I am writing from the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve come here with my family of origin – my three siblings, their spouses, and all of our children. I’m currently sitting on the patio of the large house we rented, just feet away from the pool. I can hear the waves crashing on the shore on the other side of the fence.
Three years ago, Christmas, for our family, was a painful time. We’d lost Mom only a month before and we were all raw and wounded and the festivities all around us were like slaps in the face every time we left the house.
We’re less raw this year, but the grief is never fully gone.
After Mom died, we decided to use the small inheritance that was left, after all of the expenses were paid, for a family vacation. We started dreaming of a week in the sun together… and then we got walloped all over again when my oldest brother was diagnosed with cancer only six months after it took Mom.
The next sixteen months were again mixed with the same highs and lows we’d been through with Mom’s cancer. Sometimes we dared to hope Brad would survive, and sometimes we were almost certain he wouldn’t. In August of last year, when the cancer showed itself to have survived two surgeries and mutliple chemo treatments, the doctors said there was no longer any point in prolonging treatment. We tried to prepare ourselves for another loss. Expecting we would have him with us for no more than 3 months, the four siblings considered going on a smaller version of the family trip we’d imagined – just the four of us making one last attempt to have fun in an interesting location before our numbers shrunk.
But then, the pendulum swung back in the other direction. The doctors decided it was worth making one more attempt at saving his life, so they cut him open again, extracted more cancer, and hoped for the best. That was shortly before last Christmas. We spent that season in subdued hope that he would stay with us and that we’d have more holiday seasons together. His energy was low, and he couldn’t travel, so the rest of us drove across the prairies to be with him instead of the other way around.
Over the course of the year, things continued to improve, and his remission continues. For now. Today is what we have, so today is what we will celebrate.
This week, we took that celebration to the shores of the Gulf. Three years after she died, we finally unwrapped Mom’s final gift.
On Christmas Day, the four of us spent all afternoon playing like children in the giant waves. Spouses and children joined us for awhile, but the four of us stayed in the water by far the longest. We relished every wave and held every burst of laughter like a sacred jewel. Some waves tossed us to the ground, some buried us and left us gasping for air, and some let us simply roll gently over the top. Long after we were so weary we could barely stand, we played and laughed, hanging onto every moment as though it were our last.
At one point, in a short lull between waves, one of us remarked that this moment represented all that was left of the tiny pittance of money mom and dad had left after all of their years of toiling on the farm. Farming was hard on all of us, and in the end it killed our dad, but it also gave us many incredible gifts, including this moment.
This trip has been both grace and gift in the middle of all of our shared grief.
And that is the way of life. We walk through grief and then we step into grace, over and over again. There are moments of profound loss, and moments of ache and betrayal, and then there are moments when we play for hours in the waves with three of our favourite people in the world.
Earlier this week, on a long solitary walk on the beach, I was contemplating what my word for 2016 would be. Unlike a resolution, I consider my word for the year like an invitation or intention – something that helps me stay open for my own longings and the gifts that come my way.
The word that came to me was OPEN.
I want to live 2016 with an open heart. I want to be open to the gifts, the grace, and the grief. I want to open myself to new relationships, new experiences, and new learning opportunities.
I want to stay open the way I felt out there on the waves – surrendering to whatever gift each one brought – riding those that were gentle, rising up again after those that were not, and always laughing and hanging onto to those people who matter.
Soon we will begin to return to our various homes. We may have another chance to play together like this, or we may not. Only God knows our future. But in the meantime, we have this moment, and in this moment I make a conscious choice to remain open.
Note: If you want to choose a word for 2016, or if you want to reflect on the gifts, grace, and grief that 2015 has brought your way, there are mandala exercises for that purpose in A Soulful Year: A mandala planner for ending one year and welcoming the next.
Also: Mandala Discovery starts on January 1st.
I am delighted to share with you the launch of a new website that I have been part of building in 2015. The Circle Way now has its own home on the web.
I first discovered The Circle Way fifteen years ago, when I was working as Director of Communication at a large federal lab. I’d been in leadership positions in the federal government for 5 years, and I was feeling burnt out, discouraged, and hungry for something new. I was sure there must be a better way of doing leadership than the toxic, disconnected, hierarchical patterns I was witnessing, but I didn’t have enough experience, knowledge, or confidence to trust my own intuitive sense. I went searching for a guide who would help me navigate my way.
When I stumbled on the website of Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, it was like someone had lit a candle in the darkness for me. They were the guides I’d been looking for.
