The Herstory of “Oak Womyn Drumming”

"Oak Womyn Drumming" came into existence after a sequence of events with profound feminist implications. First, there was a minute on reproductive freedom, followed by a women’s meeting for worship—which was met with some resistance; then along came a drum maker, and the beat goes on in a circle of healing.

Women’s Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting had been preparing for some time for the presentation of the "Minute on Reproductive Freedom" to the Annual Sessions in March of 1991. As the committee met over several months, it became clear that we were being led to share our own personal stories as we went before the gathered body. We shared with each other first, supporting one another. In that process I gained healing and courage, qualities I hoped to make available to those gathered at Yearly Meeting, as I told my story.

During this discernment process, I gained clarity that I was to speak of my own experience of having had an illegal abortion in 1966. At the time, there was not a legal option available where I lived. A few days after the abortion, I developed an infection and almost died. I would speak before Yearly Meeting of my feelings of powerlessness, aloneness, and humiliation, especially the humiliation incurred from hospital staff and police.

In anticipation of the difficult task of telling my story, I asked some women in my home meeting to sit with me. We started a Women’s Meeting for Worship. We followed the format of Women’s Traveling Meeting of PYM, that of having a period of worship, then a time for sharing.

I was a member of my monthly meeting’s Worship and Ministry Committee. At a regular gathering of that committee, I explained my need for support, and asked if they would consider taking Women’s Meeting for Worship under their care. A lone, loud "No!" was heard. There was no further comment or discussion of the request at that time.

Women’s Meeting for Worship continued without the monthly meeting’s support. Several of the women came to PYM Annual Sessions and sat on the first bench to support me and other women of PYM Women’s Committee who were also sharing their stories. One dear friend even stood with me as I spoke before approximately 500 Friends.

After our presentation of the minute, there was heart-felt sharing from the larger body as well. As individuals spoke, each was being held in the Light by the whole body. Deep healing took place as Friends with differing views told of their own experiences. There was not unity with the minute, but the clerk urged monthly meetings "to respect the weight of our considerations and not to let this issue further languish."

Afterward, women came to me individually to speak of their own experiences. Some said they had never been able to share their ordeal with anyone before. It was a powerful lesson for me that it is the process that is important. We can help to create an atmosphere in which healing is available to all who wish to participate.

Our local Women’s Meeting for Worship continued to meet. A member of Worship and Ministry Committee subsequently asked me if Women’s Meeting for Worship would like the committee to reconsider our request to be under their care. At our next Women’s Meeting for Worship, I presented the offer to the women. One of the women said, "We do not want to be under anyone anymore!" There was a sense among the women that, indeed, we wanted to maintain our independence.

We continued to meet.

I was approached by some men in the meeting who did not think it was Quakerly to be exclusive. I shared with them the history of Women’s Meetings from the early days of Quakerism and the critical role they played in the survival of early Friends by caring for those in prison, caring for the children of those in prison, and nurturing vital communications.

We continued to meet.

Then an itinerant drum maker came to our area. She stayed with me and we prayed over wooden hoops and soaking cow skins. Twelve women gathered the next day at the meeting house. We spent time alone with our hoops, meditating, listening to the Spirit. Then we chose our skins, and with wonderful instruction, dyed them, and stretched them over our hoops. It was a Spirit-led process. After a day of drying, we had sacred frame drums. I still use mine in my healing work.

Because of their sacred nature, these drums found their way to the Women’s Meeting for Worship. The meetings which most often had been silent, now moved to the heart beat of the Great Mother. "Oak Womyn Drumming" was born. It has evolved into a spiritual place that is safe for deep healing to happen through drumming, singing, chanting, sharing, and hands-on healing.

How do we, as women, respond to adversity? Quaker women through the ages provide great models for us. They teach us that we can move beyond the paralysis engendered by internalized oppression if we have courage, support each other, and listen to Spirit. Being open to Spirit is the key to continuing revelation. If we focus on an outcome, we may miss the gifts of the process. If Women’s Meeting for Worship had been taken under the care of Worship and Ministry Committee, "Oak Womyn Drumming" may never have been born.

