It came like a siren call.
At first, almost inaudible, a feeling of gentle stirring in my bones.
Then, a little louder.
For every month that went by over thirty, the seductive voices got louder. There was an uncomfortable feeling that accompanied it, as if, somehow, I was lured towards somewhere unsafe. And yet, the magnetic pull to do something I couldn’t yet articulate grew stronger.
I remember the day I could finally touch and taste this yearning. I’d packed myself off to a yoga retreat in India. I was on the brink of burnout after a particularly challenging creative project. There, I found myself, age 31, joining a group of women who were forty years my senior. I had an unwitting initiation into a circle of elders. That all sounds very solemn. In truth, it involved eating and laughing until someone was in danger of rupturing something, with a bit of yoga thrown in. These women were a hoot. But as hysterical laughter echoed around the dining table, there was a more profound dynamic at play.
I could feel something primal awakening within me: the desire to gather with women. Women who were not my peers, women from different stages and walks of life. There was a feeling in the room when we were together that felt akin to gathering around a campfire. We told stories of our lives, learning from one another’s experiences. This ephemeral yearning for something I couldn’t name had taken shape: I wanted to gather in community with other women and to share the simple wisdom of our experiences.
Ten years working as a documentary filmmaker had taught me that storytelling is inherently healing. Through hearing the stories of another, we are connected to our universal humanity, learning over and over again that no matter how different our lives are on the surface, we are all fundamentally and inextricably linked. I found myself both devoted to the act of telling and consuming stories through screens and seeking an antidote to it. Gathering in the flesh felt important. The soothing experience of sitting with other women, shoulder to shoulder, “IRL” felt alien to me and yet so necessary.
A Time For Change.
After a lifetime of close friendships with men, there was something that shifted inside as I matured into womanhood and needed to talk about it. A curiosity bubbled away: what would it be like to create a storytelling space for women? Naturally shy in groups, I knew the fear of speaking aloud and hearing my voice shake. In a society driven by the need to perform and impress, it felt incredibly important to soften beyond that. To carve out spaces where the masks we wear every day to survive are permitted to drop. Where our bodies soften into the invitation to a different way of being.
As the September leaves started to turn, beckoning in autumn, I offered a simple invitation. The invitation was to come together in a women’s circle under the name ‘Sister Stories.’ The response was tremendous: it was as if an invisible magnetism was at play. A circle of cushions were laid upon the floor, a constellation of candles became our roaring fire for the evening and we moved into a ritualised form of sharing the stories we are carrying. From the whispers of old stories yearning to be spoken aloud to the present concerns on our hearts, sweet and simple words of truth were shared. There were tears, and there was laughter. As we joined together to blow out our centrepiece candle at the end of our time together, it was clear I had found the kind of coming together I didn’t know I had been yearning for, yet suddenly was essential to living.
Sister Stories was born. From humble beginnings in a London living room, it has grown into a network of 20 Circle Leaders who have also answered the call to bring these circles to their communities. Together we have stepped out to do work that feels at once so natural and yet so terrifying: there is something that feels exposing or dangerous about calling women to gather by candlelight in a manner so ritualised. This work is not new: communities have gathered in a circle for millennia. And yet in 2019, it feels it is needed more than ever. We need spaces in which sisterhood can be cultivated safely, without agenda.
When women step into circle space, we experience a remembering so deep, it can shake us to the very core of our being, as we acknowledge the ways in which we have been disconnected for so long. In transitioning from ‘the outside world’ where comparison and competition between women can be rife, it feels uncomfortable to accept the invitation to bring only yourself and an undefended heart.
The format of circle gathering is so simple. We gather without pressure or expectation without the need to perform. We weave an invisible web of compassion and connection within each unique constellation that gathers. We settle into a different kind of speaking and listening that fosters community and compassion. We make the journey from head to heart. It is coming together in the flesh. It is enjoying the pleasure of sitting shoulder to shoulder. It is trusting that when we share our own stories, space opens in another for their own truth to emerge. It is a belief that sharing can provoke quiet transformation and healing.
The individual needs the collective. These are times where collective, compassionate action is urgent. Learning to slip beneath the deafening narratives of what society expects of us as women and learning to listen to the gentle hum beneath the surface, space from which wise actions and words arise. The more spaces we can carve out to gather in primal simplicity, the more likely we are to carve out new ways of living that benefit ourselves, our communities and crucially, our planet.
Words by Gemma Brady