Archive: When the Grandmothers Speak, The World Will Heal

August 1, 2000
By Kit Wilson

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Each month we share with you a story of how circle is being used effectively in a variety of settings. This month we are excerpting part of Kit Wilson's chapter in the book Our Turn, Our Time which speaks of the movement Kit co-founded in Arizona that uses circle to support women elders in their roles as wisdom keepers and healers. Thank you, Kit.

In my mid-sixties, I knew that my needs were shifting. I was moving more deeply into the process of becoming an old woman and was looking for a different way to "do aging." I wanted to be of service. Certainly I did not want to be put on a shelf and ignored or condescended to like my mother and her generation. But the newer version of retirement - the housing developments walled off from the world, the intense focus on trying to stay young - didn't suit me either. I knew I was searching and I hungered for emotional and spiritual support. It was a "felt" need, not fully recognized or understood until I found myself involved with a group of elder women who call themselves, quite simply, The Grandmothers.

SNAPSHOT: A meeting of an on-going Grandmother's spiritual support circle. It is dark-of-the-moon in Dragoon, Arizona. In the desert some distance from the village the white domes of Shirley's sandbag homestead reflect our candlelight, then fade into the night as we move out onto the land. Silently we form a line, aging hand reaching to steady aging hand. Slowly and carefully we make our way through the high desert grassland - ten old women. The narrow band of light from our tall candles eerily illuminates the dry grass turning it to a luminous ivory. Joey, the Samoyed, appears - a pale ghost. He joins the procession and quickly vanishes again into the darkness. Someone softly punctuates our footsteps with a drum. The South Rocks loom up, at first a presence more felt than seen. Our candles begin to pick up the shapes, the rough surfaces, the sparkling mica walls. For our ritual tonight we have chosen a raised stone slab, a natural formation consecrated in long ago times by Apache women. Their grinding holes, evidence of women's patience and endurance, connect us - we are here to listen for their wisdom and the wisdom of this sacred land. One by one we place our candles in the center of the rock and quietly form a circle around this fire. Allegra, tonight's ceremonialist, lights copal in a conch shell, offering the purifying smoke to each of us, to Joey, to the stars.

Now we all begin to drum. The rhythm comes together slowly at first, gradually building to a unified crescendo -- then four sharp deliberate beats - and silence. On this moonless night the stars wrap us in a blanket of wonder. No one speaks into the center. That will come later. The grass responds to the caress of the wind with a soft murmur. Joey rustles dry bushes as he passes. A coyote calls, far off to the east and receives an answer. The sounds of silence. I breathe in sharply, a shudder of excitement passing through me. Deep inside there is a knowing - I understand that for this brief moment in time our circle is the connection, the conduit, between the mystery of the universe and the molten core of our Mother, the earth; between yesterday, today -- and tomorrow.

SNAPSHOT: Monthly meeting of the Phoenix Circle of Grandmothers. In a house in the heart of metropolitan Phoenix, another Circle is about to start. Jo and I are re-creating the space. We place eight backrests on the floor, one for each woman who will attend and one for Glorianne who will be missing tonight. Lovingly removing the objects from the storage box, we carefully arrange them in the center. A now familiar blue batik scarf serves as "altar cloth". Then come four candles - one for each direction. Each woman has contributed an object that has meaning for her. And over the years our centerpiece has acquired other things that are now part of our collective story. We unpack these and when the box is empty Jo adds the fresh flowers she brought from her garden. Finally, we place the talking piece. It is a root from an old tree, battered by floods, dried by desert drought but still clinging to life by a slim thread when I found it and claimed it, respectfully, as a symbol of our circle. After our hugs of greeting we smudge each other with the purifying smoke of California sage and take our seats. A moment of silence,

the sound of a bell, a few simple words and our Circle is closed. Barbara takes the talking stick. Her mother has developed Alzheimer's. Barbara and her sister recently made the painful decision to move their Mom to a place equipped to deal with her intensifying symptoms. This week they have been cleaning out her house - sorting through a lifetime of memories, trying to decide what, if anything, to save. Barbara says "When I move I'm going to get rid of everything. I don't want my children to have to go through this. I'm not keeping any junk." She sounds angry. She talks about how painful it is to sort through drawers of clean plastic grocery bags, each carefully rolled and fastened by a rubber band; to find the yellowed scraps of paper with recipes from her childhood - the quantities reflecting the large farm family, grown, scattered - not recipes for one woman living in an empty house alone. "She kept every report card we ever brought home. She even kept her old false teeth," Barbara says, tears coming now.

We listen silently, honoring her pain, identifying. Someone says, "I'm thinking about all the stuff I have in my house - what I wouldn't want my kids to find." We are quiet again. "Well," I say, "I'm pretty sure I don't want them to find the vibrator in my nightstand drawer." Everyone laughs. Someone says "So what if they do though." "Maybe they'll love it!" "I don't think so," I say, thinking of my children. As the talking stick moves from hand to hand our reflections turn to recent violent news that has been flooding the media - the US choice to use bombs to stop a war in a far away country, the stories of children killing children here at home. We express our grief and our despair - and, finally, the possibility of hope. We are not a circle of women who think we know the answers. But we each, in our own way and despite our age, try in our daily lives to make some contribution to our communities and our families. We come together in this Circle each month to witness and support each other as we search for new ways to use our years of experience.

REPRINTED from the last chapter of Our Turn, Our Time: Women Truly Coming of Age, edited by Cynthia Black, Beyond Words Publishing: 1-800-284-9673 or your local bookstore