Women’s Real Power

“For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is discovered.” – Audre Lorde

In the year 2000 I was in the throes of a divorce, trying to finish a novel before I had to look for a job. Of course I got writer’s block. The process of sitting down at the computer every day to bring another world to life had lost its juicy zest. I was missing my passion. As a cure, a friend suggested I call a woman he knew who led a writing group, a talented writer who might offer me just the tonic I needed. Her name was Carolyn Flynn, and her group was called “Writing To Feed the Soul.” I signed up with no idea what was in store for me. This was more than a writing group. It turned out that feeding the soul required more than simply writing about soulful topics. It meant sharing — reading the personal words you had just penned out loud to the circle of women and in turn listening with equal intentness to their intimate thoughts. Hearing and being heard were as important as the words on the page. As I did this work week after week, my passion for writing was restored, and I gained a community.

Occasionally the circle rippled when a woman departed the group for one reason or another, and those of us remaining lamented her loss until we recognized a kindred spirit in the new member who took her place. To meet demand Carolyn eventually expanded her teaching schedule to offer more groups meeting less frequently. While I missed the friends who changed to another group, I didn’t lose them because a larger circle held us all. Even if we weren’t in a regular writing group together, I saw them over the years at a writing retreat or poetry reading, a wedding or birthday party. Whenever Carolyn took time off, some of us continued to meet on our own — the sense of community she nurtured turned out to be sustainable and enduring. 

This essay began as a paean to my writing group, but in pondering Audre Lorde’s recognition of the redemptive power women find in nurturing each other, two more images popped into my mind, bookends for my marriage: the women who drank champagne, joked, and offered advice at my bridal shower and, eleven years later, the women who smudged and chanted (and yes, drank champagne) at the ritual house cleansing after my divorce. Those two snapshots hold my mother, who was the first woman I ever knew and my first spiritual teacher, my two sisters, aunts, cousins, grandmothers, and girlfriends. Add to that circle teachers, roommates, library mentors and colleagues, and you can see the company of women who have helped and encouraged me all my life.

The power Audre Lorde writes about manifests both collectively and one-on-one. Women may connect in groups — a book club, moon circle, or sports team like my sister’s aptly named cycling club Sorella Forte — but the power in a private conversation with a woman friend is just as potent. Everyday moments attach us to one another as much as rituals and milestones. Admittedly, it’s not always parties and walks on the beach. Connection and community require commitment, just as in a marriage vow — for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Sometimes we’re called on when we’re busy and tired, so it also takes wisdom to discern priorities, the work of triage that women excel at.

Do women have a monopoly on nurturing? No, certainly not. My father’s love helped give me a strong start in life, and my partner … well, don’t get me started. He’s strong but sensitive, both a problem-solver and an incorrigible romantic who validates and loves me in ways I never imagined. One of the qualities that certainly benefits me but also makes him a good friend in general is the delight he takes in looking for the praiseworthy in others to buoy them with genuine compliments. In the larger world too, at work and church and out and about, I see kind and caring men, but for women, this “need and desire to nurture each other” is our power.

The very first circles I ever joined were for girls: Brownies in second grade, followed by Junior Scouts two years later. One of our practices, as described on the Girl Scout website, was the friendship circle: girls “standing in a circle, crossing their right arms over their left, and clasping hands with their friends on both sides. Everyone then makes a silent wish as a friendship squeeze is passed from hand to hand around the circle.” Although the book clubs and bible studies, the committees and writing groups that were to come may not have practiced an intentional friendship circle, that spirit in the silent wish and squeeze of the hands bonded the women in each group.

Cover of the book Sisters Singing

In her introduction to Sisters Singing, an anthology of prayers, poetry, and sacred stories by women, Carolyn Flynn writes about a term from carpentry: “A piece of wood attached alongside an existing beam for extra support is called a sister joint. And the verb describing the particular and specific action of providing essential, side-by-side support is known as sistering.” In my connections to women, whether we are bound by blood, books, or spirit, I find sisters.

The Girl Scout motto is “be prepared.” Little did I realize when I was ten years old that my Girl Scout troop was preparing us to sister. Holding the hands of two girls in a friendship circle was the template for my future, for the communities of women who invite me into my real power.

