Wednesday 28 February 2018

Women in the Woods: 2nd of 7 Sundays in Spring... by Fern Smith

Photo: Chris Bird-Jones

The call for women to come have ‘a conversation with trees’ is the gathering from my ‘7 Sundays in Spring’ series that so far has had the most response. At one point we were going to be 25 women; on the day due to family commitments, bad backs, exhaustion, viruses, and general business, we number 16 in total. This is the second endeavour to gather ‘all the women I’ve ever met’ to mark the encroaching culmination of my ‘Creative Wales’ journey.

A few months before, back in October 2017, my partner Phil, our dogs Betty and Jaffa, and I moved from our little terraced house in central Swansea out ‘into the country’. To be precise we moved into a rented, grade II listed cottage on the National Trust’s Dinefwr Park estate on the outskirts of Llandeilo, comprising of lordly manor Newton House, Dinefwr Castle - ancient seat of the Prince of Deheubarth, a 100 acre deer park and some of the oldest trees in Wales. Dinefwr or Dinevor, has an auspicious and colourful peoples’ history including: being a hospital for injured soldiers during WW2; focus of Lord Richard Dinevor’s short-run Arts Council of Wales funded arts festival in the 70’s; fledgling Steiner School owned by Dutch pioneers Mr and Mrs Crumb in the 80’s; and now jewel in the crown of the National Trust after being acquired close to being derelict in the early 90’s. It has also intermittently been a hippy hangout, squat, and psychedelic party venue. It is also a perfect place for a gathering of women wishing to ‘connect, commune and converse with trees’.

Photo: Newton House by Phil Ralph

Many have given their energy and the better part of their lives to do the same. One such was Wangari Mathi, the internationally renowned Kenyan philosopher and environmental activist who sadly died in 2011, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work as custodian, protector and planter of trees. One of the most significant ‘conscientious protectors’ before the term was coined. There are also those from the world of myth and fiction like ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’, an allegorical tale by Jean Giorno, published in 1953, which perhaps inspired Richard St. Berbe Baker, called by author Stephanie Kaza: “the great tree planting Saint of England” who would spend at least ten minutes each day with his hands wrapped round the trunk of a tree to “recharge his energy by connecting with the tree’s powerful circuitry” (quoted from The Attentive Heart). There is also the phenomenal work of the Tree Sisters – a contemporary, global network of women who fund the “restoration of our tropical forests as a collective expression of planetary care”.

Wangari Mathi

I wouldn’t like to say if women are drawn more to communing with trees than men. Two of my four brothers are self-confessed ‘tree men’. I’m sure this is not unrelated to the fact that our family grew up on the Friday Hill Estate, one of the new East London council estates in the late 1960’s, built within scootering distance of Epping Forest, one of London and the South East of England’s great green spaces. Us kids would spend our time, each in our own way exploring, climbing, getting lost, hanging out in the trees, and getting up to all sorts in the permissive wild woods around Chingford Hatch. I’d also draw my own versions of trees as soon as I was given a big pad – simplistic, long elegant trunk and two branched arms reaching up into the sky. I’d always draw my tree in winter – no leaves, just limbs. The women I drew at the same young age looked the same – tall, willowy, and long-limbed except they wore a maxi-dress down to the ground with a slit up the side. These were the 1970’s after all. The trees I drew looked like women. The women I drew looked like trees. Perhaps I’ve always conflated trees and the feminine as a result of this, though I have hung out with some very male trees in my time. Perhaps being the youngest of five children with four older brothers and being a staunch tom-boy, the feminine was always a little magical to me. My mother was of course a woman, but being a shy, introspective child, adults remained another and unknown country.

As I write this I have a genuinely strange sense of ‘coming out’ as a lover of trees! Yes, tree lover more than tree hugger – describing something more sensuous, intimate or furtive even. This is the wonderful thing about meeting others who have their own tree lovers and arboreal friends. It feels a bit more normal to declare one’s delight!

A few years ago, a friend mentioned to me the book ‘The Attentive Heart: Conversations with Trees’ by Stephanie Kaza. I read it then and have been reading it again these past weeks in preparation for ‘Women in the Woods’. It wasn’t exactly research, but it oriented me to the territory. Whereas Kaza’s trees are all the great ones of Turtle Island – Monterey Pine, Manzanita, Californian Redwood and Ancient Bristlecone Pine – my trees, or the ones I’ve gotten to know since moving here, are the Oak, Willow, Beech and Yew of Dinefwr Park. Dinefwr is a special place for a lover of trees. Though not designated as ‘ancient woodland’, it contains many that are referred to as ‘veteran’ trees, both standing and fallen. The National Trust here has a policy, (told to me by Liz, one of our gathering who knows), due to the vision of one of the head gardeners – of letting the fallen trees lie unhewn, unhacked and uncleared. The fallen tree then begins a new cycle as monument, living sculpture and a dense ecosystem of bird, plant, and insect life. This means in fact that there is not one ‘dead tree’ in the entire park. 

Photo: Chris Bird-Jones

This 2nd gathering of ‘7 Sundays in Spring’ is an invitation to come into the deer park here at Dinefwr and spend some solo time with the trees. The herd of around 100 Fallow Deer who live in the park add another layer of beauty and magic to this extraordinary place. In the past four months since moving here, Phil, the dogs and I have mainly experienced this place in the mist, rain, ice, snow and mud and the dark days of what has been one of the wettest winters I can remember. But today, the 25th February 2018, the sun is shining, and the forecast is to be cold and bright with blue skies the entire day.

Janne, a close friend who’s been staying a few days has, alongside my partner Phil, helped shift furniture to prepare the space for 16 to sit together in our front room ‘in Council’. Phil and the dogs have vacated for the day to walk the paths of Gower. We are ready. At ten o’clock precisely, the front door bell rings. Gilly, the first of our gathering to arrive has driven from Aberystwyth, followed closely on her heels by Katie from Bristol. Janne is on kitchen, tea and food duty – each brings something for all to share. I’m meeter, greeter and settler as well as host, guide and facilitator for the day. By 10.30, we are 16 in number and gathered shoulder to shoulder in chairs and on floor cushions. We are about to become the ‘Women in the Woods’. 

Photo: Chris Bird-Jones

Chris lights a central candle with a dedication “to the light which burns, which illumines all, which can never be extinguished.” The living art process traditionally called ‘ceremony’ begins. We drop into a deeper place of stillness after our busy journeys. I share a poem, ‘Cedar Kin’ by Alixa Doom - sent to us by Mellissa, an artist from America. Some of us present who experienced the Emergence ‘The Walk That Reconnects’ on Gower in 2014 met her during 4 days of walking from Mawr to Gower. She has reconnected with our Celtic circle from her Californian home, sending this message, so appropriate for today:

I move slowly, happy

with just a bird song in my ear

and a breeze blowing through me.

I no longer buy tickets to anywhere.

Turning off on Deer Run Trail, I climb the hill

through the sun and mist of cedars.

The slower I go, the more time there is

to wear seed in my hair

and starlight on my skin.  I sway

and bow to a truer time the earth

pushes up though cedar trunk.

I become filled with this place,

the broad green arms,

the quiet affection of cedar sisters.

There is another message from Jenny from Bath, a teacher of Joanna Macy’s powerful ‘Work That Reconnects’. Jenny though unable to be with us physically, due to life circumstances is following our programme and the exercises I have planned for today. There are many travelling alongside, both within and outside the room.

