Safe Houses: Our True Wealth
by Carolyn Brigit Flynn
This essay is an updated version of the Afterword to Sisters Singing: Blessings, Prayers, Art, Song, Poetry and Sacred Stories by Women.
They are in cities, towns, villages, on mountains, and near rivers. They are small townhouses and large lodges, modest apartments with soft rugs and sacred paintings, or condos with swimming pools and hot tubs. They are log cabins in the woods, rustic cottages on the beach, tall urban skyscrapers. They are modern-day safe houses, and they can be found in suburbs, cities, farmlands, countryside, deserts and forests everywhere on the planet.
Together, they form an interlinking pathway of sanctuary, meaning, hope and healing. Each safe house exists within the Earth’s spirit. Each offers space for our love and grief, for truth-telling, and for the sacred to unfold. Each honors the privilege of being one among many on our planet of rivers, mountains, deserts, and endlessly diverse animals and creatures. Each carries our individual and collective stories. Lives are mended there, and hearts given peace. Safe houses welcome all religious traditions and require none, and honor all forms of creativity and healing. Here, women with kind eyes and strong hearts midwife souls. Men of gentle being and wise spirit gather others in sacred community. When we visit these places, we feel we have re-entered the web of existence. We have mended our part of the whole.
This interlinking pathway of safe houses has woven itself into a worldwide wisdom body, though each part has no full knowledge of the whole. This is the essence of its brilliance, and its generative wealth. There is no village without one, though these places are often not apparent. Safe houses have few signs, are generally not churches or temples, print few brochures, do not proselytize. Yet pilgrims find their way to these houses. We learn of them through word of mouth, friends, colleagues, community events, farmer’s markets, social media and the internet, and every other way humans spread the word. We will continue to find them, and to gather.
Safe houses have a long and venerable past as safe places for survivors of domestic violence, escaped slaves during the Underground Railroad, Jews during the Holocaust, and for refugees of all kinds throughout history. Now we face something we have never faced before—environmental planetary breakdown—and all humans are in need of a safe house. We all need a collective place to speak and be witnessed, to be offered understanding, healing, deep conversation, connection, a place to be sheltered.
Historically, informal gathering places for healing, restoration, teaching and political action have always existed, and play a vital role in times of deep change. When economic and political systems collapse, personal connections and private gatherings continue—often underneath or despite or in place of established institutions. I am thinking here of Ireland, and the ways in which my Irish ancestors, over centuries of colonization, famine and poverty, used their domestic spaces to pass on their language, music, storytelling, history and culture in cottages, hedge schools, fields and barns. There they offered learning for the mind and, equally important, sustenance for heart and soul. These spaces are a primary reason the Irish culture is so vibrant and alive today.
There is one safe house where for decades I have been taught and healed. Inevitably I arrive in need of clarity, in the swirl of daily work and activity; here the sacred reasserts itself and I am quieted and opened. At this safe house lives a medicine woman of wise mind and heart who midwives souls. After my time with her community, I stand more whole, once again able to love the world in all its gleaming beauty and tattered need. Then I return to my home on an ordinary street with lovely neighbors and a hidden creek, and I become the woman with the kind eyes and wild heart who welcomes others. My home, too, has become a safe house, part of the web.
At my safe house I offer creative writing circles in my living room. Over twenty years, the community of hundreds who have written with me and listened to each other’s work has become a lifeline to renewed meaning and hope. I see these kinds of informal spaces all around me, held by healers, teachers, writers, cooks, artists, ritual leaders and others who gather in circles devoted to movement, painting, political action, poetry, collage, study, singing, and more. They provide vital space to grieve the state of the earth, take tangible action, and become enlivened again.
There are many safe houses in the town where I live, and in the town where you live too. This is our true wealth: countless safe houses, truly millions, in an invisible, self-replicating web that encases the entire world. Some of those offering these safe houses I know, a few more I will someday meet, most I will never know. But we all exist within this web, woven within the spirit of the Earth.
Some of you may recognize yourselves. Perhaps there is a safe house where you go for healing, connection, meaning, conversation, creativity. Perhaps you have your own safe house or are on your way to creating one. You are a part of this web. Your safe house does not have to write a grant, establish a foundation, build a building or launch a website, though some may do any or all of these things. It simply needs to offer deep listening to people of all ethnicities, genders, and life experiences, and to provide care and protection to animals, trees, seeds, plants, rivers, forests, the sea. Together, those of us who are part of this web carry this sanctuary wherever we go. We offer it where we are. As writer and healer Deena Metzger once wrote, so too is the path of those offering a safe house: Be and provide sanctuary.
During our time of planetary and institutional breakdown, this worldwide network of independently arising safe houses form an underground web, a foundation from which we can build a future. The overpowering global structures hurtling us towards extinction can make us feel powerless. Offering a safe house, or participating in one, is active work that makes restoration possible. If you feel the call, find a safe house near you. Follow what you love: art, books, political action, philosophy, poetry, dance, yoga, meditation, or a thousand other reasons that people gather. Find a circle that offers true sanctuary for your heart and mind, and acknowledges the need for restoration for all beings and the Earth. And if you don’t find one, begin it yourself.
The network of safe houses will continue to expand as modern institutions unravel and can no longer sustain themselves. In our time of collapse and upheaval, humans everywhere are teaching ourselves how to live without the larger culture, for we have been and are creating our own. We have learned how to heal, how to tell the stories, how to hold and honor grief, how to carry beauty, how to love the Earth.
In our individual safe houses, as we each go about our work, we are being spun by the Earth herself into a shimmering web, gossamer, light, fragile yet tenacious, each of us a fine thread of the web. And like any web, when one part is lost or destroyed, we endlessly go about rebuilding and reweaving. From this immeasurable wealth we can begin anew, in concert with all beings and with the guidance of the Earth herself.
When you walk into a safe house, you are warmly greeted. You feel you are part of the whole. Yes, this is the place, someone smiles at the door. Welcome.