Wisdom of elders

Members of the Grandmother’s Circle in Jane Bristow’s home. Front

For more than a decade, a group of women has met for a secret power gathering.

Their goal? To make the world a better place for the next generation.

The Grandmother’s Circle has brought together Orcas women of varied perspectives and backgrounds to laugh, weep, grow and consider life’s purpose.

“Being in this circle has helped build my confidence,” said Kate Carter, one of the founding members. “My sisters have been such great teachers of honoring the stories we carry. My grandson said to me, ‘Grandma, I want to be just like you when I grow up. You can do anything.’ That is powerful.”

The circle began in 2002 after Katie Diepenbrock, who had 19 grandchildren, was encouraged by four indigenous grandmothers to establish herself as an elder and ask others to impart their wisdom for generations to come. She approached Carter, who found the idea wonderful.

Diepenbrock passed away last month, but four of the founding members are still part of the group: Carter, Jane Bristow, Antoinette Botsford and Jacquelyn Hoag. Over the years, new women joined the ranks: Carol Bee, Sue Watkin, Dawn Shahar and Rivkah Sweedler.

The women’s ages range from 62 to 93 years old and their collective life experience is well past 500 years.

The Grandmother’s Circle has one main philosophy: to improve the world through love and kindness for the next seven generations. How that would happen was initially up for debate. As a spirited, politically active woman, Diepenbrock wanted the circle to have elements of activism.

“But we decided that as a group, we wouldn’t take political stands,” Botsford said. “We want to create a new paradigm by supporting each other in whatever path we take. We have seen each other through deaths and births, illnesses and intense separations.”

The circle meets at the same time every month at Bristow’s farm. Each gathering revolves around a different theme that was chosen at the previous month’s meeting. Recent topics have been “light,” “remembering,” and “comfort.” They also spend time just checking in and hearing about each other’s lives. After circle time, they eat a meal together. The women say they support one another with a unique combination of transparency and privacy, which makes the group a safe place to share.

“We found that more and more of our work became about the inner workings,” Botsford said. “The macrocosm is the microcosm.”

Within the past year, the women introduced a new component: a talking stick carved by Sweedler.

“We are teaching ourselves to be engaged but also intense listeners,” Carter said. “There is a lot of passion and experience and sometimes it’s like holding back wild horses – but the talking stick is a talisman to remind us to wait our turn.”

Inevitably, with so much energy in one room, there has been tension. The grandmothers say they deal with hurt feelings or a disagreement with maturity and truthfulness – and they always talk it through.

“The hallmark of a healthy, vital group is not sweeping anything under the rug,” Carter said.

While their time together is private, the work they’ve done has influenced those around them. The women point out that developmental stages don’t end – even when you are older.

Sweedler says the group has given her an “intentional focus of how to grow myself into a wise elder for the benefit of future generations.” Botsford is a storyteller, often for children, and part of a “threshold singing group” that generates healing for life passages like birth and death. Bristow says she is highly conscious of conserving water – so much so that her pipes stopped working from lack of use. Carter feels their feminine power brings “non-competitive strength” to the world.

“We can’t say a lot about what happens in the group – we just have to live it,” Hoag said.

Your own Grandmother’s Circle

If you are interested in starting a grandmother’s group, the women are happy to lend guidance. Contact Kate Carter at islandsnowhawk@yahoo.com.