Yesterday morning I was in an emotional tailspin. The night before, at the end of a long day of coaching clients, I made a couple of mistakes that were pointed out by people and it put me in a shame spiral. And then, partly because I was already fragile, another person’s actions annoyed me and I landed in an anger spiral that resulted in me saying some words I shouldn’t have.
I could just chalk this up to jet lag and excuse myself for it all by saying that I’m still adjusting to being home and that I jumped into client work too quickly after the intensity of facilitating three retreats and I should have known better than to interact with people who challenge me after a full day of coaching… but that would largely be me letting myself off the hook for bad behaviour. All of those things are true… but there’s also something else for me to consider in this. It’s what I tell my clients all of the time…
My discomfort will not kill me.
Making mistakes won’t kill me. Getting angry won’t kill me. Having to clean up from my mistakes won’t kill me. If anything, those things will make me a little more resilient and help me grow. And I am reminded, once again, that when I insist on self-care and periods of quiet and introspection after doing intense work far from home, it’s not only for my own good, but for the good of those impacted by my moods.
Today I’m not talking to any clients and I’m going to be gentle with myself. And I’m going to make retributions for some of the mistakes I made yesterday. And I’m choosing not to hide the shame bits because there is worthwhile learning in them.
I used to run from discomfort – try to numb myself from it in any way I could. Shut down the anger, eat away the shame, distract myself from the pain, lash out when I needed to blame someone other than me. I was too scared to look inside of it, too scared I’d see only ugliness in the shadows.
I still hide sometimes (hello Netflix, my favourite distraction) but I’m learning, gradually, to stay more present in it, breathe/pray/dance/journal my way through it, until it begins to crack open and I find the gems in the shadows. It takes less time to shift than it used to – I still got a reasonable night’s sleep the night before last, despite the places my spiralling brain wanted to take me. I will survive. I can see my own shadow now without letting it consume me.
Though I might not like it, discomfort is one of my greatest teachers. In fact, I’m not sure if I ever learn anything worthwhile without at least a little discomfort.
Discomfort became fairly central to one of my retreats last week. It’s usually at least somewhat present at all of my retreats (because I encourage people to stretch themselves), but at this one we had an opportunity to go deeper with it than usual.
The retreat was about holding space for others, and each of the retreat participants had been given an assignment that, on the fourth day of the retreat, they would practice holding space for the group. On Saturday, each person signed up for a 45 minute slot when they could host a conversation on a topic that mattered to them, teach us a movement/art/meditation practice that would help us hold space for ourselves, or find some other creative and meaningful way of helping us explore what it means to hold space.
Few people go on retreat and expect to do some of the hosting/teaching themselves, so there was, not surprisingly, some resistance and discomfort. Some handled it with humour, some shut down with anxiety, and some pushed back against me. None of it was offensive (they were genuinely good-hearted and emotionally mature people taking ownership of their own responses), but I could sense the work they needed to do in order to step forward into their own leadership.
I assigned this work not because I wanted the easy way out (ie. a day of no teaching), but because I knew that they would leave the retreat with more skills if they practiced what they were learning in a safe and supportive environment. And I knew, from personal experience, that working through their discomfort would be good for them in the end.
At the beginning of all of my retreats, I introduce participants to the concept of “brave space”. “While we will work together to make this space safe for everyone,” I say, “I prefer to talk about ‘brave spaces’ rather than safe ones. Sometimes, when we focus on safety, we’re actually focusing on comfort, and we don’t take risks or face challenges with bravery. While you are here, I want to encourage you to be brave, to have conversations that challenge you, to face the shadow in yourself when it shows up, to look after yourself in radical ways, and to dare to re-engage even when things get difficult.” (Note: click on the link above to learn more about where this concept emerged.)
I follow that up by saying “this is also a consent-based environment. While I will encourage your bravery, and may nudge you past comfort, I also promise to accept ‘no’ as an answer. You alone know what you can handle and I invite you to take responsibility for where your boundaries need to be and what you’re not willing to consent to.”
