported on social media) Every time I checked my Facebook stream and nearly every time I turned on the radio there were stories of sexual harassment, date rape, abuse of power, etc.
Two things happened to me in the middle of all of this. Firstly, I became rather obsessed with reading everything that appeared, wanting to understand this horrible story of how someone so popular and well-loved had gotten away with such heinous behaviour, and wanting to hold space for all of the women who’d been treated horribly by this man and others.
Secondly, I was triggered.
A flood of memories came back to me and I was in the middle of my own stories. I remembered the times when, as a young woman, I worked in male-dominated environments (a trucking company and a construction company) where it was almost a daily occurrence to have a man lean over me at my desk, ostensibly to talk to me about what I was working on but obviously to look down my blouse. I remember how it felt to put up with this behaviour because I needed the money and because sometimes the bosses were the perpetrators and there was nowhere to turn to and nobody who would take me seriously.
And I remembered how it felt to be part of a sexual harassment investigation against one of the senior managers in the government department I worked in early in my career, how it seemed strange to be talking honestly about how he treated women to investigators when I’d looked up to him as my boss just weeks before, and then how it felt a little like we needed to carry some guilt when he died just months after being removed from his job.
And then came the worst memory of all.
I remembered how it felt to lay on my bed after a man had climbed through my window and was brandishing a pair of scissors over my head threatening to kill me if I didn’t have sex with him. And I remembered the violation of his hands and penis on my naked body and the smell of him stuck to my skin.
And then the accompanying memory of how it felt to have my body poked and prodded by a doctor and nurse looking for clues that might have been left behind by the perpetrator. And how they shamed me for having taken a bath to wash the stink of him off my skin before coming to the hospital, because I’d probably washed off all the evidence.
And how it felt to have the two male police officers tell me that I should think long and hard about whether I wanted to formally report this as a crime, because I would be dragged through the courts and probably be made to feel shame for sleeping with my window open on a stiflingly hot day and for living in a neighbourhood that decent girls shouldn’t live in. And then how it felt to sit in the back seat of their police cruiser and listen to them tell racist jokes while they drove me back to my apartment to gather my bedsheet and the scissors he’d brandished above my head as evidence.
And how it felt the next day, to have to give up the triathlon I’d been training for, because I was shaking from trauma and my neck was stiff from when he’d tried to choke me to death.
Yes, I was triggered. And I was angry.
I was angry that there are still so many sexual predators who prey on young women in their beds, in their workplaces, and in the universities they attend. I was angry that so many of them get away with it because the victims recognize that it will be harder to report it and live through what the justice system puts them through than to go away quietly and focus instead on their own healing.
I was angry at the abuse women were taking in social media because they dared to step forward and call out a sexual predator who happened to be a well-loved celebrity.
And then another story emerged and I got even more angry. Two politicians were suspended for harassment toward women.
And suddenly I felt overwhelmed with how much women still have to put up with, with how much my daughters are still at risk, and with the ways that harassment and sexual misconduct of all kinds is swept under the rug not only in trucking companies, but in the halls of power in our country.
That’s when I began to feel despair. Is anything really changing? Is there really any reason for hope?
We want to believe that women have more rights and protection than they once did, but is the patriarchy just going underground and becoming more insidious in its way of undermining women’s power?
Just a few weeks ago, I taught a workshop on women’s power, and now suddenly I found myself wondering whether any of that was really going to make any difference. Sure it’s good to help women step into their power, but will they really be able to access it if the patriarchy beats them down again and again and weakens them by making fun of them when they stand up for what they believe in and ignoring them when they’ve been violated?
Is all of my work just a bandaid solution when the real disease is so very big and insidious and powerfully abusive?
I don’t know the answer to this huge problem. I don’t know the remedy to my despair. I don’t know if all of the teaching I’ll ever do in my life will ever make one iota of difference in a world that seems to be getting worse every day.
I don’t know how to ensure that the world will be more gentle to my daughters than it was to me.
And that’s when I returned to the teachings of Margaret Wheatley. Four and a half years ago, I participated in a workshop she was teaching and at the time she was grappling with her own despair. She kept asking herself what her efforts were worth when the world seemed to be getting worse day after day. In the time since then, she’s written a book about just that, and she’s come to the conclusion that it is best to give up hope of making change, and simply commit to the work because it is the right thing to do.
“My great teachers these days are people who no longer need hope in order to do their work, even though their projects and organizations began with bright, hope-filled dreams. As ‘the blood-dimmed tide’ of greed, fear, and oppression drowns out their voices and washes away their good work, they become more committed to their work, not because it will succeed, but just because it is right for them to be doing it.”
I re-read that, and once again, I lift my head out of my despair and I turn toward the work that is calling me. Because it’s all I know how to do and it’s all that I have to cling to.
Because I believe that gathering people into circles is the best way to shift the imbalance of power in the world and to bring women and men into spaces where they can speak about hard things and find healing together.
Because I believe the labyrinth teaches us that the whole journey is important – the hard parts that bring us far from centre and the gentle parts that circle closer to Source.
Because I believe that storytelling has the capacity to shift us away from blame and shame into deeper listening and more openhearted understanding.
Because I believe that we each have to do our inner work of healing and growth so that we can show up as warriors in a world that needs us to be courageous.
Because I believe that even if none of this causes the world to shift, it will at least shift the world for me and the people I sit in circle with and that is what matters right now.
Because I know that I couldn’t have healed from the wounds that man inflicted on me in my bedroom if I hadn’t found the kind of personal practices (journal-writing, mandala-making, mindful wandering, etc.) that I now teach others to embrace.
“Let us walk away from that mountain of despair-inducing failures and focus instead on the people in front of us, our colleagues, communities, and families. Let us work together to embody the values that we treasure, and not worry about creating successful models that will transform other people. Let us focus on transforming ourselves to be little islands of good caring people, doing right work, assisting where we can, maintaining peace and sanity, people who have learned how to be gentle, decent, and brave as the dark ocean that has emerged continues to storm around us.” – Margaret Wheatley
And so I invite you, once again, to commit with me, to gather in circle for storytelling and tears and healing, to have real conversations about hard things without shame, and to heal from all of these wounds one tiny bit at a time.
Because it’s the right thing to do.