Friday, October 19, 2001
Local writer Mary Roberts examines an eternal question
A little more than a decade ago, Judith Duerk published Circle of Stones: Woman's Journey to Herself, and it quickly became a bestseller. Here in Carlisle, it was the subject of a book discussion at the Unitarian Universalist Church's Women's Spirit group. Mary Roberts of North Road read the book, intending to attend the discussion and talk about it with other women. She never made it to the meeting, but she was profoundly affected by the book. "At that point in my life I was submerged," Roberts explained. "Every once in a while I would come up for air, but then I would go under again. Judith Duerk's writing is so musical. It spoke to me."
Publisher invites submissions
Recently, Roberts picked up the tenth anniversary edition of Circle of Stones, and in the back was an invitation for women to write to the publisher focusing on a woman or group of women who had supported them in their lives. Innisfree Press's "call for writing and art" asked women to respond to the question, "How has the affirming, sustaining presence of women made a difference in your life?"
As a result sixty-five women from eight countries are represented by their stories, poems, and art in The Circle Continues, published in August 2001. One of those women is Carlisle's own Mary Roberts. Her short story, "Asking. For My Life." began a few years before, when she was discussing an Arthurian legend with a friend. King Arthur, it seemed, had to find the answer to the question, "What do women want?" long before Mel Gibson ever explored the idea with Helen Hunt. Arthur found the answer to be "sovereignty the right to choose, to have one's own way." Fascinated with this idea, Mary told her friend about it, and he replied that the answer was wrong: in reality, he said, nine out of ten women want security and a man to provide it for them.
Asking 100 women
Mary disagreed. Vehemently. Almost before thinking, she found herself promising to ask one hundred women the question, "What do you want for yourself?" and to prove her friend wrong. So began an Arthurian quest of her own. For two and a half years, Mary asked women the question. She asked "strangers, salespeople, friends and relatives" in "private homes, at a wedding, in a hospital, at the gym and in the grocery store." She asked the question of women she met in airports while traveling, in restaurants and even of performers at a concert.
She discussed her quest with an old friend, a storytelling coach, who said she had all the ingredients for a book and encouraged her to write it. Mary replied, "But I'm not a writer!" and received a wide-eyed, disbelieving response. Encouraged, she went to work and recorded her 100 answers on a large posterboard flowchart. It all looked like data, a sociological study. Categories like "Happiness," "Family," "Peace," "Career," "Legacy," and "Time" were crisscrossed with subcategories and subtopics. Her storytelling coach said, "You can look at it as data or you can look at each answer as a woman's story."
Condensing the answers
To submit her findings to Innisfree Press, Mary had to condense them into 3,000 words. It took her about a month to choose eight women whose responses seemed to represent a cross-section of the 100 she had questioned. Mary says the process "had a profound affect on me. Only one woman refused to answer. Most really wanted to engage. It was empowering for me to ask and it was empowering for them to be asked."
"Circle of Stones," Mary continued, "is about discovering the inner, feminine core, about finding your authentic voice. Asking these women what they wanted for themselves helped me find my own authentic voice."
Halfway through writing the story, Mary found it necessary to ask herself the question she had asked so many other women. She formed her answer, she says, based on what she had heard from her subjects. What she wanted included "the feeling that no matter what I do, I am good enough." By the end of the story, Mary had discovered that her answer no longer needed to be compared with those of the other women in her study. It needed only to come from her heart, and it changed accordingly. She says that her quest for this answer began with a person "struggling and growing wings" who, by the end of the writing process, "had learned to soar."
In the story, Mary records the process of gaining spiritual wings and learning to use them as she takes us through moments in the lives of eight women who range in age from nineteen to eighty, who come from all over the world, and whose educations, races, professions, and economic situations vary as much as their answers did. Each of these women taught her something about herself and about the value of everyday life. She told this interviewer that the circle of support, the subject of this book and its predecessor, does indeed continue, and related the story of Joan Dalton, well-known to many in Carlisle, who lived in the town center before moving to Canada. Joan's circle included the whole town. It was Joan who took charge of signposts in the town center, whose picture appeared frequently in the Mosquito supporting all manner of town activities, and who took Mary, a newcomer, under her wing. When Joan moved to Toronto, she left memories behind in Carlisle which are still part of its circle. "That's how it works," Roberts pointed out. "Everything around you is talking: what's it saying? The writing I'm passionate about is heart-centered. When I observe an everyday occurrence, I see in it the lesson, the wisdom, and its depth. Some little thing may happen in Carlisle and I can turn that into writing that touches the heart. I believe I can do that."
The Circle Continues is a book by and about women. It speaks to women and to men as well, articulating perhaps in some of the clearest ways yet who women are, what they wish for, what they do, and what they dream. It has also given us the first of Mary Roberts's stories. May there be many more.
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito