EXPLORE THE BOOK
GENESIS: THE STORY OF SISTERS SINGING
by Carolyn Brigit Flynn
It began as a seed in spring 2002, on a dawn morning filled with grey light as I sat on the deck outside my second-story study. A birch tree arches over our yard and reaches up to the deck, and I often feel that I work in a tree house, surrounded by birch branches, maples, pines, and redwoods.
It was spring 2002, and the planes had only months before fallen out of the sky in New York and Washington. No one could comprehend what had happened. No one knew what was to come. Dread filled the world and many hearts. The thought that our government was steadily preparing for unending war was ever-present–yet in those days many of us could hope that such a thing could be averted. Still, there was no real answer but to pray. To pray, unceasingly, collectively, individually. And what I mean by prayer is the act of paying attention. In one of my favorite teachings from Sisters Singing, Jennifer Ratna Sturz writes, Attention, like breath, feeds life. Prayer is attention. It is to give what we wish to receive from a beloved—to be noticed, to be acknowledged, to be loved simply for being, to be thanked. What was needed in that moment was to pray—to activate everyone, all the sacred energies in humanity’s many traditions, to pray to the mourning dove and to the birch tree, to Buddha and to Kuan Yin, to pray to White Buffalo Calf Woman, to Jesus and to Krishna, to the bus driver down on 41st Avenue, to the desert hills, to pristine mountain lakes and the waters of the pond in Golden Gate Park. To pray, as if the prayers could fill the world, or protect it, or at the very least provide sustenance.
In those months, the weekly groups I facilitate for women writers continued to meet in my living room downstairs. Ashen-faced, shaken, we opened notebooks and listened for poetry, essays, fragments, lost cries, broken hearts—hope among the ruin—the story of our time. And on that dawn morning out on my deck, I understood where our writing was to take us. We were to write about prayer and connection with the sacred.
That spring, prayers filled the writers’ notebooks. They read their work to the circle, and the holy spilled from their lips. Here suddenly was the anecdote, the healing nectar, the cure. It did not solve all our problems, get us out of debt, heal our relationships, attain us a new house. What it did was feed the sacred web. All that was holy to us, all of the sacred energies around and within our lives, were now tended—and therefore were shining. They had been fed, loved, acknowledged, thanked. We felt located within the web of creation.
It seemed that golden nuggets had fallen into our laps. Xeroxed copies passed back and forth, email attachments, a prayer-poem written out in calligraphy. The seed within me began to sprout tiny green shoots. A book of prayers by women, the ones uttered in these shattering, heart-wrenching times: what would it be to collect these prayers, and offer them to the world?
So it was that in January 2004 I wrote a Call for Work requesting submissions for a book of prayers by women, to be published by Wild Girl Publishing, a small independent press. I asked women to send me their most sacred writing: poems, journal entries, scribbled prayers uttered in the late night and the black dawn. I asked them to send me prayers from the intimate depths.
And writers responded. The work was beautiful, full of life and spirit. I read and arranged that summer, and found the basic structure of the manuscript. And that might have been it: a lovely, luscious book of 200 sacred pages, beautiful poems, essays, and short stories.
Yet something came over me. I found myself that fall with the persistent idea that the book was not yet complete. And for weeks in January 2005, I was a woman slightly obsessed. I reopened the Call for Work with more detail, emailed it to everyone I knew, and asked that they forward it to everyone they knew, and so on. It began circulating and re-circulating around the web. It went hand to hand, life to life, computer to computer, friend to friend.
At the same time, I began The Search. I googled and keyworded myself all over the country. Search words like “women” and “writing” brought up beautiful web sites I’d never seen before. Then “women” and “spirit”; then “retreat” and “writing” — the possibilities were endless and, to my delight, so were the stops within the web. A stream of people, institutions, communities, retreat centers and groups were all actively devoted to serving spirit, creativity, healing, the earth, writing and art. At each site I sent the founders a silent prayer of thanks, skimmed their bountiful offerings, but could not linger. There simply was not time. I forced myself to go directly to the “Contact Us” page and send them the Call for Work.
I found dozens of sites, then hundreds, then thousands. People, I saw, are gathering everywhere. The human world is organizing itself from the ground up. And these were just the English-speaking sites; there were, I realized, similar sites in Japanese, German, Farsi, French, Swahili, Hindi, Arabic, Italian, Hebrew, and on and on. I learned something infinitely sweet about humanity in those weeks, touching as I was our innate urge for healing and connection with the divine.
For weeks I spent every spare moment traveling the web and distributing the Call for Work. I was compelled as if by a force at my back that would not let me rest. I believed that if I just kept going I would come to the end of the stream. But ultimately there seemed to be no end. Each new search brought up new possibilities. After two weeks and thousands of emails, I called off the search. Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say, I was allowed to let it go. I no longer felt that force at my back.
It was about this time that I became aware of the spirits of Sisters Singing. They are strong, precise, and quite clear about their intentions. When something needs to happen, they can be quite forceful. From the spring of 2005 to this day, we have never been far apart. They are grandmother spirits, weaving an intricate web which includes all of Sisters Singing contributors and allies. They always saw that a beautiful book would come of our efforts.
Jane Nyberg, the founder of Wild Girl Publishing who is also a wonderful artist and designer, suggested we add art to the book in black and white image. We put out the Call for Artwork submissions, and expanded the Call for Work to include songs and chants. And the spring of 2005, the work streamed in yet again. My physical mailbox and my virtual inbox were overfull. Original music and chants, beautiful art, photography, poetry and prose from all over the country. The contributors were some of the more innovative and interesting people you might find. They were deeply devoted to sacred creativity, profoundly engaged with their chosen spiritual practice. And they were also running counseling centers, theater groups, community circles, healing organizations, newspapers and poetry centers. They were gardeners and yoga practitioners, singers and meditators, chanters and canters, mediums and mystics. They were ordinary moms and grandmothers, women who had written all their lives and were widely published, and those who had begun writing, singing or making art in a burst a few years before.
For the next three years, I was Grandmother Spider’s apprentice. I was weaving the web in the nights, busy at work. The grandmothers and I were spinning this section here, fine-tuning that thread there. We were linking and tending and editing. As I chose the images for the book, Jane Nyberg began putting them through her Photoshop magic. Beautiful music took its place, and Jane found the wonderful Jerry Paul to complete notations. Melody Culver, as copyeditor, was a constant sister, always levelheaded, a gifted wordsmith, insightful, clear-eyed; a true companion throughout the journey.
I do not remember when the streams finally emerged into the light and I could look about me with new eyes. But one remarkable day, all the threads were complete. As the grandmothers and I wove the final blanket, it was as if Grandmother Spider pulled me up towards the ceiling on a thin thread, and we surveyed the manuscript as a whole. This here, that there. This next to that. No, move that up from the back. Yes, there. Yes. In the wee hours on one night, the book was complete. A new web was born whole. Now the Sisters, woven together by the Grandmothers, assisted by myself, Jane, Melody and countless others, offer our web to the world—a glint of light illuminating the fine threads, yet stronger than a million armies. There is real sustenance here, true healing. This is a web that will last.
© Carolyn Brigit Flynn, October 2008
© 2009 Carolyn Brigit Flynn. All rights reserved.