Thirdly, I say (in the words of my teacher, Christina Baldwin) that “in this space, we ask for what we need and offer what we can. That means we are each invited to honour our own needs, look after ourselves, and respond as well as we can to other people’s needs. We will practice reciprocity, step into our personal leadership, honour boundaries, and do our best to make this space both brave and safe for all of us.”
When I assigned the participants at this retreat the task of hosting a 45 minute segment of our Saturday, I encouraged them to step into brave space. “This is your chance to push past your comfort zone, to try something that might feel too risky at home where you’re surrounded by people who know you. In this environment, where people are committed to holding space for each other, dare to push through your discomfort to find your bravery.”
When Saturday arrived, the air was charged with a mixture of anticipation, excitement and fear. I knew it would be good, but of course I also had moments of doubt, wondering whether it might backfire. Would people hate it and hate me and leave the retreat with a bad taste in their mouths? Would we have enough energy to support nine people’s individual steps into courage? Would it be repetitive if too many sessions were similar? Would those with anxiety simply shut down and not be able to participate? How would I support them if they did?
You can probably guess how it all played out. The day was brilliant. People were courageous and supportive and creative and inspiring. We had nine very different sessions, each one of them keeping us engaged and inspired. We made art, we learned movement practice, we had an honest conversation about creating more inclusive space in women’s circles, we learned a beautiful Maori greeting (hongi), we practiced mindfulness, and we played. It was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time.
On Sunday morning, after the last session, I invited everyone to participate in a ritual to mark what had transpired. On a piece of paper, each person wrote down what they wanted to honour themselves for and what commitment they wanted to make to themselves for the future. They then carried the piece of paper into the labyrinth, and placed it on a cairn of stones at the centre. When they emerged from the labyrinth, I offered each one a personal blessing, reflecting on something I’d witnessed in them during the week, and then, if they chose, they could step over a line on the ground that marked the crossing of a threshold into whatever would come next.
Standing at the edge of the labyrinth was a beautiful experience. There was energy and excitement mixed with contemplation and some fear. There was commitment and resolve and courage and fierceness. There were tears and there was laughter. There was humanity and humility and hope. That labyrinth served as the container for the complexity of all human emotions, while I “held the rim”.
Rhonda, one of the retreat participants, later said this of the labyrinth experience… “I realized at that moment, at the center of the labyrinth, everything that I had always sought, chased, pursued, agonized to find and discover in my own life and purpose was already within. I just need to accept it. I felt God look at me with the biggest smile and say ‘It’s about time.’ It was a most defining moment. I feel like I am no longer living ‘from’ my history.”
Later that day, it was time for us all to depart. As I looked around the circle of women, I couldn’t help but notice the difference from just a few days earlier. These were courageous, strong women who were now a little more aware of their own courage and strength. They had worked through their discomfort, trusted each other to hold space for their fear, and emerged triumphant.
The good-byes from that retreat were different from what they often are at retreats. People were ready to go home. They were ready and excited to step into what was next. Unlike what often happens at the end of retreats, they didn’t seem to have the need to cling to the comfort and warmth of the circle that had held them. Though they valued the support of the group, they stepped away with a sense of self-reliance.
They had come as learners and they were leaving as leaders.
They had chosen not to let their discomfort keep them from finding their courage. I can hardly wait to see what they are capable of!
Today, while I consider what to do with the discomfort I faced a couple of days ago, I make a new resolve to step into courage because I have the memory of those women to inspire me.
Sign up for my six month Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program to learn more about what it means to hold space.
Seven years ago, sixteen women gathered at the edge of a lake in Ontario to learn The Circle Way with Christina Baldwin. I was one of those women, having longed for this opportunity for ten years, since I’d first read Calling the Circle: The First and Future Culture.
