“Just beyond yourself, it’s where you need to be.”

- David Whyte

No more dining room table to divide us. No more me asking all the questions and recording answers. On this cold December night, a dozen of us sit in the Journey House dining room for our first of six Healing Circle meetings. Everybody but me and our facilitator has just been released from incarceration. One gal passes a bowl of hard candy. I don’t take one. I can’t manage a peppermint! I have no idea what to do with myself.

Annette, our facilitator, lays the ground rules: confidentiality, no interruptions or commentary, an equal chance for everyone to talk. She starts the talking piece--a heavy, ceramic heart held in both hands--to the woman seated on her left. We are to introduce ourselves, rate our day on a scale of one to ten, and explain why.

Uh oh… Nobody here has ever asked me about myself, my day, or my life. They must be thinking, “ Why’s she here? She’s taking up precious time somebody else needs.”

It has yet to dawn on me that nobody is wondering about me at all.

The first gal rates her day a ten. Here’s why: “At work today I was cleaning a vacant apartment somebody had just moved out of and I found a full syringe under the bed. I didn’t know what was in it but…I almost…” She raised her hand, gazed into the empty center of our circle as if lost in a memory. “I did not touch it. I got the manager and he trashed it. I told Sister Gabe all about it at dinner tonight--how syringes used to own me, be me. I’ve been out thirty days, plus five clean years in prison. Now I know I’m gonna make it in the free world.” She looked out over our circle and smiled as if witnessing the conviction of her own words for the first time.

The heart is passed.

An ultra-thin transgender woman who looks to be still transitioning holds the stone heart on her lap. No introduction, no rating her day. She silently hands it to the woman next to her, hugs her arms to her chest and folds back into her chair, head down. To me, she is a breakable sculpture of pure human fragility.

The reflected lights of the Christmas tree swim in the picture windows. Lily, the little white house pet, weaves among our chairs. The next woman reaches down, pets her, and smiles sadly. She has long grayish-brown hair and a kind, tired face. “I really can’t rate my day. Maybe zero. I’m still waiting for the results of my HIV test…. My husband has it. That’s all I can say for now.”

We sit silently, holding her fear and hope.

My turn…

“My niece just gave birth to very premature twin girls in an emergency C-section. One survived for only four hours. She got to hold her. We are cautiously hopeful for the other baby’s survival.”

A really large woman who sits directly across the circle starts sobbing. Kleenex is passed. Oh God… My voice rattles. “… I… I’m so sorry… I didn’t mean to upset you. I know many of you also have grief about your kids…. it’s a primal kind of subject and I…” The gal beside her put a comforting hand on her shoulder. Nobody moved. Finally, she looked up, tears streaming her face and said, “I was standing at the top of the stairs with my daughter and I was really angry with her. I turned suddenly and I knocked her off balance and she fell all the way down to the bottom.”

All of us surely are picturing this scene as the mother relived it. No doubt we had questions and thoughts to offer, but the group simply, silently witnessed her intense remorse. No gasps. No shock waves.

At the end of our meeting when everybody was moving the dining room tables back in place and rearranging the chairs, the sobbing woman walked over to me. She looked me right in the face and then hugged me. It was a total-surround type hug that I will never forget. Then…she kissed me on the cheek!

And for the second time in my life, I felt the transformative magic of having my face brushed with a stranger’s tears.