Why Write?

book stacks

Do articles and blogs bombard your email inbox the way they do mine? On top of the important news, intriguing essays, and inspirational nuggets delivered digitally every day, books fill the shelves in my house and are stacked in every place I might sit down to read. Even though I work in a library, I still get a thrill out of browsing in bookstores.

Why then would I add to the volume of words our information age is already exploding with? I just turned 60, so this is not an idle question. Why spend the time I hold dear writing? When I was 35, laboring on a novel, I wanted to be a bestselling author. Even now that I’m happily earning a living as a librarian, I wouldn’t complain if my blog suddenly went viral or if I were named poet laureate of Santa Cruz. But when the garden languishes for want of my tending and my sweetheart wants to go on a bike ride with me, those pipe dreams are not good enough reasons to spend time scribbling in my notebook. 

So why bother? 

My writing friends have different answers to this fundamental and deeply personal question. “We’re all just piles of sand,” one said when we talked about this recently. “If sand could write, it would.” The human person is meant to work, to be of service. Of course, people who are overworked can rightfully complain that too much work is exhausting and soul-draining, but the opposite of the old aphorism is also true: all play and no work makes us dull too. Artists create, writers write. It’s what we do. But what if your innate drive gets stifled somehow? Another friend called on the artist’s sense of responsibility. “Who are you not to write?” she mused. “To share what only you can give voice to?”

For some of us, writing is personal. One friend writes to process. Through the alchemy of writing, a painful experience can be transformed into something beautiful. “Writing is medicine,” another said. In fact, Carolyn Brigit Flynn, the beloved teacher who originally brought us all together, calls what she teaches “writing to feed the soul.” This is certainly true for me. Writing nourishes me, and I often turn to my journal in lieu of a therapist.

Like Joan Didion, I also write to find out what I think, whether it’s sorting out an environmental issue or exploring my own anxieties and aspirations. I delight in discovery, the surprises that sometimes burble up from secret places when I’m working on a poem. Was that insight waiting in my subconscious all along, or was it just this minute delivered from the Divine? “The writing of poems must be counted as much a contemplative practice,” Jane Hirshfield writes in Ten Windows, “as a communicative one.”

Indeed, while writing is personal for me, it is also, obviously, about communicating. I’m currently looking for an agent for my novel; I submit poems to journals and publish this blog. Something impels me to share. Is it just that old desire for acclaim I had when I longed to write a bestseller? Maybe, but I don’t think so. The friend for whom writing is medicine explained that the real magic happens when she reads her work aloud in a circle of women and is witnessed. As reader and listener as well as writer, I agree.

An old adage claims that there are three ingredients for happiness: something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to. In a busy life already full of words, why do I bother putting more on a page? When I was younger, I wanted a product. Now, it’s all about process: reflection, discovery, sharing, healing. The challenge of trying to write well both torments and stimulates me, and when I feel I’ve succeeded, it delivers an intellectual pleasure without compare. Quite simply, I write because it gives me joy. 

What is your art, and why do you bother? I look forward to hearing from you!

A Holy Fire

Candle surrounded by stars
Image by Sarojani Rohan

What if you were pregnant with a holy fire?

Would you be lit from within?

Might your glowing eyes hint

at the mystery to the outside world?


How would you feed this fire?


When she was pregnant,

my friend listened everyday

to Mozart and Debussy

so her babe would hear

sweet sounds in the womb.

She gave up caffeine and alcohol,

ate fresh organic food,

and practiced breathing

to prepare for labor.


How would you feed this fire?


Purify yourself.

Rest and dream.

Now is the time of waiting,

now is the long night.

Breathe in

the darkness,

and breathe out

your fear.


You are tinder for the fire,

and it will burn in your bones.

Our Jacaranda

In April seed pods the size of black plums dangled from the bare branches of the jacaranda we had just planted in the heart of our garden. Would they drop eventually, we wondered? These dark ornaments were … well, ugly to our eyes. We worried too that — even though we’d purposely chosen a sapling with multiple trunks to create the effect of a copse instead of a lone tree – it might split. But what could we do now? Just trust in the nurseryman’s confidence in a tree’s capacity to heal itself and twice a week nurse it with buckets full of water, as precious in this drought as wine.

