Wednesday, 21 February 2018

All The Women I've Ever Met: Women Making - 1st of 7 Sundays in Spring... by Fern Smith

Photo: Phil Ralph
I want to ask you, as clearly as I can, to bear with patience all that is unresolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, as if they were rooms yet to enter or books written in a foreign language. Don’t dig for answers that can’t be given yet: you cannot live them now. For everything must be lived. Live the questions now, perhaps then someday you will gradually without noticing, live into the answer. Rilke -  'A Year With Rilke' (reading for February 18th).

It is Sunday February 18th - the first Sunday in Lent... Chris and I are preparing her house in readiness for this, the first ‘7 Sundays in Spring’ gathering. We’ve had a slow start to the morning. Chris is feeling low and under the weather from a virus that has struck her down these past two weeks. Most of Swansea seem to be similarly afflicted and many have had, are recovering from or are still suffering with it. I’m wondering how she will be and cope, as she has generously agreed to her house being the venue for our first gathering, ‘Women Making’. I made soup the night before and brought with me a loaf of home-made spelt bread, there is also the cold roast-veg leftovers from yesterday and a plate of home-made malt loaf. We will be okay for food even if no one else brings any.

We set out the chairs in Chris’ large front room which overlooks Swansea Bay, all sea and sky. George, the parakeet is curious and engaged, watching and chirping encouragement from his open-door cage in the big bay-window. A little table, a central unlit candle, whicker basket of nightlights, Carolyn Hillyer's divination pack ‘Weavers' Oracle’ all laid out in preparation, with my palm sized ‘talking stone’ from Iona ready at the side. I’ve chosen a low stool to sit on, placed notes, books and other things I might need to open this, the first of our seven circles which will take place over this and the next six consecutive Sundays. I’m ready…

Photo: Fern Smith

Donna arrives - always the earliest, at 10:15. The invitation was to arrive at 10:30 for an 11 o’clock start. Looks like we are now officially open for business. I give Donna the job of making tea and coffee for the arrivals, though in my nerves I often keep taking over until I’m distracted by another task or conversation, leaving Donna to take over again. This is my way when I’m on edge. All hyped up, I try to do everything. I delegate but still try to do everything, know that I can’t and if I’m aware enough - step back and relinquish control. This thing will happen in its own way or not at all.

I’ve had at least three messages this morning from those that wanted to, but aren’t now able to make it. My heart sinks a little as I imagine only three or four of us being present. We were 17 and now will be 13 including Jo‘s baby Phoebe. Plenty. Those that come are the right ones, I know this and still always feel a little stung when I get last minute cancellations, trying hard not to take them as personal rejections.

Each of the women bring, as well as food, (home-made cakes, bread, savouries), a whole world of connections stories and memories that for me are associated with each of them. Each woman also brings something to make. This project which I’m envisaging as an ‘every-day art project’ or a ‘residency in my own life’ is an invitation to ‘All the Women I’ve Ever Met.’ I’ve sent out the call on email. The idea is that only women I know already or have met before have been invited. This is not my usual ‘call out’ on Facebook or over the Internet “come one, come all.” Each invitation is specific. It might be to a close intimate friend, who I’ve known for years, someone I’ve just met, someone I’ve met through the arts community, activist network, professional arts sector or even family. The same invite has gone to all. The email invitation was originally much longer - explaining the back story and reasoning behind the project in more detail than anyone could have taken in, in a fast-read email. Again, this is my way. Over-think, over-prepare, over-write. I finally manage to fillet the email invite down to the bare essentials. “Come join me… For a particular activity in a specific place on a precise date. A Sunday in Springtime - during Lent (from the old english word Lenten - Springtime)." A call to women only. The project has many birthings inspirations and beginnings. It was going to be a 7 day vigil for the lost, forgotten and dying called ‘Living Without Hope’ originally intended for Theatr Ardudwy in North Wales. The fact that the theatre has had to close for infrastructure and safety reasons that couldn’t be resolved in time,  left a space in my Arts Council funded Creative Wales enquiry - a vacuum needing to be filled.

“Who do you think you are?” This has been my question throughout the year. (Live the questions says Rilke. Love the questions as if they were rooms yet to enter.) I’ve been asking this beautiful, uncomfortable, powerful question perhaps/probably my whole life. It’s got in the way of many things. And it’s been the cause an instigator of many others that I wouldn’t otherwise
have had the courage to do.

For this my 53rd revolution of the sun, I decided to pose it as a central question in my life and in Rilke’s words to “live the question now “, in the hope of perhaps finding a way to somehow  “live into the answer”.

