“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.
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.