Fire circles, stories and talking sticks.

Fire circles, stories and talking sticks.

This last week a group of twenty-five of us met for the third and final week together in our leadership program.  As has been our tradition, we began and ended our gathering with a check-in/check-out process, what we have begun to call a "fire circle".  Round-robin, one at a time, we listen to each others musings, and reflections on what is most on our hearts and minds. 

We turn the hotel meeting room into a campfire setting by pulling chairs into a circle and putting something representing a campfire in the center of the circle; in November it was a gift bag with red crepe paper sticking out of it; last week it was a pot of red tulips.  And to help us recall that our attention rests fully on the one person speaking, we use a "talking stick" and each person holds it in their turn.  When the person holds the "talking stick" the floor is entirely theirs.  All eyes, ears and attention is on them.  Although this process is recalled from Native American tradition, most often our talking stick is a magic marker.  Modern equipment.

But this week, one of our group brought with him a talking stick with more weight, and more history:  a tall, perhaps six foot, piece of natural wood, a slim piece of  tree, cleared of bark, with a huge burl near the top, and a small piece of deer hide adorning it (our vegetarians stayed away from the deer hide when they had a turn to speak and hold the stick).   The burl looked like a big dried hornet's nest, and another of us,  wise in the ways of nature and landscaping, explained the burl: It is created when there is a wound to a tree, and over time the burl forms around the wound.  And because that healing process create such remarkable and unusual grain inside the burl, burls are sought after by wood workers who turn them into beautiful bowls, clocks and other treasures. 

This photo of a tree Burl was taken on the Macricostas Preserve. Photographer: James Corbett via Flickr

This photo of a tree Burl was taken on the Macricostas Preserve. Photographer: James Corbett via Flickr

I keep thinking about that image, that the tree is hurt, damaged, wounded, but over time it grows the burl around that injury, creating both beauty and protection. 

As David introduced the talking stick, he also explained that it carried 30 years of stories.  His men's group in Vermont had been passing that talking stick among them for thirty years, and so it held all those decades of stories.  We were honored to have it among us, as we happened to be both men and women.....we wondered if the talking stick had been held by women before.  And we each took our turn.  Someone said, "It's heavy."  as she rested it against her shoulder and told us of the joys and sorrows of the past weeks. 

There is a sacredness to the talking stick, and to the circle, and to the stories themselves, I think.  Each time we join in such a circle, we bless each other with our honesty, our openness, the diversity of our experiences.  We allow one among us to be in great sorrow, while another is celebrating a wonderful change in her life.  Each of us can say what is true for us in this moment.  And the talking stick gives us the space and time to do that.  We may take a breath, pause a moment, think, then continue speaking.  Until we have finished and pass the talking stick to the next person. 

Twenty years ago this month, I invited a group of women to tea at my house, and we spent half a day one at a time talking of where we were in our work and our lives. I was in the midst of some very bumpy transitions in my life and I thought I might gain perspective from their experiences.  I knew them all, yet they were all strangers to one another.  I figured they would enjoy each other. I thought this one-time chat would be helpful, fun. Twenty years later we are still in conversation. 

This process of forming circles of conversation, of sharing our stories, is healing---perhaps like the burl itself heals the tree--creating beauty, and protection, and growth.   Spring, with its sprouts of life, (those of you in the far north, take heart, spring will indeed come) seems like the right time to think of the life and growth we find in such circles of conversation. 

So on that theme of stories, healing, growth and connection, I share a poem of mine, from The Art and Spirit of Leadership: 


When the stories

begin and we listen,

really listen

to each other,

we begin

to notice

that we are not

quite so much the same

as we had thought,

at least

not in the ways

we thought.

And we are not

so different as we thought,

at least not in the ways

we thought.

And like some

big old family

full of odd relatives,

we are all kin,


and beloved.

Judy Brown, July 3, 2005