The restorative Circle practice I offer schools is very different from my original exposure to circles, but the power the Circle has to connect and heal come from the same source—presence. The lesson? Presence and trust have more to do with successful circles than perfectly prepared scripts.
I work with schools to implement restorative practices. It is deeply satisfying work as I get to witness the profound change that can happen when schools make the shift to the restorative approach. What makes me feel the most joy is hearing from educators how much using Circles in their classrooms changes how they feel about their work. For many, Circles can transform education from life-draining, stressful work to life-giving work. It's not a magic bullet of course, but it does allow us to connect and show up with students in a way that builds a much needed sense of "we"—as in "we are in this together" or "we are here for each other" and "we can figure this out together." Instead of being the super-teacher every day, attending to all needs all day, we become the hub of an interconnected community that supports each other and solves problems together.
I rarely talk about the roots of my own experience with Circles because it has been a deeply personal journey. I'd rather not listen to folks react to what might sound like a bunch of "new age" whooie. I also haven't wanted school administrators who hire me to worry that I will bring spiritual notions into their schools. But, I offer this story now because I believe the core power of the Circle needs to be understood and honored lest it get codified and trademarked into oblivion. Yes, we do need standards, outcomes, and protocols in schools, but what Circles give and what students and teachers so desperately need right now is something that brings us together, reminds us of our shared humanity, and heals what needs healing inside us and between us.
I was introduced to Circles since 1995 by Kathy, a farmer's wife with Ojibwe ancestors. She was an artist too, crafting drums from the hides of donated road kill, bowls from gourds, and talking pieces from feathers she found on her land. She invited me to join a group of women who gathered on the full moon every month. They met in her tee pee that sat on the high pasture overlooking the Champlain Valley. At first, I wanted nothing to do with it. I was not a spiritual or "new age" kind of gal at all. I was an EMT, mountain climber, get-er-done kind of Christian woman. The whole idea made me feel nervous and uncomfortable. But Kathy was kind, I was new to the area and pretty desperate to make connections so I put aside my formidable reservations and decided to go.
On the night of the meeting I walked in the dark through our woods to her neighboring pasture, and guided by the full moon and fire-lit tee pee I soon found myself at its door. As I took a breath and lifted the flap, I was greeted by a circle of smiling older women. The space was warm with blankets and pillows scattered around. Kathy read a poem, called in the four directions, honored her ancestors and invited us to honor ours. She then talked about her talking piece and invited us to feel its power when it came around to each of us. She asked us to pause and feel what was in our heart that needed expressing before we spoke or to simply sit in silence and pass. When the talking piece came to me, my heart was racing. I had been rehearsing what I was going to say, but when I felt the piece in my hands and the women's soft eyes on me, tears ran down my face. I had never been this seen. I had never felt truly heard. Afterwards, another woman in the group welcomed me and said, "Remember. You don't need to rehearse. Just hold the talking piece and speak whatever is in your heart."
Circles changed my life. I could argue that they saved my life.
Sometimes others can hear us into speech. There are things we never verbalize until we know that someone is really listening, that someone really values us and our story. These deep listeners can be the catalyst for our finding new ways to access and tell the stories of our most authentic selves, or for helping us to recover those parts of ourselves we thought were lost forever. We discover new ways to think about how we have been in the world and how we might like to be in the future.
I was someone who felt like she had lost parts of herself forever, who was a bit too broken for repair, but Circle work allowed me to reconnect with all that was whole and true and good in me. I was someone who needed a whole tribe to remind me of my goodness, to hear my mottled and messy story and love me anyway. I needed a tribe who wasn't paid to listen to me and who strengthened my courage through their own deep sharing. A therapist is great for many things, but was not the antidote for the disconnection and shame that I felt.
For eight years I read books, led circles and learned from the wise women and men around me and in 2003 I began offering 3-day circle work retreats for men and women. At the time I was working with an artist to publish a beautiful journal of art and writings that celebrated people who, in some way had discovered how to live in alignment with their true nature. I was writing weekly essays, offering slices of experience that were meaningful to me in my own search for meaning. Eventually subscribers began to ask for a gathering and I responded by scheduling a 3-day retreat. I had decided to use circles, poetry, and solitary time in nature as tools for us to gain clarity and purpose. Beyond that I did not know what would happen. I felt nervous but confident as I traveled to the retreat. "At the very least," I told myself, "We will all get to spend a weekend together telling stories."
I will never forget the first circle on the first evening because I chose to throw out my circle scripts and just listen for what was needed. I sat in the circle of 18 people who had traveled from all over the country and closed my eyes. I breathed and felt my body and made the choice to simply feel myself having arrived. With the next breathe I began to talk, asking them to breathe and feel into their bodies. I spoke of how fast we all had just been traveling and now it was time for us to land and feel the ground. I had never been trained in mindfulness meditation or read much about it, but I knew we all needed to really arrive, and feel grateful for arriving before we could pause and listen deeply.