Christina Baldwin is a writer, wanderer, and teacher on the trail of community and story; she is co-founder, with Ann Linnea, of PeerSpirit, Inc. and The Circle Way Process, bringing modern structure and application to the human heritage of circle. Christina is the author of 7 books, including (with Ann) The Circle Way, A Leader in Every Chair; Storycatcher; Life’s Companion; Calling the Circle; and The Seven Whispers, Spiritual Practice for Times Like These. She works cross-culturally and internationally instilling circle process wherever it can flourish and in the Art of Hosting network.
She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- The “need for story to survive” and to capture our humanness
- That journal writing and archiving allows us to process experiences for greater understanding
- The role of story in healing trauma and organizing our insights
- That our lives are a blessing, sharing wisdom with futures we cannot see or know
- The intersection of heart-led “squishiness” and fierceness in conversations, to find commonality with others
Connect with Christina Baldwin
Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project of the Post Carbon Institute, in which we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, asking each one of them our one question: In the midst of all that seems to be going awry, what could possibly possibly go right?
My guest today is Christina Baldwin. Christina is an eloquent and witty speaker and educator who integrates the spiritual journey and the practical path in her retreats and workshops. She has taught nationally and internationally since the mid 1970s and has contributed classic books to the emerging body of knowledge around personal writing, group process and spirituality.
Her first work One to One: Self Understanding Through Journal Writing, is a pioneering text that has remained in a continuous print for a quarter of a century. It’s sequel, Life’s Companion, Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest extended the art of journal writing into a spiritual practice. In the early 1990s, Christina began developing a group process methodology that led to the concepts presented in her groundbreaking work Calling the Circle, the First and Future Culture.
I invited Christina to join us for What Could Possibly Go Right? because she is such a wise guide at finding and telling our stories. Our stories, our search for meaning are as important as electric cars or renewable energy for all of us making it through these challenging times together. Now here’s Christina.
Welcome Christina Baldwin to What Could Possibly Go Right? We met over two decades ago, and I have admired and learned from you ever since. I love your skill in holding space for complex conversations, and your stories, and the book that you wrote about story, and how you comport yourself in our community here on Whidbey Island, a shared gathering place of the Coast Salish people.
You are free to take our question “What could possibly go right?” anywhere you want. But I still want to mention your storytelling skills, and what I believe is your sense that stories literally matter. They proceed and inform the materiality of our lives. They drive our politics, they frame our emotions, they open or close possibilities.
So here we are. I want to ask you my cultural scout question of, what do you see now emerging in this time of war and pandemic, of Bezos going to space and half the world impoverished? Where do you see – for want of a better word – glimmers of hope, of new possibilities entering the places that seemed to be breaking under the weight of our colonial systems?
So that’s a whole bunch of ideas that you can freely ignore. But with all of that, Christina, I invite you to speak to our question, which is: In the midst of all of this of all that seems to be going awry, What could possibly go right?
Thank you. Thank you for asking and for getting back to the essence of the question. I’m going to respond to it with, what could possibly go W. R. I. T. E.? What could possibly go “write”? Because when I look back on my life, someone asked me the other day, what do you think is the most significant decision you ever made? What came to my mind immediately is deciding to start keep a journal when I was 14 years old in 1960.
At that time in the United States, every eighth grader read the Diary of Anne Frank and I had this huge identification with her to the point where I started my very first diary, which being slightly dyslexic, I spelled it Dear Dairy; confessing and sobbing, as you have probably guessed by now, Anne Frank is dead. I just had this outpouring of connection to that girl.
But as I have grown and matured in these years, what I realized is it’s a connection to the need for story to survive. How do we do that? For most of human history, we had elders who spoke story to youngers that still happens in our modern world, but in a much more chaotic and disorganized way than in the aeons that we sat at the fire and the grandparents said, here’s what you need to know, to be a human being.
So what I did at age 14 is I took that, and I decided I would ask myself, What do I need to know to be a human being? And what do I need to know to be a girl, to be a woman, to be an American, to be growing up at a time in the Cold War when we’re practising putting our heads under the desk and at the top of the classroom, it says: “Do not look at the atomic bomb”? Okay, got that.