As is almost always the case when like-hearted women gather, our conversations quickly took us into deep and reverent places. It was the kind of nourishment I needed in that middle place I was in at the time – at the threshold of leaving full-time employment and launching my new business.
Punctuated throughout our circle time that weekend were the sounds of gunshots from across the lake – geese hunters, we presumed. The harshness of the sound (and what we assumed was the result) was in sharp contrast to the gentleness of our circle.
It dawned on us how symbolic this was… on one side of the lake was the softness of feminine energy, while on the other side was the aggression of masculine energy. The two were at odds and neither knew how to integrate with the other.
I went for a long walk one afternoon, and though the woods were quiet and peaceful where I walked, the ongoing gunshots reverberating across the water troubled me. Somewhere in the woods, I had the thought… “I really want to row out to an island at the centre of the lake, to meet the masculine there. I want to be a bridge-builder, a healer of this divide.” At the end of that walk, before returning to the retreat centre, I was surprised to find a weathered old sign pointing back in the direction I’d come. There was one word on the sign – Lifeline. I couldn’t help but think it was meant for me.
What I didn’t fully understand at the time was that the healing work I wanted to do at the centre of the lake was not only about healing relationships between other people, it was about healing the relationship between the feminine and masculine within myself (and how I related to the masculine in others).
Perhaps it was because of that personal divide that, for the next several years, my work focused primarily on women. I gathered women together in retreats, created resources for them, and wrote articles for them. It felt good and right, and yet… I kept feeling like something was missing. I couldn’t forget the vision of the island at the centre of the lake.
Gradually, I began to incorporate more men into my circles, but it wasn’t always easy. Sometimes those men brought too much of the unhealed masculine into the space, dominating the conversation and interrupting without self-awareness. And sometimes the women silenced themselves or became awkward when the men entered the space. And sometimes my own social conditioning came into play, and I deferred to male voices instead of holding them accountable.
And yet, despite the challenge, I knew that this was important work and that I couldn’t back away from it. So I worked on healing myself so that I could offer healing to others.
Last week, I flew to Germany to participate in a global gathering of practitioners of The Circle Way. I wasn’t sure why I felt so strongly that I needed to be there, but I kept hearing the nudges, and so I decided to follow them.
I didn’t know then that the gathering would represent some of the healing I’d wanted to find on that island in the centre of the lake.
Near the beginning of the gathering, on a beautiful piece of land in the Eifel forest region of Germany, we were invited to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony, a tradition that had been passed down to the owner of the land from his teacher, a Lakota elder. For personal reasons, I did not participate in the ceremony, choosing instead to sit at the fire and watch the fire-keeper feed hot stones into the lodges.
There was a binary nature to the ceremony that was troublesome for some in our midst (including myself). Men sat in one lodge and women in another and there was no space for those who fit within the non-binary space in between. In addition, the women in their moon time were not allowed into the lodge (in keeping with Lakota tradition) and though they were told they shouldn’t enter because they are particularly powerful at that time of the month, they didn’t feel very powerful, sitting at a separate fire at the edge of the ceremonial area. A man lead the ceremony (even entering the women’s lodge at the beginning to offer teachings and songs) and a man served as fire-keeper.
In the sharing circle the next morning, a few people mentioned their discomfort with the ceremony and the way it divided us and excluded some. Nothing was resolved in that conversation, but some of us continued to have conversations on the sidelines.
Though the ceremony challenged us, I think it was a valuable place for us to start because it offered us a base from which to grow. When we turned away from the ceremony and toward other things, something began to shift, helping us evolve out of the patriarchy-imposed binary and into the space in between.
There were playful moments when it seemed the trickster was in our midst, messing with what had divided, excluded, and wounded most of us throughout our lives. Once, in the middle of a long afternoon of conversation, when we’d settled back into the circle after a break, a platter of cake was brought into the room by two people who’d gone to the kitchen to get us a treat. Instead of what we might have expected, it was men who brought the food and served us one-by-one. At another moment, when women gathered in a small circle to talk about their wombs and what they carried, an open-hearted man joined in. And then there were the two people who slept in tents at the edge of the property (while everyone else slept in comfortable beds) like warriors guarding the village. Those two people (myself included) were women. And then, in the only session when we weren’t in circle and there was a more visible hierarchy (with people at tables and the hosts standing), all four leaders were women.