The name, "Oak Womyn Drumming," did not actually come about until later. We were invited to perform at Delaware Art Museum and felt that we should have a name. We chose the word, "womyn," because it is not defined by a reference to "men." Then, inspired by the Penn oak at our meeting, we came up with a name that seemed to embody the grounded power that we sought. When we sometimes gather under the giant white oak, we are always moved by the gentle, but overwhelming, strength of her presence.

Now most of the women and girls who attend the circle have African drums, djembes, or ashikos. There are shakers and other rhythm instruments available as well. The evening begins with free-form drumming for as long as Spirit leads. This may last from 10 to 20 minutes. It is interesting to observe how it foreshadows the state of being of the individuals in the group, some nights, slow and quiet, other times, energetic. The drumming will usually build, crescendo, then calm, and eventually fade into an extended silence.

My observations as a healer support the theory that drumming helps to open the chakras—the energy centers of the body—especially the root and throat chakras, which are often closed in women. Furthermore, rattles can break up areas in the aura that are congested, thus enabling the energy to flow more easily which facilitates healing.

Usually we have a theme at our circles, frequently based on the seasons: equinox for balance, solstice for light or darkness, cross quarter holidays, perhaps astrological or astronomical events, women’s health issues, or whatever idea seems to be important for us, which often is "transition." Recently our theme was syzygy—the alignment of the sun, moon, and earth, either in a solar or lunar eclipse—and how the gravitational pull affects us.

Drum rhythms, songs, poems, readings, musings, and other artistic expressions arise out of the silence, as Spirit leads the participants.

We operate on "woman time." You come when you can and leave when you must. Some women come from work. Some women bring young children and need to leave early.

When it feels that we are all present, we go around the circle in worshipsharing mode. As one of our members said, "In telling our stories, the personal becomes the universal and the universal becomes the personal." Women and girls feel safe in the circle. As we share our spiritual journeys, we indeed are all "One in the Spirit." In the telling, the burden is lifted as one is held in the Light by loving sisters in sacred space. There are often tears, but also much laughter. The bitter and the sweet are acknowledged and honored as we each continue on the path to wholeness. Having the experience of safety in the circle helps to build trust. This trust allows for a more authentic expression of the true self. Authenticity in all areas of our lives hopefully follows, empowering not only us, but also those whose lives we touch.

Girls are equal in the circle and their contributions are greatly valued. Often their experiences provide healing opportunities for the rest of us. This is most especially true when we celebrate the entry of a girl into womanhood. At these times, we honor the girl with gifts and songs like, "We are the old women; we are the new women; we are the same women, stronger than before." Most of the women in the circle are Quaker, from various meetings, but it is also an interfaith gathering. Over the years, we have been blessed to have women join us from various traditions, such as Native American, Wiccan, Buddhist, and Sufi, as well as from several Christian churches. The circle has also served as a form of outreach for the meeting.

In the circle, we affirm abundance with our "Goddess Giveaway." Each participant is encouraged to bring a gift to share, perhaps something from nature: a stone, a feather, vegetables from the garden, or maybe an item of ones own that is ready to move on: a piece of jewelry, a book, or a CD. The youngest gets to pick first. She then carries the tray around for others to choose a gift. It is a joy to give something that one considers special, and the girls are eager participants.

Towards the close of the evening, those in need are invited to sit in the center of the circle. We have several sacred instruments, mostly Tibetan, like singing bowls, bells and gongs. Playing these as we encircle the individual creates a temple of sacred sound, which refines the energy and leads to even deeper healing. This is often also accompanied by Reiki hands-on healing.

We close, standing in a circle, singing. We affirm that the energy of the circle, as an expression of Spirit, is always available to us.

We are grateful that it is so.

Brenda Armstrong Macaluso

Brenda Armstrong Macaluso, a member of London Grove (Pa.) Meeting, is a graduate of School of the Spirit Ministry "On Being a Spiritual Nurturer," and has been doing healing work for over 30 years.