So there’s a way that I took the need for capturing story about our humanness and ate it, and began writing to myself. I’m still doing it all these years later. That journal writing form has mentored and mentored and mentored. When you talked to me the other day about being a cultural scout, I thought, journal writing has never completely gone away. But it was not in this full out renaissance that we’re still in now, and that when I wrote my first book, One to One: Self Understanding Through Journal Writing in 1977, there was no category for the Library of Congress; they had to create one.
So I think that’s kind of scouting. When I realized I was onto something, and it’s like every single decade of my life, I’ve gone and now I understand this, about story. And look, Oh my God, look what’s happening with the internet and blogging and online this and that, and podcasts.
And what could go right? Well, everybody’s writing. So that’s where I stand, is kind of in the fire of story, both in its oral form and in this archiving that is coming out of the voice of ordinary people. Now with the cell phone and this videoing of cultural moments, we are dependent actually on the journalism of people who are running in Ukraine or watching George Floyd be murdered. Everybody’s a journalist now, everybody has this capacity to see and mount and explain raw life experience and put it out there for greater insight and understanding. We misuse that horribly, but we also are using it brilliantly. Both are true.
Wow, you laid out so much. You were mentioning this renaissance, or whatever you call it. We’re all storytellers. We’re all journalists. We’ve all always observed life, and made some sense of it. But it’s this public sense making, through recording stories and telling stories like them, it seems like it’s part of the transformation, the transition, even the endurance of what we’re going through
So I’m thinking about The Moth and This American Life. I am even thinking about improvizational theater, which is what I used to do. And what you learn is that a lot of it, you’re revealing choice making. You’re revealing how people make choices. That is a way, it’s sort of like the old fire with the elders, the deer came through and the choice we made and the choices people make. I think you’re pointing to something super important.
One thing that comes to me is that, because I’m studying now with a woman named Anne Randolph, and she’s a storyteller. She’s a one woman show storyteller. We talked about the hero’s journey as one story model, but not all stories fit into that. I’d love to hear you reflect on, it’s almost like the hero’s journey is this heroic story that’s really congruent with the American psyche; “and then we prevailed”. So we talk about forms of stories, and stories that move you, and stories that heal, whether it’s an individual healing themselves through journaling or storytelling. Talk about that.
Well, I think that there’s more of a cyclic nature to many stories, especially to the healing story. So let’s say that you have a catalyst, or a wounding that behaves like a dark bubble. I mean, we can have bubbles of light that change our whole life. But most people, when they have to cycle around and around in a live event, it’s more trauma related than otherwise.
So you have this dark bubble, and the first thing you do is you make a survivor story. You live through it, and you begin blabbing about, Oh, my God, look what just happened to me, and it’s very disorganized, but through the telling of it, whether it’s oral or written, it begins to organize itself. And you have the survivor’s tale, and the survivor’s tale is often very dramatic. Sometimes if the event itself doesn’t seem dramatic enough, people add drama and it’s like it gets bigger, the fish gets bigger, and the storm gets worse and all of that kind of thing.
So you have that survivor’s tale, and culturally, that’s where we focus. So the blips that show up in social media, the things that make the news, all of that is this spinning of the survivor’s tale. But that’s flat, and what needs to happen then is, down you come into this kind of molten exploration of meaning. Why have I lived through this? How do I live through it? What is the impact in how this veered my journey another way? Now, who am I? So that you get this kind of molten, and this is what I call the integration story.
Most people if they’re writing, either privately in their journals or writing for publication, they’re in the integration process. They’re in this sorting and sorting and sorting and sorting. What comes out of that eventually, because we keep coming around and bumping into our dark little bubble is, Oh, I see there is an almost ecstatic awareness of insight. So that down the road, what first may have been horrific, people look back and say, “I would not trade this now”.
In my work for over 30 years, I’ve taught a memoir class called the Self as the Source of the Story. I have coached people through this process hundreds and hundreds of times. We always talk about this spiralling effect of the story. The reason I’m focusing on it now is that we are collectively going through this spiral, and the survivors tale, in all of its kind of bravado, is where still a lot of the attention is focused.
