An excerpt on the power of healing circles from Mia Birdsong's book How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community
Women have been circling formally and informally probably forever. Around fires, in covens, red tents, church basements, and kitchens, we gather to share advice, tell our truths, cast spells, pass on news and knowledge, witness and be seen, find comfort and solidarity, plan and conspire.
My mother-in-love, Jacque, has been part of interlocking and overlapping circles of women for more than forty years. Her circles have been an escape from the grind of daily life, a source of learning and growth, and support through hard times. The first time she had cancer, her circle held her through it. “These women’s circles are an ancient process and we reach for that,” she told me. “They’ve been a way for me to become who I am.”
Women's Healing Circles
I went to one of her circles when my daughter, Stella, was a little over 1 year old. The gatherings always include some ceremony—a kind of mashup of religious and spiritual traditions—music and food and wine. There was deep and powerful conversation and a tremendous amount of laughing.
That evening, after a day of art making, soaking in a wood-heated hot tub (a dozen or so naked, proud, post-menopausal women is a beautiful sight), and delicious food, I snuggled Stella in a sleeping bag on the porch and we fell asleep watching the bats swooping just above our head and listening to the riotous cackling of the women inside. I felt like I’d been anointed.
I now have my own circles of women. The first was the least intentional. I met Brooke and Allie at our mutual friend Amanda’s birthday party in 2002. A couple of years later, after Amanda and I each had our first kid, we began getting together regularly. Our time together is mostly spent catching each other up on life—more kids, Allie went through grad school, Brooke became a midwife, romances and break- ups. We sometimes have a project—making sauerkraut or lip balm. Sometimes we go for a hike or picnic. We talk about our values and approaches to everything from parenting to conflict. Like Jacque’s circles, there is food and wine, sad- ness, care, and laughter.
Gathering for the Greater Good
In July 2015, my new-at-the-time friend Courtney invited me to a potluck gathering of women at her house. She sent an invitation that opened with this gem from Margaret Wheatley:
“Real listening always brings people closer together. Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world. Rely on human goodness. Stay together.”
The email continued, “For a while now I’ve been hungry for a space and time where I can be with women I think are brilliant and kind and have complex, deep conversation. I want to learn from you. I want to hear myself into my own wisdom.” The topic of our first gathering would be ambition. In a follow-up email, she sent some optional short readings and videos to get us thinking about it before we met. We’ve met every month since then.
In this circle, we always have a topic of discussion—sexual harassment, ego, giving fewer fucks, guilt, sex, creativity— and a facilitator. That roll has largely fallen on Courtney, but a few of us have taken turns. Two years in, when Twilight facilitated our conversation about anger, I realized how much safety we’d built. We’d moved from talking about our feelings to sometimes being in our feelings. This circle is not a tight-knit group of friends.
Some of us are close to others, but there are also people in the group who never see the others outside these gatherings. But following the ancient tradition of women’s circles, we have collectively created a space that is safe enough for us to talk about things that are hard even though the conversations are more intellectual. And we laugh a lot.
Both of these groups are a refreshing breath, an opportunity to get deep both personally and intellectually.
Black Women's Freedom Circle
If those groups are a breath, Black Women’s Freedom Circle is an exhalation. Sometimes it’s the sigh you make when you lower yourself into a warm bath, sometimes it’s the scream you’ve been holding in for fear of falling apart, some-times it’s the praise song that rises in your chest from love or joy or validation.
Black Women’s Freedom Circle (BWFC) also has its origins in July 2015. I arrived at Lake Merritt United Methodist Church hopeful but emotionally heavy. So many Black women who were in my orbit were dying, being diagnosed with debilitating diseases, or managing chronic illness. I was leveling up my own self-care, but recognized that the daily stresses of racism and sexism take their toll, no matter what.
I was at the church to participate in a retreat put together by Movement Strategy Center, an Oakland-based organization that helps build social movements. The retreat was part of their Transitions Lab, which brought together activists and organizers from several social justice fields to imagine and plan the future we want to create. We explored what we needed individually and collectively to create that vision.
During a long break, I took a walk with Nwamaka Agbo, whom I’d met that day. I shared the heaviness and worry I was feeling about Black women. We discussed how we face not just external sexism and racism, but how they worm their way into our psyche and do damage even when we’re not actively experiencing them. We talked about our shared need to have a space with other Black women to talk about and work on ridding ourselves of that internalized oppression.
Self-care wasn’t enough; we wanted community care.
Community Care Is Supreme Self-Care
It took a year for us to actually have our first gathering. It was August 2016 when we met for the first time at my house. My dining room table overflowed with food as people showed up with dishes. Nwamaka and I facilitated a conversation with more than twenty Black women exploring what freedom is. We talked about when we feel most free and how to build on that, what is blocking us, and what we can do about it. For most of us, it was the first time we’d been in a group of Black women that had come together with the express purpose of focusing on ourselves. More common in our experience was being in a group of Black women who were planning or laboring to achieve something for our communities or a cause we care about.
Initially, Nwamaka and I facilitated our gatherings. The conversations were powerful, heart-wrenching, and revelatory. Somewhere along the way, we dropped facilitation and just trusted that we’d talk about what we needed to. We open and close the circle with a prayer, poem, or reflection, and we’ve developed a culture of listening that allows us to be deeply present and vulnerable with one another. We go on field trips together—to the movies, performances, and festivals. We also have a group text where we ask for help, share affirmations, and check in with each other. Tammy reminds us, “I love y’all.” Amber asks, “What thing will you do today to honor your relationship with yourself and your spirit?”
We are committed to caring for one another. We worry about one another. We celebrate one another.
Those Sunday mornings when we will gather at my house, I get up early to cook and clean (though usually Nino has already cleaned because he understands how important the gathering is for all of us, and he’s more embarrassed than I am to have people in our home when it’s a mess). I set seats in a circle in the living room. But I don’t do much else because I know that whoever arrives first will help me get out plates and glasses, put on water for tea and coffee, and arrange food on the table.
Three hours later, we are cleaning up and embracing goodbye. The idea of hosting can feel exhausting, but by the time everyone leaves, I am full and restored from our life-giving time together.
We can’t fully know ourselves without other people. At the 2018 National Rural Assembly, legendary activist Ruby Sales said, “It is in community and in relationship with others that we locate a self that we can never find being isolated. It is in community and in relationship with each other that we come to know the consciousness and the spirit of god that is in each of us.”7 And we are closer to spirit, to whatever is divine in us and the universe, through our connections with other people. In this way, Black Women’s Freedom Circle is my church.
What I feel at BWFC is an alchemy whereby we create more love and time and energy together than we hold individually. At our best, we don’t function based on reciprocation. It’s not about getting as much out of it as we put in. It’s that our output is transformed into a wholly different material that’s not possible to create alone, like we are spinning gold from straw or transforming paper cups into nebulae. It’s only in an environment with others that this generative, multiplying power can be created.
Our joy becomes contagious. Our ability to love and comfort is expanded by others’ grief, our own too-big-to- be-contained pain finds its freedom in others’ witnessing of it. “Yes,” they say, “feel it all. Don’t be afraid to expand too wide or fall too far. We see you so you can’t disappear.” We ascend, we plummet, we break open, and we pull ourselves back together in the wellspring of the circle.
Through these women, my understanding of care—care of myself and care of others—has become void of the binary framing of this or that, input and output. Suddenly, care of others is care of myself. Care of myself is care for others.
Excerpted from How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community by Mia Birdsong. Copyright © 2020. Available from Hachette Go, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.