Sisterfire

Posted on August 17, 2011 by

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by Teresa Leggard

On the third Thursday of each month for four years, in a faculty cloister that later became affectionately known as “the womb”, I participated in, facilitated for and was transformed by an autonomous, women-only open mic. It fortified me, and it ruined me.

I was first allured by the ubiquitous red fliers posted all over campus. Being a spoken word junky at the time, I was excited to attend. That it was a women-only space was even better; there’s just a level of relaxation for me in the same-sex scene. So, I went. The outer facing wall of the cloister was all glass, and the sensory experience began before I even walked in. This drab communal space had every industrial-strength, corporate colored surface covered. Rich hues, indigenous prints, Bhatik and sarongs and mud cloth—oh my! The lights were dimmed, a few candles burned. When I circled the glass wall and entered the double doors, two long arms of Nag Champa reached out to me and held me close.

The sister-originators—all upperclassmen—sat at the helm near a radio that played the likes of Meshell N’DegéOcello and Ani DiFranco. Some were dressed in fabrics similar to those draped around the room. They laughed with each other and looked to the door with inviting smiles whenever someone arrived. I put my name on the sign-up sheet then sat on an indigo covered sofa, trying to watch everyone and look at no one. After ten or fifteen minutes, the hostesses called us to begin. They started by telling us the history of this open mic: how and when the concept began, who the ancestors were. Years later, when I met one of the most celebrated ancestors I was nearly star-struck. Then they moved from front and center to sit with everyone else on nearby couches or on the floor.

Each woman called stepped forward to the mic, which was no mic at all, but a big chair at the front of the room covered in more fabric. Some sat cross-legged in the seat. Some let their feet dangle. When it was my turn, I sat at the edge of the chair, feet firmly planted, with a ratted journal that was the closest I’ve ever come to a security blanket. I don’t remember if there was a theme that night, but I likely took my cue from the readers before me and tried to share something in the same vein. I only read one poem, but that was my choice. It was okay to read more; no one was rushed. If what someone shared sparked a discussion, we discussed. If it sparked tears, we cried. If it sparked debate, we did that too. It’s no wonder we left the womb in the wee hours of the morning every third Thursday. Sometimes of our own accord, other times at the request of a building security officer who knew he’d better ask nicely if he wanted a favorable response.

Before we parted ways, we all held hands, one palm facing up and the other facing down, and after an origin story of this ritual we commenced the kiss around the world. Going around the circle, each person kissed the backs of both hands that they held but never her own. No one who was uncomfortable had to participate, but after sharing our hearts and words and songs and selves, there was seldom a sister outside the circle. What followed were deep sighs and meaningful hugs—still some of the best I’ve exchanged to this day. Those nights left me absolutely ignited and exhausted. Once I left school and that safe space, starting new friendships was awkward. Out here, there are no thresholds that eliminate pretense. Too many conversations never get past the small talk, and vulnerability is not an asset at the water cooler or the young professionals mixer. I still keep in touch with some of the women I met in the womb. We have to remind ourselves that we were really there. Those of us who have grown extremely close still bypass the small talk and begin our conversations in the middle. I don’t know if anyone else has succeeded in conjuring or capturing that energy outside of the faculty cloister, but I know I haven’t. So some days, I just close my eyes, sigh deeply and kiss the backs of my own hands.

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