But where this transformation is happening is in the integration factor. You’re also developing now, a group of people who have done enough of their work, that there’s an insight layer in the collective voice, that is holding transformation. So you have a movement from the cultural scout and the pioneer, to this foundational element of guardianship, eldership. They don’t have to be old, right? I mean, we have some very profound young people. But it is this kind of guardianship of comprehension and insight. To me, that’s very exciting.
There’s something that’s happening in the DNA of the species as a result of this. So people are accessing it more quickly. They’re accessing it through different media. I have a student coming to work with me later this spring, who says, “But English isn’t my first language. I worry about whether or not my grammar is always correct, or…” and I said, “Let’s jump out of the box, and now throw it out there, throw it out there in all the languages you speak. You love to be an artist, let’s put art on the page. Let’s play with this. What you’re writing is a story for younger people, so let’s reach into the media for younger people and not think it has to be 120 pages of little black lines.”
So I think right now, it’s very exciting how people are accessing insight. The search people are on for new new leaders, but not leaders in kind of even the old style of the 1990s, but kind of people who hold space, who understand how to be present without being egotistical.
I mean, there is a magical alchemy. We need ego, I am me, you are you. But that just gets in the way, unless we also have something that we go: This comes through me. I am now flapping my lips, but it’s not me. It’s the message, the message that says, say this next. People who can really stand in the spiritual pillar of say this next, offer this next, contribute this next, those are the folks who really have done the work. They know what to do, right?
As you were speaking, the other image that came to mind is that, you’re well known for circle process and your pure spirit work. Through all of the social media and all the video documentation, there is a sense that we’re learning collectively by absorbing this, all these stories that we don’t know. Like the young woman who filmed the murder of George Floyd, she had no idea that what she was doing was the key.
So there’s something about, that we are now in some way through this medium, a global circle of storytellers, speaking and listening. Enough ego to whip out the phone and do it, but not so much ego as to promote yourself. And it’s true in circle process that you never know, where the true note, where on the circle that’s going to come from.
So we have to learn to recognize and fall silent in the face of a statement that is embodying the truth, the collective truth. So that’s exciting, too; through all of this trauma, if you will, of what we’re living through, and we don’t know how the story turns out. You sort of presume, Oh well, we’re going to be safe, but we don’t know. I mean, we’re in the middle of a ginormous transition, which is something we pray it’s not too authoritarian, but we can’t be certain.
Yeah. And even if it is, that doesn’t stop the private nature of this cycle. I mean, Jesus was born in the middle of the Roman Empire; it was not a supportive time for wandering Jewish mystics. But he deposited a message that still thrives, and so have millions of other people deposited messages that continued to thrive, whether underground or on top of the ground. We hear these stories like Mozart’s body being thrown into the pauper’s grave, and his life a failure in the moment. Then here, we are still humming his tunes.
So I keep telling myself, do what is mine to do; the rest of it’s none of my business. That I am in this huge field, and my job is to make my contribution, to hold what I feel fierce about in terms of moral code and ethics and story and all of those things – and then trust, because I’m not going to live to see the end of this story. None of us do. We’re just a little word on a page, and then it’s gone. Right?
When I wrote my book Story Catcher, at the end of every chapter, I wanted to leave an evocative question. I don’t even remember which chapter it was, but I wrote down, what do you leave in the earth for the future to find? That is a question that I have carried and worked with, and it haunts me, and I offer it out over and over and over again.
Get conscious. What do you leave in the earth for the future to find? Because a lot of what we truly understand about the past was accidentally deposited. Now here’s a piece of pottery made by some woman or man in the Mayan era. And wow, look at this! And we don’t know what that is, but it teaches us, it informs us, it gives us a scrap of wisdom and knowledge from the deep past. So I just look at, what am I leaving? Where can I deposit it? How best to do that?
Right now, we’re depositing so much stuff into the internet, but the internet is actually nothing but electrical impulses. So how else might we deposit that? Papyrus survives, paper survives, wood survived. I have this little scheme that I haven’t played out yet, but maybe you or someone listening to this can get this going, is the idea is to get a cemetery plot with a really good casket, one of those things where you never dissolve, fill it with the best books, the things that you have really studied and loved in the course of your life, and then bury it. The grave stone says, Here Liza Book. And it will become a code that “Liza Book” means that underneath here, that one’s full of books. L I Z A, Liza book.