All spring we watched like new parents as lengthening days untied the knots of green nubs that formed on the jacaranda’s branches and unfurled feathery fronds. The seed pods hung there still, dusty black spades amidst the green froth. Would they ever drop? Should I prune them? But I don’t want to weed, rake, and trim nature right out of the garden.  Sometimes when we try to beautify a landscape, we expunge wild processes we don’t understand. If I cut off the seed pods, would I cut off some vital service to the tree? A dozen websites and gardening books ignored my question but cautioned me not to expect blooms this first year. What cause for rejoicing then, like a baby’s first steps, when I noticed tiny buds in June. As if the jacaranda knew the myth of flowers blossoming on a magical fern deep in the Polish forest, a purple cloud bloomed to crown our garden. Yet even this halo could not hide the devil’s paws clutching last year’s dead limbs. Would they ever drop?

It is November now. With carapaces hard as glass, the pods hang there still, but I notice they have opened – just barely opened like a rotten oyster loathe to let go its pearls. The tree-given desire for life even in such tiny pips as a jacaranda’s seeds is enough to pry open the possessive lover’s door. The pods may never drop, but it seems the seeds have found their way to earth and (we may hope) rebirth.

Floral Designs

Photo courtesy of Maggie Muir

I would give my all

to this one and only blooming,

every cell attentive

to soil and sunshine

in my sweet suckling

desire for water and light.

Perfume and pigment to petal, please,

then welcome, hummingbird,

butterfly, and bee

to my prodigal promiscuity.

Pollen to pistil,

let us give and take our fill

as if night will never fall

or winter ever come.

What Do You Hear?

What do you hear, Mary Camille?

On this first morning of the Labor Day weekend

I hear the roll of tires on asphalt

even through my double-paned windows.

I hear the mourning dove’s coo,

here I am, and where are you?

I hear the rumble of the espresso machine

like a locomotive grinding up a mountain grade

and the hiss of the frother,

spoon clinking against cup.

I hear the thump of squirrel paws

landing on the roof

and a rustling of privet leaves

on the limb he just leapt from.

I hear the silence

in a city without electricity,

the gurgle of receding floodwaters,

the last, labored rasp of the old woman

in the convalescent home.

I hear the clap and roar

of the departing helicopter,

the moans of those left behind,

barely make out the whisper

of a knife pulled from its sheath.

I hear the startled cry of the child

when another aftershock shakes her world,

the creak and clatter of shifting rubble,

the crinkle of plastic

as an empty water bottle is crunched

and tossed on a pile of trash.

I hear the crackle of wildfire

and roaring wind the fire itself creates,

the pop of exploding pinecones,

stamp of boots on earth,

a curse.

I hear the clackety clack

of the Giant Dipper gripping the track,

the cries of thrilled delight

when it crests the hill

and races gravity down.

I hear cheerful old tunes

on the antique organ

urging Looff’s painted ponies on

in their eternal loop,

the clatter of metal rings 

tossed towards the clown’s gaping mouth.

I hear gulls and waves breaking,

sand lapping seawater,

the ocean’s own merry-go-round.

I hear the surf

like the heartbeat of the earth

I hear the surf.

Inspired by the poet’s question to himself, “What do you hear Walt Whitman?” in his poem “Salut au Monde!”

A Clanging Cymbal

The rumble and buzz of cars

that blots out birdsong

is but one bleating sound

in a constellation of noise,

a devil (if I believed in the devil)-

designed distraction from

the voice in the cave

of my heart

that I do believe in.

So, I will arise and go now,

and go to New Camaldoli

and there a cell of silence seek,

a shady seat beneath

the fruiting fig tree, and

            Mother Pacific,

            O Father Sky,

a view of blue further than I can see.

Drench me in Your breezy quietude

and remind me in the cooing of the dove

that I am nothing if I have not love.


With appreciation to St. Paul (1 Corinthians 13:1-3) and W.B. Yeats (The Lake Isle of Innisfree)

A collage of sunbeams streaming into the sanctuary at New Camaldoli, a bench on  a cliff overlooking the ocean, and a garden


Use Less, Share More

If you realize you have enough, you are truly rich.

Tao te Ching

Collage of three desert photos: the author sitting on a rock, a Joshua tree, and a chollo cactus.

