[I have been single-mindedly working on a book manuscript, Strands, to be published by Barclay Press next year, so have woefully neglected this blog. Here’s an excerpt I just finished—maybe?]
Almost every Wednesday night for the past thirteen years, Friends Meeting at Cambridge has hosted a meal and a sharing circle for “the formerly incarcerated and those who care about them.”* Our circle the outgrowth of another sharing circle begun years ago in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, our circle has replicated the JP circle’s thoughtful rituals. We, too, eat dinner together first, our shared meal in the commodious Friends Room—a gourmet meal lovingly and bounteously prepared by my husband. (Cooking is his ministry; he also helps to prepare FMC’s Sunday lunch.) After cleanup, we, too, set up chairs around a cluster of flickering candles but, because our sage-cleansing ceremony has set off FMC’s smoke detectors once too often, summoning an embarrassing convoy of Cambridge Fire Department equipment to Longfellow Park, rain or shine or freezing temperatures, we troupe outside to ritually cleanse ourselves. The lights turned off in the Friends Room, we sit in a circle around the flickering candles. We review the circle’s guidelines and values. An ornately-carved walking stick is passed clock-wise; only the person holding the talking piece may speak. Like the JP circle, our time together ends with the Serenity Prayer.
These days, Zoom offers another, pared down, and far-less-satisfying version: no meal, no sage, no physical circle, no candles, no talking piece, no closeness or breathing in harmony with one another, and when we say the Serenity Prayer? It’s pretty raggedy. Sadly, several central members of our circle have decided they “don’t do Zoom” and have opted out.
Like so many mixed outcomes because of this pandemic, not being able to perform the sage ceremony has been both a loss yet an unplanned but welcomed opportunity to reflect on this sometimes-questioned ritual. Over the years, some have rightly pointed out that this practice comes from a Native tradition—and is therefore an appropriation. I respect that. Other circle members do, too.
When we can all safely meet again in person, however, I will share a recent opening which has allowed me to consider this aromatic ritual in a new but still flickering light.
The backstory to this opening: Inspired by a wonderful poem by Judith Offer, “On Studying Sacred Texts,” during Covid Summer at our pre-meeting for worship forums, various members of the FMC community took turns reflecting on various writings, like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” or Arundhati Roy’s “The Pandemic is a Portal.”
One sacred text we studied, “Skywoman Falling,” comes from the oral tradition. Although this creation story from the Shenandoah and George people begins Robin Wall Kimmerer’s seminal book, Braiding Sweetgrass, “Skywoman Falling” is a story shared, told, passed down from generation to generation, as people sat around a fire. Like, ah, a sharing circle?
Had the JP sharing-circle originator, Father Brian Murdock, understood humans’ shared circle history? Had he and others intuitively replicated rituals our ancestors had performed? Had he remembered that all humans once sat around fires? When we’d first visited the JP circle, for example, we Quakers were told that prison lighting so harsh and obtrusive, returning citizens would relish a sharing circle’s dim, gentle, soothing lighting. But don’t all of us, returning citizens or not, prompted by the lingering smell of burning sage and the flickering candles in the middle of a circle, remember when we’d sat around a fire and told the stories of our village or shared our own truths? Given how dangerous making eye contact had been behind bars, the JP organizers had also explained that each person ritualistically make eye contact before speaking to be a necessary trust-building exercise. But when we deeply look into another eyes aren’t we, in fact, reinforcing what a nomadic community 0r a village or an extended family does? We see each another. Literally. We value, we honor each person. We acknowledge our shared space. Like the signs in my neighbors’ windows these days, we affirm, “We’re all in this together.”
After hearing how the “Skywoman Falling” story resonated with our forum speaker, I was moved to ask that “circle” of Zoom tiles, “Who are you in this story?” And, like our speaker, several people shared wonderfully open and honest answers.
My answer would have been, “I am the old woman, the crone, seated near the fire to warm her old bones. I am the one telling this story. Again. Like my grandmother, I embellish here and there, add a little something someone in the circle may need to hear that night. My voice rises and falls but when I talk about Muskrat, it becomes husky with love and gratitude.”
*from the circle’s flyer
Coincidentally I have just started reading Braiding Sweetgrass, gifted to me by a friend. The contrast between Skywoman, so loving and giving, and Eve, sinful and shamed, is striking.
Yup. Visiting Duluth last week, and unable to visit my favorite art museum, I’d been looking for Duluth-based, Indigenous people’s galleries and found one exhibiting some of its art online. One painting depicted Skywoman reaching into the water to rescue Muskrat!
Speaking of circles,
Over a couple of decades ago I was a young man fresh out of college living around the corner from you. I was reminded today that you befriended me and eventually told me you had written a character based on me into your book. I never did become the actual college professor – though I am technically on leave from my PdD program, so that possibility still exists. I am married to the woman I met that year, and we have a wonderful teen son. I’ve often wondered if you still live in that same place near Summer Street. I would love to be in touch.
I remember you, Aaron. We’d been “Bus Buddies,” right?
As is probably pretty obvious, I’ve been single-mindedly working on a ms. lately. So had not noticed your comment until today. Shame on me.
Here is the passage you’d inspired—if I am remembering this correctly:
Jewell knows this moment. She knows it all too well—when the eager, attentive boyfriend becomes distracted. Distant. The only difference between Greg and the others? Instead of tapping some complicated rhythm on the counter or humming a mysterious melody or gesturing with his hand as if conducting a new piece of music, this particular boyfriend is completely focused on his school supplies. Greg is going back to school.
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