I don’t know. I mean, Joanna Macy talked about how we safeguard the nuclear waste dumps and could you develop a symbol that would speak out 1000 years from now when people may not even speak English that just says, Don’t touch this.
You can go just about anywhere with with it. I was encouraging little kids 10 years ago to take something they really loved, that they were willing to hide, write a little story about what they loved about it and go hide it. Well, like where? I said, Well, like, in the walls of your house or your basement or where would you put this? Great fun. I mean, when I built a house 30 years ago, before the carpeting went down, I wrote blessings on all of the under board. I don’t know what’s happened to that, but somebody will find that.
There’s something that comes to mind about: So your lives will be a blessing to the Earth. It’s something about blessing. And the blessing is not just, “Well, bless your heart”; in other words, Screw you. But blessing really is an activity. There’s another piece which is it’s maybe not physicality but your words right now are depositing in my mind, and they are growing, they’re transforming. So, when you think, Oh, I’m just a little person, it doesn’t make any difference. You do not know. The quality of your words, the quality of your story – not to get anxious about it has to be perfect – but that attitude of my life is a blessing for a future I cannot see and will never know.
I want to pick up this idea of my life has a blessing, and to kind of denude that word from any particular theology. But to go back to say it’s a gesture of good intent. It’s a gesture of love, of appropriate kind of love. Like you were saying, “Bless your little heart”; that can be almost maybe not so much love. But it is to go back and say, blessing life. Bless the food. You did this beautiful book on Bless The Hands that Feed you. That’s what I mean by it’s an extension of the gesture of the heart.
Right now, when I’m eating and walking around in the peacefulness of where I live and enjoying the beauty, I raised the shades in the morning, and I send blessings to Ukraine and to Afghanistan. There are 22 countries in war right now. I stand there and I just say, Take this. It is very biblical; it’s like, eat, drink. This is my piece, I reach out my piece for you. My prayer is that somewhere on the other side of the world, or down the street, wherever there is need and suffering, that someone feels just this little ping of, I’m going to be okay.
When you say what could possibly go right, if we establish a subculture of blessing each other, instead of judgmentalism, of pulling back from this chaotic anger that is so sparky right now; road rage and open carry gun laws in the US and other ridiculousness, right? If we just start blessing one another, not in some unctuous way, maybe not even verbally, but to look at a stranger with softened eyes and softened heart. That doesn’t require that you’re anybody other than willing.
Yeah, it’s sounds so squishy, but it is bringing love into the affairs of the world. It is bringing your heart to the party or to the meeting. Something I want to mention is that when I had cancer, the story I found that saw me through was the Inanna story. When people talk about the hero’s journey, I think, Nah. I didn’t do that when I cancer. I did the sort of stripping away of the Golden Girl. I just went down and down and down through all of my metals and all of my self-concept.
That idea with Inanna just being a hunk of meat on a hook, and the thing that got her out were these little gnats; I think they were called the villi. They come in and they give empathy to Ereshkigal, however you pronounce it. They give empathy to the suffering part of the self, who has drawn the glorious part of the self down into the underworld, because you’re incomplete without it. Once Ereshkigal felt that she was finally seen, she would grant Inanna a womb.
That’s a story of inner transformation. I just think there’s other forms like Truth and Reconciliation is a story. It’s a story of healing. It’s a story of, we can’t fix it but if we can tell the truth about it, we can settle our souls. So I really love the direction that you’ve taken with this conversation. Just really, really love it.
At one point, you use the word squishy when we were talking about blessing. I go, let’s get squishy, because the other thing isn’t working. That’s where circle and story intersect is that the circle allows us to sit down and be in heart space with one another, and to bear witness without being able to fix, bear witness without being able to change, but to listen. And to withstand means to stand with.
So I tried to bring my squishiness and also my fierceness to conversations with people where I disagree, and where I just need to listen, need to figure out, need to discover what is one thread of commonality maybe we have in common.
I thank you for this, Christina. We could go on and on. I hope people will discover your work and your books, and pursue this trail, these little breadcrumbs of bringing love into the affairs of the world and bringing blessing and withstanding and standing with all of the things you’ve said. It’s super important. Superduper important. So thank you so much.
The other internet is this invisible web that we are creating. It takes the web to create the inspiration to do this.
Exactly. Thank you.