There were personal things happening as well. One of my favourite conversations, that stretched from supper until midnight, was with two men (one of whom kept getting up to serve me every time my glass was empty). We shared vulnerable and authentic parts of ourselves, and at no point did it feel that our gender differences created any awkwardness or disconnection. Each of us was able to hold space for the others in ways that crossed both gender and language barriers (for both of them, English is a second language).
By the end of our time together, it was my impression (which was confirmed by others in the group) that we had arrived at a place of much more gender fluidity, playfulness, and possibility. If a new ceremony had emerged at the end of our gathering, I’m convinced it would have looked quite different from what we began with. Our time together changed us. Together we were learning to integrate our own masculine with our own feminine and dancing with others who were doing the same.
On my flight home, I realized that my dream of an island at the centre of the lake was beginning to come true, and there were others willing to meet me there, willing to heal the wounds of the patriarchy, and willing to dance in the space in between.
Somewhere over the ocean, I started to dream of something more specific than just a mystical island. I started to imagine a gathering of people who want to dance in the space in between. It wouldn’t just be about gender – it would be an intersectional gathering, where all of our parts (gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, ability, etc.) are brought forward in the dance. It would be a place where we could have both hard conversations and playful ones – where we can challenge each other with words, but then engage each other more playfully with art and dance and music. It would be a place where we would share food and be held by the land in a way that would help us imagine the community we once dreamed was possible – where the patriarchy no longer destroys our connections with each other or with ourselves.
It would be a place where the circle would remind us that there is a “leader in every chair” and that differences are not threats when we can look each other in the eyes and listen with deep attention.
I am imagining a learning village that uses Open Space Technology so that the agenda is not fixed in advance but rather there is an invitation to enter the flow of what we could co-create as a village. Anyone could bring an idea and invite others to play and/or wrestle with it. Anyone could call a circle, start a piece of collaborative art, or invite us to dance. All gifts and questions would be welcome.
Perhaps this dream will grow into a living thing in the year ahead. I am open to the possibility. And I am open to whoever wishes to step forward and help me dream it into reality.
P.S. If you want to meet me “in the space in between”, consider joining me at one of my upcoming retreats…
1. Holding Space for Yourself, Oct. 12-15 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia. (Special pricing until Oct. 1)
2. Holding Space for Others, Oct. 18-22 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia. (Special pricing until Oct. 1)
3. Space for an Open Heart, Oct. 27-29 at Kawai Purapura, Auckland, New Zealand.
NOTE: If you are interested in the next offering of Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, which starts January 2018, you may wish to put your name on the waiting list as it may sell out quickly. If you want to be notified when registration opens (next week) send an email to heather at heatherplett dot com with the following in the subject line: “Put me on the list for advance notification for the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program.”
I miss writing you love letters, dear friends. I used to write a post every week, then it stretched out to every second week, and now, for the last six months, my posts have become rather sporadic. I apologize for that. I’ve been a little busy.
In that time, almost all of my writing energy has been spent on creating the content for my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. So far (with four out of five modules complete), I’ve created 346 pages of content (plus several videos) for the participants of that program. Truthfully, I had no idea I had that much content to offer on the subject, but it just keeps flowing out of me. I could have written even more, but sometimes I hold back because it feels like I’m emptying a dump truck onto the participants.
Though I didn’t realize I was doing it at the time, it seems I’ve spent much of my adult life gathering ideas, thoughts, and stories on this subject, waiting for the time when it all could start to flow onto the page. Whether I was facilitating a government press conference, gathering with non-profit partners in a village in India, sitting under a tree with farmers in Ethiopia, curled up in bed beside my mom on her last days on earth, or hanging out with my daughters in a campground, I was learning what it means to hold space.