We begin by introducing ourselves: Anna, Donna, Tracy, Katie, Amber, Chris, Louise…. Dancer, activist, academic, writer, poet, visual artist, arts producer, glass artist…Mothers and daughters aged from 30 to 70 plus. One by one, in the process of ‘Council’, we speak stories of places and trees that are dear to us. Deforestation and trees lost locally and globally, past and current, information shared about soil degradation due to tree clearance, thoughts on compromising the forest lungs of the planet which have put Earth’s equilibrium and breathable air in jeopardy. Personal stories, planetary scale. A bottle of walnut ink is produced, home-made by Rose – she uses it to draw with and paint throughout the day. We hear again and again the human/tree special relationship. The blue whale is not the largest living being on the planet but the Banyan tree. Though perhaps it is hard to see one single tree as a separate, distinct being, connected as it is through an unseen living communication and food network below ground. There is much new work coming to light on the communication of trees and attempts by scientists to learn their language. Tree communication is becoming a respectable pastime and research field on its own.

Photo: Bristlecone Pine by Fern Smith

As we sit in circle, we pass between us as a ‘talking piece’ a spoon, hand-carved from Ancient Bristlecone Pinewood taken from a fallen limb, given to me by a fellow Vision Quester I met last year at the School of Lost Borders in California. The Bristlecones have been around for a long time. The oldest, upwards of 5,000 years old, making it the most ancient individual living thing of any species. These old ones give us a sense of ‘the long view’ or ‘deep time’, as eco-psychologist Joanna Macy calls it. This is a day to reflect and to lean into the teaching of the trees. It’s not only about facts, research, and information, important though these are. This is about a deeper enquiry into what nature can tell us received through open-hearted, intuitive, and embodied listening. Stephanie Kaza’s words continually orient us to the matter at hand:

“I am asking the trees to push me to my growing edge, even as they do this so elegantly themselves. What is my deepest understanding? How do I live my life as a witness to this depth of truth? What will I leave behind for others when I die… These questions penetrate to the core. Stripping away all the excess. There is no time to waste. I must act on these questions now and do the hard work of growing into beauty before I die”.

After a shared meal, we move outside into the bright sunshine of the day. It’s cold at around 5 degrees but still and cloudless. We pass silently by the deer herd basking on the open grassland near the threshold of the deer park. Each of us walk with a question, challenge, or enquiry. We scatter like seeds on the wind according to where and to what trees we are drawn. Forest bathing, or Shinrin Yoko, was developed in Japan. Studies have shown that forest bathing measurably reduces stress and it’s now being piloted in other places. This to me sounds so odd - that we need research to tell us what we actually already know. So perhaps this is another name for what we are doing here at Dinefwr today. Though I feel there is something reciprocal going on. It’s not just one-way. We each carry a small pack of sunflower seeds as a ‘votive offering’, for the birds, or just to be planted and dug up by the squirrels when the time is right. We tread lightly, with an intention of each footstep kissing the ground beneath our feet.

Photo: Chris Bird-Jones

For 2 hours, 16 women bathe in Oak, Beech, Yew and Willow. We rejuvenate ourselves in the moss-green shady places. We are welcomed by the call of Raven (so prevalent here that they appear on the Dinefwr heraldic standard), Woodpecker, Blackbird and, yes, we converse deeply, or take our first tentative steps towards, arboreal dialogue. We are by no means all seasoned tree conversationalists. We include the slightly sceptical, self-conscious and the inhibited too. However, the stories we return with, alongside clumps of fallen moss and lichen, strands of deer hair, acorn tops on stalks like so many cherries, and twisted forms of broken oak bring with them clearer eyes and wiser knowing.

Rose speaks with gentle authority. Something about not just becoming an older woman, more retiring, less visible but seeing eldership as something to grow into, to cultivate… “I’m one of the baby-boomer generation. We’ve had decades of partying. Now personally it’s time for me to become an elder – my family and my community need it.” Her words inspire us. It’s not just the accumulation of years which turns us into an elder, that just makes us old.