I remember that moment, sitting in my lonely office perched at the top of a long ramp that separated the management team from the scientists in the lab. Discovering that there were people talking about exactly the kind of leadership and community-building that I had a vague sense about but didn’t yet know how to articulate was life-changing. My body trembled with a sense of awakening and calling that felt ancient and primal. I wasn’t just being called to something, I was being called back to something. I didn’t know how the circle would become part of my life, but I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that it would.
The path that finally led me to the rim of the circle was long and somewhat circuitous and often I wondered whether the calling I’d felt was true or just an apparition emerging out of my loneliness. After giving birth to my third and final daughter, I was so restless in a job that didn’t fit me that I could barely stand going to work each morning. It hurt to know that there was something better waiting for me but not know how I would get to that place.
I finally left the government a few years later and started working for a non-profit that worked internationally. I loved my work there and I learned a lot, but I still kept feeling like there was something missing. I took as many leadership and community-building courses as I could, and I talked to a lot of experts and teachers, but nothing helped me tap into the longing that I’d felt when I’d first discovered The Circle Way. To be honest, I still had such a vague sense of what it was and how much it would change my work that I never worked up the courage to ask for funding or time off to attend a training session.
I didn’t fully understand it, but I knew I wanted deeper relationships, more meaningful conversations, and more intentional collaboration and nothing else satisfied that craving.
In October 2010, I quit my non-profit job and launched my own business. Three weeks after leaving my job, and ten years after setting an intention to study with her, I traveled to Ontario to attend my first circle workshop with Christina Baldwin. It was as life-changing as I’d hoped it would be. The first thing I told Christina, in our opening circle, was that her words had lit a candle in the darkness for me ten years earlier. Her eyes filled with tears.
The workshop was so powerful for me that I felt like I was always either trembling or on the verge of tears. There’s something about satisfying a ten year longing (and an even more ancient ache) that can’t easily be put into words.
I came home from that workshop determined that I would become an ambassador of The Circle Way. I started incorporating it into everything I did. I held workshops and retreats in circle, I invited my university students to move their desks against the wall and join me in the circle, and I began to teach my online courses in virtual circles. Even in my coaching sessions, there are elements of the circle in the way I hold the space for people’s emergence.
The year after attending Christina’s workshop, I became part of Gather the Women, and I discovered how powerful it is to be part of a global network of circles. Last year, I invited a number of women in Winnipeg to join me in circle, and we’ve been meeting weekly ever since. This circle of women has become a lifeline for me.
In 2014, I had the pleasure of joining Christina and Ann and a circle of 25 other Circle Way practitioners in a 4 day gathering in which we worked to develop the framework for a new iteration of the work. After much discernment, Ann and Christina had decided that it was time to entrust the next generation of practitioners and teachers with this piece of their work. They prepared to step into their new role as elders and we prepared to pick up the torch and carry the light forward.
In May of 2015, Amanda Fenton and I joined Ann and Christina on Whidbey Island for three days of intense work. Together, we built the new website that would house this next generation of The Circle Way.
The work we did together was some of the most beautiful and meaningful collaborative work I’ve ever been part of, largely because it was done with such careful intention and such deep love. That was exactly what I’d been longing for years earlier when I’d felt so disconnected in my government position. The circle was not only what we were writing about and creating, it was the container for how we worked. Just as we do with any circle gathering, we started and ended each day with a check-in and check-out, we placed what was sacred to our gathering at the centre, and together we held the rim of the container that held our purpose. (And this, I believe, can become a container for the work done at any kind of business, non-profit, community organization, or government.)
It’s hard to express just how meaningful it was to work alongside my mentors for those three day and to be trusted as a partner with them in the work. This is what the circle does, though – it teaches us to honour each person on the rim as a leader and valuable contributor. It teaches us to speak with intention and listen with attention. In that circle, each of us was able to do our best work because we were being seen and heard, we were being trusted, and we were each taking responsibility for holding a shared purpose.
If you’re curious about The Circle Way, I invite you to start your own journey to the circle by exploring the new website. You’ll find lots of useful information and resources and you’ll also find learning opportunities and teachers/practitioners. While you’re there, sign up for the newsletter.
Though the details haven’t yet been worked out, I hope to work with some of my colleagues in offering a circle practicum in 2016. If you work for an organization or community group and would like to introduce The Circle Way as a new way of working, meeting, and being in conversation with each other, I’d be delighted to talk to you about what might be possible.
This week, at the invitation of my friend Doug, I attended a celebration of light, held in the sanctuary at a local hospital. It was a simple and beautiful ceremony, where people from several different spiritual traditions were invited to light their candles from the same source candle and then share a short piece about what light means in their tradition.
The Hindu person spoke about Diwali, the festival of lights, the Jewish person spoke about the lighting of the menorah, the Indigenous elder spoke about how they honour Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Moon, and so on. After all of the candles were lit, they passed the light around the room to all of us, each of us lighting another person’s small taper candle. We stood together with our candles lit, singing John Lennon’s Imagine.
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
The richness of the simple ceremony left me with my own imagining.
Imagine the light
Imagine a circle of peace, each of us with different beliefs bearing light for each other.
Imagine Muslims standing with Christians, Jews standing with Hindus – all of us standing together to bear light for those who would rather spread darkness.
Imagine all light coming from the same Source, with none of us owning it but all of us taking responsibility for passing it on.
Imagine all of us working every day to dispel the darkness for others.
Imagine never protecting our own light, but passing it freely to others, believing that their light does not diminish our own.
In the Northern Hemisphere, we will soon celebrate Winter Solstice, when the earth begins to tilt the other direction again and the light returns. Whether or not you are in this hemisphere, I invite you to consider how you wish to welcome light back into your life during this season.
How do you open yourself to Source to receive the light? How do you choose to live as a light-bearer? How do you pass your light on to others? How do you receive the light that others pass to you?
Your light doesn’t have to light the whole world – it simply has to light the space three feet around you. Pass it on to the next person and see how quickly the room fills with light.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” ― Martin Luther King Jr
There’s a piece of my story in this unfolding year that I have had a hard time writing about. I still don’t know quite what to say, but I also don’t want to pretend that it’s not going on or that I’m trying to keep it a secret.
This summer, my twenty-two year marriage unraveled and my husband and I are now separated.
That’s the simple version. The more complex version is the part that’s difficult to talk about, because it is not my story alone and I am determined never to write anything that might hurt anyone I care about. My husband, my daughters and I are all fumbling our way through this, trying not to hurt each other, trying to heal from past wounds, and trying to emerge stronger and wiser.
I share it, though, because sometimes people turn to me for expertise on what it means to hold space for people, and I don’t want to pretend that I have figured out everything there is to know about keeping relationships healthy. Like you, I falter sometimes, and I fail people, and I make decisions that might be hard for people to understand. I am still very much on a learning journey.
Early this year, after I wrote the post that went viral, about what it means to hold space for other people, what became more and more clear to me was something I’d woken up to about five years earlier. My husband and I no longer knew how to hold space for each other. We’ve tried and tried, but repeatedly we’ve failed. For my part, I spent too much time judging him and thinking I needed to rescue or fix him, and for his part, he no longer understood me and had no idea how to support the kind of work I was doing or the changes I was undergoing as a result.
For a long time, I tried to tell myself that it didn’t matter that we were in such different places – that I was in this marriage for the long haul and that my daughters were better off with us together – but I could only fool myself for so long. We were hurting each other in our failure, and, after repeated attempts at marriage counselling, it finally became clear to me that we were not doing our daughters any favours by staying in this broken place.
There is much that remains unresolved in this story and I continue to learn from it as I navigate this new path. I stumble sometimes, and then I fall into grace and am given a hand up to get back up on my feet again.
And that is where I will leave this story, in an unresolved place where there is still healing to be done and forgiveness to be offered. I am learning, despite much impatience and struggle, to stay in the unresolved places until what’s meant to emerge can find its own way and time to unfold.
When we see brokenness, our tendency (based in a childish desire for the world to be clean and orderly, black and white) is to rush in to fix it, to find a solution, and to put it back the way it once was. But the invitation of a deepening spirituality is to allow it to remain unresolved, to ask ourselves why we are uncomfortable with it being unresolved, and to consider that perhaps something new wants to grow in its own sweet time without the limitations of “the way things used to be”.
As a writer and teacher, I feel pressure sometimes, on my blog and on social media, to only share a story when it has a complete ending. If I share it when it is still in the unresolved stage, too many people will rush in with advice, solutions, or judgement, responding to their own need to see it fixed in a way that makes sense to them, and then I will feel defeated, inadequate, and not fully heard.
What I most value (and this is why I spend so much time in circles) is to be heard, to be valued, and to be supported in whatever stage of the messiness I am in. This, I believe, is what all of us truly want. Because the best path out of the messiness is rarely the quick fix that first rushes to mind.
I invite you then, to pause for a moment before you respond to my unresolved story or anyone else’s. In your pausing, listen first for what that person most wants from you. And then listen for what is unresolved in your own life that might make someone else’s messy story feel uncomfortable. Because when we sit in the messiness together, we grow truly beautiful and lasting things. That’s what it means to hold space for each other.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rilke
Thank you for holding space for me in my unresolved place.
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A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of finding your tribe – people who love you just the way you are and who cheer you on as you do courageous things.
Tribe-building is important and valuable, but it only takes you part way down the path to an openhearted life.