So, all the women I’ve ever met received an invitation. This was a poetic translation of ‘all the women I’m now connected with through email or via Facebook’. Perhaps 300 perhaps 500 invites went out in the end. Hard to gauge, But, once I’d had the idea, I seemed to spend the better part of one week hitting ‘send’ on my computer. Once I knew it was going to be impossible to do my Harlech Vigil the idea came fast on the heels of frustration and disappointment (with a tiny hint of relief.) The idea for seven circles of women gathering throughout Lent and finishing with an all-night vigil to end on Easter Sunday, seemed to literally come from the universe, fully formed, and wholly hatched. I’ve been working with a particular set of ‘divination cards’ for a few years on and off. Since the New Year I’d begun a new meditation cycle and choose one card at the end of each morning's sitting as a teaching or provocation for the day. The deck is concerned with and connects with ‘the Sidhe’ and is named after them – decorated, highly coloured, naïve-style art-cards - 54 in total containing powerful images in support of transition and transformation.

It was early January. I was tussling with my question – “what was I going to do for my fourth Creative Wales arts residency now I couldn’t spend my week in Harlech?” I’d completed three of my intended four residences. This final one didn’t have to be about culmination but I still felt there was some kind of a completion that I wanted to honour. I wanted whatever happened to also to be based on the number ‘7’ since all the others had been. I also felt it should be ‘emergent’, organically flowing from the residences that had gone before and not to be a separate, isolated, ‘tick-box’ exercise for myself and those who might be joining me. I knew what I didn’t want to do, but didn’t yet know what I needed or did want to do. I’d already thought the timing would be in March preferably - around Saint David’s Day, around International Women’s Day - the start of Spring proper.

The North Wales vigil I’d planned, I’d reckoned should take place during the week in which International Women’s Day fell. This was about creating a space for women to be, to connect, to grieve, to speak, to stand up for what they/we believed in. So there were already a number of elements constellating, even after I’d received my apologetic “no’ from the board of Theatre Ardudwy, the gatekeepers of the due-to-close theatre in Harlech… Women. Spring. Vigil. Gathering.

The most extraordinary thing heappend that I still can’t quite understand. I sat after my meditation with my Sidhe cards in early January and chose a card ‘blind.’ I received the ‘Grail Person’. And again, on the next four consecutive mornings, I received the same card. The Grail Person. This brought with it a whole load of associated meanings since the Grail is a symbol I’ve been inspired by and enquiring into for at least three years now. The only problem was, what did it mean to get this same card five days running chosen from of a pack of 54 possible different options? Also the card is arguably the most significant in this particular deck. I sought advice from my mentor and teacher Ian. “Sit with the card” he said “bring the image into your body. What message does it have for you? What’s it telling you?” And so, I did. Almost immediately came the answer - 7 Sundays in Spring. Seven women, seven Sundays, seven places, seven activities, (archetypal - walking, making, dancing). I had the bones. In the next week or so, the bones fleshed out in an organic, emergent way. It took pretty much seven days from the original idea to the details and logistics to be sorted and for the invites to go out. I didn’t have much time to lose. The timescale of Lent came from and was part of the ‘original impulse’ during that enquiring meditation. It wasn’t a ‘message’ in a traditional sense. No silent words in my head. Just a lightning bolt, knowing - this could be so. It represented a kind of challenge or invitation to me. Did I want to receive it? Did I want to make it happen? Could it happen within the allotted time? The first Sunday in Lent was only six weeks away. I need to act fast.

Photo: Fern Smith

And so, the invitations went out. Perhaps you have received one. if not... there is still time...

"7 Sundays in Spring: yes, this is about sisterhood. Yes, this is about #Me Too. Yes, this is about identifying as women witnessing the beauty and the sorrow of this time. It’s also about honouring the fragile nature of life at a time when things and people appear to be falling apart on a daily basis."

I drafted my invitation, read it to a close friend. “It’s an invitation to all the women I’ve ever met” I said to him. “That’s a great title” he said. “What is?” I said. “All the women I’ve ever met” he said. And so, it was duly named.

It felt important that these were not ‘public events’, in the traditional sense. They could have been and almost were. I’ve run plenty of events where I’m putting the word out as widely as possible. But this one - to feel like ritual, ceremony - needed to be different. This wasn’t a public art event. It was about re-connecting, re-gathering. The gatherings would potentially be smaller, more informal and more intimate and without the artist/audience separation I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with.

The first few days I got a flurry of responses back - the first within a minute of sending. It read “count me in!” The invitation process itself felt like an online celebratory ritual. Of course there were many bounce-back‘s from now defunct emails and non-respondents but often, even if women couldn’t come, they loved the idea, loved the timing, loved the sentiment. Some who knew they couldn’t come offered messages of support, poems, stories to share at the gatherings. It became clear that there would be many who would be willing and able to come to one or more of the gatherings and there would also be many women who would be holding space for us even though they weren’t able to attend in person.