Of all the places I might go on my spring break as pandemic restrictions began to lift earlier this year, I chose Joshua Tree National Park. I craved the austere beauty of the desert in a way I couldn’t explain, but when I arrived in that wide-open wild landscape of dry sand and iconic rock formations, I realized that the book I was reading, The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here, must have sent me to the desert to look for role models of how to use less.

Who would have guessed that a science book would turn out to be the perfect reading for Lent? A spiritual text is a more obvious choice, Abandonment to Divine Providence say, or Prayer in the Cave of the Heart, but The Story of More by Hope Jahren had been waiting on my to-be-read pile for months. I loved her funny, poignant memoir Lab Girl and was curious what a smart botanist with a good sense of humor would have to say about climate change.

Photo of the book The Story of More next to a cactus

For a book loaded with statistics, The Story of More is surprisingly easy to read, partly thanks to Jahren’s casual, engaging style, partly to how relevant and vivid her statistics are. Instead of stating coal and oil use in tons and gallons, for example, she paints a picture: “Since 1969, the nations of the globe have burned enough coal to fill a grave the size of Texas and a volume of oil large enough to fill Lake Pontchartrain three times over.” Or she simply puts things in perspective: “waste of edible food has increased such that it now equals the amount of food needed to adequately feed all of the undernourished people on Earth.” Statistics like these break by heart.

So maybe I should have said that her book is readable instead of easy to read because in fact, reading it was hard, hard in all kinds of ways – painful to acknowledge the species that have gone extinct, frightening to consider devastating heat waves and crop failures, uncomfortable above all, to recognize our greed and waste and that we might need to change. When I say our and we, by the way, I mean those of us who live in the 36 countries of the OECD (including North America, Europe, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan). We’re the ones using the most energy and throwing food away.

Step by step Jahren takes us through population growth, the ways we grow (and waste) food, and how we make and use energy – not to make us feel guilty, but to explain how we got to climate change. She writes clearly, and even if the book is disturbing to read, it’s easy to understand. Ultimately, it’s hopeful because Jahren has ideas, just as her subtitle promises, for where to go from here. She sums them up in a simple motto: use less, share more. That motto is what made this book the perfect read for a season of fasting and almsgiving and maybe subconsciously what sent me to Joshua Tree looking for inspiration.

There, where the Mojave meets the Colorado Desert, plants and animals have evolved to survive in hot sun with little water. In contrast, as a human being I needed to slather on sunscreen, wear a shade hat, and drink at least a gallon of water a day. So how do desert flora and fauna do it? The Joshua tree, according to Blue Planet Biomes, turns its spiky leaves upwards to catch any moisture in the air and stores the water in its fibrous limbs and trunk; it also has an extra root system for storing surplus water. Human beings don’t have eons to evolve our physiology to that degree, but maybe our ingenuity can save us.

Illustration by Ann Thomas

Consider the tobacco moth caterpillar that naturalist Bernd Heinrich describes in his essay “Reading Tree Leaves.” In the Mojave this caterpillar grabs tight with its rear legs to the stem that attaches a jimsonweed leaf to the plant’s stalk, reaches its forelegs out to the tip of the leaf, and nibbles away at the edge while using the remainder of the leaf for shade, its own little green umbrella.

Climate change can feel so overwhelming that it’s paralyzing. At the end of her book Jahren suggests that the reader choose just one issue to focus on, one that tugs at your heart or that you worry about when you can’t sleep at three in the morning. Maybe it’s world hunger or ocean pollution, national parks or green energy. Pick an issue that matters enough to you that you’re willing to make a sacrifice for it and start by learning more about it. That’s exactly what I plan to do in future blog posts.

Which environmental issue is calling to you for action? Please reply in the comments!


Ann Thomas is a freeelance writer and illustrator living in Portland, Oregon.

What Will Save Us

Drawing by Sarojani Rohan

We’re all in this together,

looking for the songs to sing

that will hold the world together.

We might look to the soldier or scientist

to save us,

but the hero sits in silence before dawn,

looks out the window at the moon

slender and radiant in her old age,

and listens,

listens below ticking clock

and hooting owl,

listens beyond the whisper of candle flame

and the tinkle from the bells

the ants wear round their feet.

Deep in the earth,

deep in the cave of her heart,

angels sing,

and the poet transcribes.

Originally published in Second Wind: Words & Art of Hope & Resilience.