‘You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round,’ Black Elk
It’s the first week of Advent and there is a pop-up wreath-making workshop in a church near my house. I pay £6 and am given a circle of copper wire. ‘Just wind what you want round it, you’ll get the hang of it,’ the workshop leader says, and turns to the next in the queue.
My daughter and I collect armfuls of pine boughs from a box nearby and make our way to a table. A couple sits in front of a mound of holly, mistletoe and ribbons, their twins asleep in a buggy nearby. Their wreaths look amazing, like you would buy in a shop. Another woman is attaching dried orange slices to her wreath. She has gone freestyle, huge fronds sprawling everywhere, dripping with berries.
‘Your wreaths are incredible,’ I say, ‘have you done this before?’ ‘No!’ they all laugh, and then the other mum says, ‘ you just keep putting more on and eventually it starts to looks good.’
So I start cutting branches and tying them on with green wire. I choose fat branches to bulk it out quickly. I worry Emily will lose interest and say ‘Mummy I’m bored’. She doesn’t though, she seems happy striking out on her own to explore the rest of the church, circling back with armfuls of eucalyptus, cinnamon sticks, red ribbon, gold-painted pine cones.
There is a good feeling as people chat and weave. I see some familiar faces, neighbours I have crossed paths with, some whose names I know. Each Sunday, this church hosts an all-ages service, held in a loose circle around the carpet where the children are supposed to sit, although usually they run in and out of it playing. Years ago I came here for a baby music class – another circle. It was something I noticed when I first had my daughter, how circles started popping up in my life everywhere. Before Emily, my life was the rows of desks in the open-plan office where I worked, the rush of a tube on the morning commute, the list of to-dos on my notepad. After her, it was mums sitting on the floor with babies in their laps. Living room, children’s centre, café or church – the shape always tended towards circle. None of these circles lasted very long. The music class lost its funding. The mums I knew moved to buy a bigger house further away, or they went back to work and put their children in nursery. But for a brief period, my life took on this rounded contour. Children at the centre, grown-ups all around. No one higher or lower. Just the shared purpose of loving new life and helping it grow.
It felt sane, right. I have never been happier or less neurotic. It was disorienting, to suddenly feel so natural, so unencumbered by worry and self-doubt. I could see other mums (and dads too, though there were fewer of them) felt the same. They would put on a brave face when their maternity leave ended. ‘I’m just going back to work 3 days a week.’ ‘I’ve found this really great nursery, I’m sure she will love it.’ But underneath there was usually a sadness, and at some point they’d admit ‘I’m dreading going back to work.’ When I’d meet them again, it would be in a queue at the bus stop, a hurried hello at the school gates, as we dropped off our children and rushed to work. Circles are not easy to hold to, especially not in a culture that worships straight lines.
Some historians tell us the first object of religious contemplation was a circle. Our ancestors watched the moon dissolve over time until she disappeared completely. Then they waited and watched as she gradually re-formed herself in the night sky. They saw her as an expression of the Great Mother, who held life and death within the wholeness of her body. For them, circle was never a static object, but an ever-changing being, who contained within herself her own death and potential for rebirth. It was this transience which they saw as the essence of a circle, and when they drew it, this is the feature they emphasised. Theirs were not the geometrically precise, 2-D discs we put in math textbooks, or stick to the back of saints’ heads in a stained-glass window. For them, ‘circle’ was never abstract. They drew it in the roundedness of breast and buttock, the fullness of a pregnant belly, the restless turn of the spiral, and the slither of a snake: dynamic, ever-changing, never perfect because always alive.
In the Native American Haudenosaunee tradition, all public gatherings open with the Thanksgiving address. In it, each part in creation is named and thanked for its unique contribution. The waters. The air. The earth. The plants, the fish, the birds. Each one is honoured, each recognised for its place in the whole. It is an affirmation of life’s cyclical nature, how one part weaves into and supports another, and a celebration of the bond of reciprocity that unites humanity with all other beings. ‘Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue,’ it begins. They say it every time they meet and it can easily take up to an hour each time. For them, this circle is more than a symbol; it is an act of continual remembrance that underpins their spiritual, economic and social life.
My wreath keeps coming apart. The wire ties fall off. Each new branch must be bended and shaped, otherwise it sprawls free. This is the simple truth of it, the truth known by our ancestors, and kept alive by the Haudenosaunee and other indigenous peoples around the world. Circles take time, they take care and attention. If we don’t tend to them, they will unravel. It takes patience, hard work, commitment, endless returning. And in dark times, even more so. Human beings have stepped out of the great circle of life. We have forgotten our role as weavers, protectors of the circle. And now all the strands in the great hoop of life are unravelling all around us.
I look around at everyone with their wreaths and I wonder what would happen if the quality of our attention shifted just enough to honour the symbol we are weaving, to let ourselves be touched by it. What if we tended to the wholeness of life with the same studious care we are giving to our wreaths? What if we let ourselves sit in circles together, not just when children are there, and not just in places of worship, but at the heart of our lives? Would it change anything? Would it give us the strength to say to each other what needs to be said? Would we remember the rhythm of tuck and weave, gather and bind, that we once used to tend to the hoop of life?
As we’re leaving we bump into Sue and her family. I first met Sue at a children’s centre when our daughters were a few months old. A group of us sat round with our kids in our laps, every Tuesday.
‘You’re kidding me,’ she laughs when she sees my wreath, and shows me hers with a few spindly branches clinging to the wire. ‘Got any tips?’
‘It’s all about the layers,’ I say. ‘Just keep going.’