“Who do you think you are?” This powerful, beautiful, challenging question has catalysed and been the touchstone for all my enquiries and residencies during this Creative Wales time. I am moving towards my 54th birthday. I have gone through the menopause. If I’m lucky enough to have three score and ten years in my life, I have 16 more years to go. This is the age of some of my younger friends’ children. What choice now but old age or eldership? I left theatre after 25 years in order to develop a new practice which brings life and art together in a more fluid and organic way. I no longer want to practice an art which sees me primarily document, comment, or reflect on life rather than learning how to live it before I die. My deep enquiry for this time is to learn to “cultivate the art of living well within the ecological limits of a finite planet” (in Professor Tim Jackson’s words). The art of living, it seems to me, encompasses the art of dying well. If we knew how to do this, I feel we wouldn’t have a society where endless growth, production and consumption are the primary indicators of success, individually, organisationally, nationally and globally.

Another one of my key questions this year has been “am I an artist?” or perhaps “am I still an artist?” ‘7 Sundays in Spring’, is the final of 4 different ‘artist residencies’ I’ve been running with different people in different locations. The locations so far have been traditional arts venues. However, for this residency, there are 7 different locations and 7 different invitations for activities for ‘all the women I’ve ever met’ to join me in. This ‘everyday arts residency’ is helping me and hopefully others grow into our edges in order to cultivate and practise ‘the art of living.’ Am I an artist? Satish Kumar says that an “artist is not a special kind of human being but that a human being is a special kind of artist”. In the same vein, I believe we are all artists, we are all leaders, we are all poets, we are all mystics – or have the capacity to be. We have only to choose and direct our energy into what or how we practise. I am using this precious time, honouring the fact that I am lucky enough to receive public funding to learn to cultivate the skills to support myself and serve my community. Again, in the words of Stephanie Kaza:

“Oh, old one! I want to know you. I am lying on my belly at your feet, my elbows sticking in the dirt. I want to speak with you and listen to your being. How do people and trees talk with each other? This is my question: what do you know?”

Photo: Chris Bird-Jones

Some in our circle are supporting family members and friends going through great difficulty or serious and terminal illnesses.  How do we learn resilience, the art of living and dying, how to change what we need to change whilst surrendering to what we cannot? It seems the trees of today have taught us a great deal. Research now tells us that trees cooperate rather than compete with one another, especially under stress and in conditions which threaten their survival. There are also what are referred to as ‘mother trees’ which use fungal communication systems to preserve forests.

This day of learning interspecies dialogue has personally taught me much about the science and art of trees and the science and art of being human at this time of uncertainty, crisis and collapse. I know I am not alone in this.

At 4.30 we close and prepare to depart - to Bristol, Cardiff, Llanelli, Swansea and Cardigan. Our common love and care for trees called us into communion. We have slowed down and listened to what the trees know…We’ve shared news of networks, campaigns, book titles, research and our own deeply personal stories and questions. We take ourselves, replenished, rejuvenated back to our homes, our families and lives. Now, a few days later, I’ve had time to reflect, absorb the experience and write this. The words of the poet Rilke which I came across recently come to mind. They feel appropriate enough to end with….

“If we surrendered

to earth’s intelligence

we could rise up rooted, like trees.”

Fern Smith is an artist learning how to practise ‘the art of living well within the ecological limits of a finite planet’… More information can be found on

Photo: Chris Bird-Jones

Details of Future Events I’m hosting or co-facilitating…

7 Sundays in Spring

Continues until 1st April 2018. The next gathering is ‘Women’ Walking on Sunday 4th March, walking from Theatr Ardudwy in Harlech to Capel Salem along the Wales Coast Path. Contact me (leave a message below) if you would like to join any of the Sundays…

Vision Quest in May

Rites of Passage experience for young women aged 18 to 25 in July

Short course at Centre for Alternative Technology in September

Books we drew on for inspiration and quotes for ‘Women in the Woods’ include:

Stephanie Kaza’s ‘The Attentive Heart’.

Penny Billington’s ‘The Wisdom of Birch, Oak and Yew’.

Glennie Kindred’s ‘The Sacred Tree’.

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)