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‘Tallgrass Circles’ delve into deep discussions

Former retreat leader brings people together

Created date

February 26th, 2013

When she was in her 60s, with some guidance from her minister, Carolyn Stiles realized she felt called to use her people skills and leadership talents in a new way. She had attended the University of Kansas and was trained in personnel administration. She spent some time at home when her children were younger, and then went on to start her own employment agency. But this newfound calling led her to attend the San Francisco Theological Seminary for three years, where she earned a diploma in spiritual direction. With that training, Carolyn went on to lead retreats and provide spiritual guidance for people in other forums. I enjoyed the leadership buzz, Carolyn says. I ve always liked to be in the middle of things. A few years ago, Carolyn moved to Tallgrass Creek, an Erickson Living community in Overland Park, Kans. In 2010, Carolyn and several of her neighbors attended an event called The Many Faces of God, at which they had deep discussions and formed strong bonds. After that event ended, someone said, Wouldn t it be nice if we could stay together like this as a group? Carolyn recalls.

Deeper than dinner table conversation

Because of her experience leading retreats and spiritual discussions from her past endeavors, Carolyn had just the solution to keep the group of newly bonded neighbors together. She suggested that the group of about seven ladies form a monthly discussion group. Carolyn suggested they use a book entitled Sacred Circles, which she says suggests thought-provoking discussion topics to facilitate their talks. Carolyn was familiar with the book and offered to organize the new women s discussion group. People were interested in being able to talk a little deeper than dinner table conversation, so they could get to know their neighbors a little better, Carolyn says. The group formed in 2010 and has met once a month since then. Each of the members takes a turn hosting the gathering in her Tallgrass Creek apartment home, and the hostess chooses that month s discussion topic. Over the years, they have talked about topics from their mothers to favorite books. They try to create an environment that will foster openness and honest sharing. For example, when the group discussed their mothers, each woman brought a photograph of her mother, and they talked about different aspects of their childhoods and the kind of relationship each woman had with her mother. Carolyn says another memorable discussion was one about beauty. At that meeting, all of the ladies agreed to come without any makeup on. We opened up and talked about what beauty really is to each of us as an individual, Carolyn says. There aren t many rules for the discussion, but Carolyn says the ladies pass around an object, and whoever is holding it is the only person who speaks at that time, to ensure everyone has an opportunity to be heard. Any topic is fair game for discussion except for religion and politics. While they don t talk about religion explicitly, Carolyn says they often delve into deep issues which are connected to the women s spiritual lives. You can t help but have a spiritual outcome when you discuss questions like these, Carolyn says. Naturally, the group has grown close as a result of two years worth of meaningful conversations. In addition to their monthly discussions, Carolyn says the ladies will periodically take day trips to nearby cultural attractions or go out for lunch to celebrate members birthdays. We do know a lot about each other, and we help one another out, Carolyn says. But we re not a clique.

Expanding horizons

Recently, it occurred to Carolyn that other Tallgrass Creek residents might be interested in being part of a close-knit discussion group, so she approached Resident Life Director Jill Cline about the idea. Carolyn and Cline advertised an informational session to present the idea to residents, who turned out in droves. We had 70 people at the presentation I made, Carolyn says. As a result of that presentation, the women have formed three new discussion groups. They will follow the same format as the group Carolyn formed two years ago. Collectively, the discussion groups have dubbed themselves Tallgrass Circles. Carolyn helps each of the new groups get off the ground, but then they re free to form their own identities and traditions. Sally Smith, who moved from Kansas City to Tallgrass Creek in 2011, is heading up one of the new discussion groups. Sally says she is friends with Carolyn and had been interested in joining the discussion group but didn t have the time last year. Now that she has some room in her schedule, she s excited to become better acquainted with some of her neighbors on a deeper level. Sally says she s formed a discussion group with several women whom she hasn t yet had the chance to get to know very well. I think it will be interesting to get to know other people who aren t my close friends, Sally says. We re a group of women who all live in the same place but are totally divergent. We re all different, and we cover all different kinds of backgrounds, from women who have lived on farms, to me who has lived internationally, to a woman who lived in New York and published a cookbook. Sally says her Tallgrass Circle has already tackled several interesting topics. Neighbor Norma Schonwetter, a cookbook author, led a discussion about food. The ladies talked about the role food played in their childhoods and their relationships with food as adults. Over the holidays, they shared stories about the different ways their families celebrate and swapped memories about favorite Christmases past. We lived in Latin America when my children were young, so we would go swimming on Christmas Day, Sally says. It s a very interesting group, she adds, and I look forward to getting to know everyone better.