It is 11 o’clock on Sunday, the 18th of February 2018, time to sit in circle.

Artwork and photo: Rose Davies

I light the candle and we share some moments of silence. This stilling is as much for me as for everyone else. I have a propensity to become quite overwhelmed by nerves so this is a useful reminder to me that I am here, now, in this circle, with these people - these women. I begin by sending the basket of unlit candles round, inviting each woman in turn to remember someone - a maker, a guide who is significant and special to them and to say their name silently or aloud whilst lighting a candle from the central flame in their honour before placing it on the bronze, circular tray provided by Chris. “For my mum, Marina Abramovic” I say. Then to clarify, “for my mum and Marina Abramovic!” . Since reading her autobiography ‘Without Walls’ last Christmas, Marina has been a close companion. She is an outrider - praised, undermined, deified, vilified in turns. The room becomes populated with other women - artists including Kathe Kollwitz, a sister-in-law who died recently and many other mothers. The day is dedicated to them - who in many ways, have made each of our presence’s in this room somehow possible. We are 11 in total so far - still awaiting Jo coming the distance from Lampeter but delayed by stopping to feed her baby.

Photo: Chris Bird-Jones

I feel enormous gratitude for the presence of those who have come, and thank them for answering the call. There is a significance that these particular women are here. I speak about the context from which the day arose - my Creative Wales and my central question, “who do you think you are?” I've come to the conclusion that I am the result of all the conversations and experiences I’ve ever had, the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met. I try to be lean and not extemporise too much - framing the context without taking up too much precious time and space.

I read aloud some words sent to me by one woman who received my invitation, Judith who I met in my 50th year whilst spending a week alone at the summer solstice on Bardsey Island in North Wales - known as the island of 20,000 saints. Judith and I were both lone pilgrims, spending our time there walking and contemplating. After some days, we eventually spoke and found we shared a whole lot of common interests and ideas. Judith‘s words speak of Wales, for belonging, longing, ‘Hiraeth’, connection to people, connection to place. She articulated that it was time for our small boats to come together to become a flotilla - in these transitional, scary times. Her words touch us deeply and open a seam in each of our hearts that we soften into as the day unfolds. We take turns sharing what brings each of us here and also to name what each of us has brought with us - whether it be knitting, or a tender heart, or both. The process of each of us speaking and listening from the heart comes from many traditions. Many circles here and all over the world have opened and unfolded in the same way, now and in times gone by. We pass the talking stone. Each speaks. All listen.

A number of the women, especially those aged 60 and over, talk of the women’s groups they were part of in their younger years. During the 1970s and into the 1980s at the time of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Spare Rib and Greenham Common, many were members of women’s groups that met on a regular basis. It became quite normal to be part of this type of support network. Many in our circle, named just how much they missed these gatherings as they had got older. There are tears, apologies for the tears, invitations for more tears. This is a place to lean into our vulnerability. Each of us brings something unique. It turns out that our day isn’t just about ‘Women Making’. I am surprised but heartened by the depth and authenticity of the sharing, the hunger and eagerness to reveal, to be honest and vulnerable, to speak and to be witnessed - to speak of pain and grief and to share the burden of it. There is a phrase my partner Phil and I have come across recently. We’re not sure from where it originally derived, but it was requoted by Brene Brown the American researcher on Shame and Vulnerability. “Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a great battle”. So simple. So true. So every-day. Everyone is hurting. You can’t be in the world as it is now and not be hurting. Where are the places we can share this without guilt, shame and feeling that expressing these emotions is just an indulgence? So, apologies often follow reveals and tears. It seems just the way it is.

After the round of speaking, each chooses a card from the ‘Weavers Oracle’. Our circle becomes bigger, bringing the female ancestral line - the 'Grandmothers' - into the room by means of Carolyn Hillyer’s extraordinary images which she’d dreamed and painted over a 30-year period: ‘Grandmother Turtle’, ‘Old Woman Walks Good,’ ‘Bone Hill Hag,’ ‘Stone Mother of Time,’ ‘Buzzard Dreamer of the Longest Flight.’

Photo: Leonie Ramondt

Leonie brings in the future generations, naming the work of Joanna Macy, the great veteran of ‘The Work That Re-connects’, systems theory and environmental activism. Women from the past, women from the present - all are called. As we close our opening circle, leaving the candles burning and make for the kitchen preparing to eat, Jo and baby-girl Phoebe arrive, accompanied by Chris who’d going out to collect them since Jo's satnav had failed to guide them to the house. We are now 13 in total and have the women of the future generations present amongst us.

