Friday, January 28, 2011

I am woman, hear me vent.

Yes, Vagina, that is you, in satin effigy. And that pillow is precisely the sort of new age wierdness I feared I would encounter when I ventured forth to participate in my very first women's circle. I had never heard of such gatherings until I got an email from the women's business network I belong to, notifying us of a new circle starting up in Oakland. When I contacted the circle lady and asked for details, she suggested I just show up and see for myself.

So what prompted me to attend a women's circle?

1.) I have a deficit of homegirls out here and thought perhaps I'd meet some nice ladies.

2.) I could use some therapy but it's not in the family budget.

3.) My husband and I have been catching up on three years of In Treatment and we just watched the last DVD.

4.) I figured even if I didn't experience sisterhood, catharsis, or enlightenment, I could at least get a blog post out of it.

I did not know what to expect. In an effort to meet people in my relatively new stomping grounds, I have joined maybe twenty meetup groups and attended all of 3 gatherings in nearly 3 years. The knitting group proved that I can't talk and count stitches at the same time. The Berkeley social club was fun but oriented towards younger, unmarried people. The culture group was peopled with dull, ossified fogies, the sort of folk who engage in cultural activities because they think it's good for them and non-commitally pronounce everything they see "interesting". The art, hiking and book clubs, I kept up with voyeuristically by reading their email updates. I tried to go on a group hike once, but it decided to rain. I never felt like reading any of the book club's books. After a year or so of inactivity, I got booted off their distribution lists.

As long as there have been females, there has been female bonding. Clusters of women sitting together, making meals, pots, lace, baskets, quilts and, of course, conversation. Still, I was a little apprehensive about this circle business.Would I be getting in touch with my prehistoric roots, when the mitochondrial mother sat around the fire with her homegirls, cooking and nursing babies while the men folk hunted mammoth? Was I setting myself up for some sort of new age freak show involving chanting, incense, crystals and yoni- inspired knick knacks like the vagina pillow? I hoped to Goddess I wouldn't have to hug any strangers. I wondered whether the circle would be more like group therapy, which could at least have some entertainment value. Perhaps it might even tide me over until Gabriel Byrne came back from hiatus. I decided to give this circle thing a shot.

It was an evening meeting in a small, run-down commercial building. Our group leader Calista (not her real name) had talked the owner into letting her use an empty office. The space was arranged like a makeshift living room - two mismatched, scratchy couches and a half dozen uncomfortable chairs. A plug-in tea kettle sat atop a thrift shop end table, along with an assortment of teas. On the floor in the middle of the room was a piece of colorful fabric on top of which Calista had arranged an array of objects. Candles, shells, a supermarket bouquet, a green ceramic heart. It was a sad assortment. It reminded me of Sarah in The Little Princess trying to make her garret look homey.

Calista is a charismatic middle aged woman with an intelligent face framed by a leonine, shoulder length mass of grey curls. She took stock of the attendees. There were six of us, ranging from 30 to 60, sipping tea as we waited for her to take the lead. Right away, Calista informed us that she was not a therapist. Heck, the woman isn't even a clinical social worker. She specializes in conflict resolution and non violent communication.(I'm not completely clear what that is but I'm pretty sure it doesn't involve calling your husband an idiot or wacking him upside the head with a blunt object.) Calista explained the rules, probably for my benefit as I was the only newbie:

1. We were here to "share our truth," and anything that gets shared must not leave the room. East Coast smart aleck that I am, I had to make a funny."It's like Vegas!" I cried. The ladies looked confused, as often happens out here when I crack a joke. I tried to explain." You know, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas...". Calista wisely pressed on.

2. Everyone gets the same amount of time to talk. Calista would be watching the clock. The green ceramic heart I had noticed on her makeshift altar would get passed around from one woman to the next. Whoever held it had the floor until she had said her piece, or her turn was up, whichever came first. We were not allowed to interrupt each other but as long as we were supportive and nurturing, we could comment on what other people had said once it was our turn to speak.

3. Any and all displays of emotion were welcome. Feel free to cry, swear, raise your voice.

4. We were each expected to leave a $10-$20 donation at the end of the session. Compared to therapy, that's a bargain.

(At this point, I'd like to reassure you that I will not, repeat, will not break rule number one. I won't divulge anything that might jeopardize anyone's privacy, even though, trust me, it would make this post waaaaaay more entertaining.)

Calista passed the ceramic heart to the woman on her left, and so the venting began. It was a mishmash of serious life issues and serious navel-gazing. Insensitive husbands. Fruitless job searches. Narcissistic mothers. Ungrateful spawn. Ageist interviewers. Troubled teens. Depressed mates. Demanding children. Abusive fathers. Career burn out. Money problems. Sexual confusion. Old wounds. New wounds. Excess scar tissue. Protocol seems to be to just let people weep without intervening, and there was a fair amount of crying. The hardest part was staying neutral. Some women, you wanted to hug. Others, shake. One was a circle junky - this was her third circle in two days. It didn't seem to be helping. Like Calista, I'm not a mental health professional, but I do know wackadoodle when I see it.

As it turns out, the circle process is not like therapy at all. When you talk to a shrink, it's a given that your perspective needs altering. That's why you're there. You speak your truth, but you and your therapist both know how relative that notion is. Growth comes from understanding that your experience is subjective, and not necessarily accurate. A woman's circle is quite the opposite. Nothing you say is parsed, analyzed, questioned or refuted. You unload your story like a fishmonger tossing a sixty pound salmon onto a pile of grey ice. And there it sits, all stinky, slippery and just a little fishy, waiting for someone to buy it.

In her excellent book, You just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen describes a woman who comes home from work and starts telling her husband what a horrendous day she had. The husband, in typical male fashion, immediately goes into Mr. Fix-It mode. She should have a come-to-Jesus with her assistant. Ask her boss for a raise. Do something about her workload. He thinks his wife is asking for suggestions and solutions, but she feels patronized. All she really wanted was a sympathetic ear. This female need to vent is the basis for Women's Circles. But a women's circle is no replacement for an actual girl's night out, and not just because there's no wine involved. Your real homegirls will listen to you and support you. But they'll also call you on your bullshit. A good friend will tell you if you're overreacting, or stuck in a destructive pattern, or being too hard on your spouse. Most importantly, your buddies will make you laugh, maybe even at yourself. Compared to an actual circle of friends, an ersatz women's circle is more like the Post Secret project, in which people unburden themselves by anonymously writing their secrets on a postcard.

When my turn came to hold the green ceramic heart, I didn't hold back. I bitched, I moaned, I spewed. It felt awkward: vaguely cathartic but also slightly disloyal. I didn't experience any epiphanies, although the entertainment value of listening to everyone else's problems beat the heck out of the Lifetime Chanel. Still, based on the immediate results of my circle experience, I don't think I'll be going back.

I went home and yelled at my husband.

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