This week, I’ve been contemplating what we should do with the people outside of our tribes.
It’s cozy and warm inside a tribe, and the people are supportive and non-threatening, so it’s tempting to simply hide there and close off from the rest of the world. When you’re hurting, that might be the right thing to do for awhile – to protect yourself until you have healed enough to step outside of the circle.
But the problem with staying there too long is that it creates a world of “us and them”. When you stay too close to your own tribe, it becomes easier and easier to justify your own choices and opinions and more and more difficult to understand people who think differently from you. Before long, you’ve become suspicious of everyone outside of your tribe, and when their actions threaten your way of life, you do whatever it takes to protect yourself. Fear breeds in a closed-off life.
Last week, I knew it was time to challenge myself to step outside my tribe. I’d been playing it safe too much lately, so when I saw a Facebook posting for an open house at the local mosque, I decided that was a good place to start. I shared the information with friends, but chose not to bring anyone with me. Bringing friends with me into unfamiliar territory makes me less open to conversations with people who are different from me and I didn’t want that – I wanted to go in with an open, unguarded heart. That’s one of the reasons I’ve learned to love solo traveling – it’s scary at first, but it opens me to a whole world of new opportunities and friendships that don’t happen as naturally when I’m hiding behind the safety of a group.
I have traveled in predominately Muslim parts of the world and have always been warmly received, so I knew that the open house would be a pleasant experience. It turned out to be even more pleasant than I’d expected.
First there was Mariam, a young university student who served as tour guide to me and a small group of strangers. Mariam’s easy smile and warm personality made us all feel instantly comfortable. She lead us through the gym to the prayer room and told us why she’s happy that the women pray in a separate area from the men. “I want to be close to God when I pray, not distracted by who might be looking at me or bumping into me.” Before the tour was over, Mariam hugged me twice and I felt like I’d made a new friend.
Then there was the grinning young man at the table by the sign that read “your name in Arabic”. His name now escapes me, but I can tell you he never stopped smiling through our whole conversation and was one of the friendliest young men I’ve met in a long time. He told me, while he wrote my name, that he’d learned some of his Arabic from cartoons. Growing up in Ontario, he’d preferred Arabic cartoons to Barney or Sesame Street.
At the “free henna” table, I met Saadia, who moved here from Pakistan three years ago because she and her husband wanted to give their children a better chance at a good education. Her husband is a doctor who’s still trying to cross all of the hurdles that will allow him to practice in Canada. Before our conversation was over, Saadia had given me her phone number in case I ever want to invite her to my home to give me and my friends hennas.
What struck me, as I left the mosque, was how much grace and courage it takes, when your people have become the object of racism, fear, and oppression, to open your hearts, homes, and gathering places to strangers. Instead of hiding within the safety of their own tribe and justifying their need for protection and safety from others, the local Muslim community threw their doors and hearts open wide and said “let’s be friends. We are not afraid of you – please don’t be afraid of us.”
I experienced the same grace and courage among the Indigenous people of our community last Spring after we were named the “most racist city in Canada”. Instead of retreating into the safety of their tribes, they welcomed many of us into openhearted healing circles. Instead of being angry, they taught us that reconciliation starts with forgiveness and the courage to risk friendships across tribal lines.
I will be forever grateful to Rosanna, who invited me to co-host a series of meaningful conversations with her, to Leonard who handed me a drum and welcomed me to play in honour of Mother Earth’s heartbeat, to Gramma Shingoose who gave me a stone shaped like a heart and shared the story of her healing journey after a childhood in residential school, to Brian who welcomed me into the sweat lodge, and to many others who opened their hearts and reached across the artificial divide between Indigenous and settler.
The more I’ve had the privilege of building friendships with openhearted people whose world looks different from mine, the bigger, more beautiful, and less fearful my life has become.
This week, I’ve read Gloria Steinem’s memoir, My Life on The Road and there is so much in it that resonates with the way I choose to live my life. It’s a beautiful reflection of how her life has been changed by the people she has encountered while on the road. “Taking to the road – by which I mean letting the road take you – changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories – in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. It’s right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present.”
Another quote speaks to how much broader her thinking has become because of her encounters on the road. “What we’ve been told about this country is way too limited by generalities, sound bites, and even the supposedly enlightened idea that there are two sides to every question. In fact, many questions have three or seven or a dozen sides. Sometimes I think the only real division into two is between people who divide everything into two and those who don’t.”
We don’t have to spend as much time traveling as Gloria Steinem does in order to live this way – we simply have to open our hearts to the people and experiences in our own communities that have the potential to stretch and change us and lead us past a life with only two sides. Sometimes a conversation with the next door neighbour is enough to help us see the world through more open eyes.
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