Artwork and photo: Rose Davies

The more formal sharing in the circle now unfolds into an informal, easy familiarity. Some in the circle – like me - know all the women. Some in the circle know none. But the combination of sitting in ceremony and then sharing food is the gentle pathway into an afternoon of making - making conversation, drawing, or ‘scribbling’ as Rose calls it. Throughout the day Rose scribbles - as easy and natural as breathing. Later in the day she gives me some tips. “Never use a pencil to draw with. Never draw on white paper. Tear up strips of brown paper, newspaper, anything to stick them in your book to draw on - and draw with thick pastels. Draw the space around the thing and not the thing itself.” For a self-conscious, fair weather drawer such as myself, this advice is gold. “People go to art school and study for years to know which pencils to use. Fancy giving children pencils and white paper to draw with! The tyranny of the white paper - no wonder so many people think they can’t draw…”

Leslie sits at the dining table making beautiful palm-sized papier-machè dogs - each with its own individual character. I offer to buy one later. She thinks I am joking.
Photo: Leonie Ramondt

Donna is training in Indian Head Massage, and one by one, takes a number of our group upstairs. They descend half an hour later looking as soft as newborns. I remain close to the kitchen table for most of the time and manage to complete making a batch of ‘raw’ chocolates from a chocolate kit I’d been given some time ago but never got around to making. I never get onto making my Rock Cakes which I’d brought the ingredients for. There wasn’t really any need as we already have plenty of cake. As well as being a formidable scribbler, Rose makes cakes. She doesn’t like eating them she says it just calms her down to make them.

Deb is still recovering from a virus and has to leave. She is exhausted. As well as battling her virus, she seems to be battling in her job at Swansea Council. A growing part of her job seems to be now about protecting the landscape from those who seem to be only considering economic interests . In these times of imposed council austerity, local authorities are under more pressure to make money from so-called ‘natural resources.’ Even though Wales champions the 'Well-being of Future Generations Act', Deb often finds herself feeling not just under or unvalued but is also at risk of being seen as someone who is blocking progress. The same old story. I mention to her the work of environmental lawyer Polly Higgins and her naming of those who stand up for the planet and future generations as ‘Conscientious Protectors’ - joining  the respectable lineage of those who object or protect, on the grounds of common sense, ethics and for the safe-guarding of life on earth. Deb leaves. At least  knowing she is respected and valued for the work she does on behalf of us all.

A burst of creative writing heralds our last hour or so together. Gilly, an expert teacher and dramaturgue offers us invitations and prompts: “The three things you most love about your life. The three things you would most like to change. Your dream and what gets in the way of fulfilling it?”

We share our reflections one by one. What mainly arises in terms of what we love, time after time is nature and community in one form or another. And for many, the thing we would most like to change? Something along the lines of self-acceptance, knowing “I am enough.” Knowing “I belong.”

The writing flows into the final sharing circle, revealing deeper layers of tenderness, and yearning. I think of the mention of Hiraeth from Judith’s writing... “A deep longing for home for belonging.” It’s one of those untranslatable Welsh words of which there are many. Longing for a knowing and feeling of acceptance, being at home in one’s own community, one’s own self, one’s own life.

The final sharing brings more tears - often coming as most surprise to those that weep them. Tears of yearning. I remember some lines by Thomas Berry: “the world is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” How do we create the spaces where we really know this to be true?

The words of Rilke accompany our closing. “Live the questions now, then some day you will gradually, live into the answer”. I feel I now understand more what these 7 Sundays are about. They are not about looking for answers or even expecting them, but about living the questions together. We blow out the candles. It’s past 4.30pm our finishing time. Time for goodbyes, for putting the house back to rights, packing away, washing up. The house slowly empties as we go out our separate ways, leaving Chris - Buzzard Dreamer of the Longest Flight with her parakeet George in peace.

Fern Smith
18th February 2018

Fern Smith is an artist and 2017 Creative Wales recipient from the Arts Council of Wales.
Upcoming courses/activities she is leading include:

Practising the Art of Living (co-guiding)

Woman Time (co-guiding)

Vision Quest (assisting guiding May 18 - 27)



  1. Hello Fern
    Im sorry no to have replied earlier, but events have overtaken me - Ilove the idea of your seven sundays and hoped to be able to come to Swansea - not this time Im afraid, but my heart is with you all. Thank you for sharing this

    1. Hi dear Bronwen, thanks so much for reading. Good to hear from you. Hopoe to see you soon. x

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  3. So lovely to somehow share your journey even though my commitments meant I was not able to join you in the wonders. Beautiful sharing Fern xxx