Right now I’m sitting in my mom’s old rocking chair (where she rocked me, my siblings and all of our children), and the floor and bedside table all around me are covered in books related to this work. It looks like my bookshelf vomited all over the room. I didn’t realize, until I started gathering them and pouring over them, how many of the books I’ve been collecting have been pointing me toward this work. I’ve been like a crow, gathering shining bits to build my nest – the container that is the work of “holding space”.
It seems I’m creating my Magnum Opus (Latin for “great work”). I eat, sleep, and breathe this work – and I couldn’t be happier. It’s nourishing me and challenging me and growing me and sustaining me. I took it along on vacation when I was in the mountains with my daughters. I packed books in my dry-bag when I paddled through the Boundary Waters and was occasionally seen reading in a hammock strung from the trees. I rented a cabin by the lake and wrote for hours on end, curled up in front of a fire. I spent three days in an AirBNB apartment in Florida (after my speaking engagement was over) writing and writing and writing some more. I’ve written perched in the tree in my backyard, in coffee shops, in the library, in my bed, in my car, in parks, on planes, at the beach, and in campgrounds. A few days ago, when an idea finally crystallized while I was walking in the woods, I stopped on the path and frantically typed it into the notes app on my phone.
This is what I’m learning as I immerse myself further and further into the waters of this work… it’s a much deeper pool than I at first thought it was.
When I first talked to an agent about a possible book on this subject (not long after the viral blog post), both she and I were skeptical that there was enough content for a book. Since then I’ve been working with another agent, and she and I have come to a very different conclusion. Not only is there enough for a book, but there is enough for multiple books.
Late yesterday, I finished writing Module 4, on Holding Space for Complexity. In it, I talked about power, privilege, trauma, conflict, and liberation. This is the realization that came to me as I neared completion…
The theme at the heart of the concept of holding space is freedom.
We hold space so that we all may be free.
We hold space so that we may be free of judgement, free of fear, free of injustice, and free of discrimination, prejudice, and shame.
We hold space to give each other the freedom to do our hard and liberating soul work, to give each other the freedom to heal our trauma, to give each other the freedom to feel deep emotions and express unspoken needs, and to give each other the freedom to transform conflict and re-write stories of abuse. We hold space for both the darkness and the light, the agony and the delight.
This is it, friends… this is the most important thing…
When we hold space, we create the container for liberation.
What I realized, as I wrote the last lesson of the module, was that the work I’m doing is, at its heart, about liberation. I want to give people the tools to do the hard work of liberating themselves and liberating others. I want to support people who are seeking liberation from shame, violence, tyranny, oppression, fear, judgement, and marginalization.
I want to create spaces where we are brave enough to see and name our own chains. I strive to hold space in a way that supports people in throwing off those chains. And I want to go even further and hold fierce and courageous space where we can name the systems that trap us and name the ways in which we may be contributing to other people’s chains.
I want us all to see that liberation is a collective act – that I can’t get free without also freeing you.
This is the work I commit my life to. This is what I’m willing to lose sleep over. It’s what I’ll make sacrifices for. It’s what I’ll push through barriers for. It’s what I’ll take to soap boxes and stadiums, living rooms and classrooms, board rooms and prisons.
I am here to hold space for freedom.
And you, my friends, are welcome to join me in the work.
* * *
Note: I’ll be opening registration for the next offering of the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program (which starts in January 2018) next month. If you want to be on the list for advance notification, contact me and say: “Put me on the list for advance notification for the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program.”
Also: If you want to learn this work in person, I’m facilitating two retreats in Australia in October – one on Holding Space for Yourself and one on Holding Space for Others. If you sign up for both retreats, you’ll get much of the content I’ve created for the six month online program.
One more thing… For some other thoughts I’ve had on liberation lately, read my blog post on what you can do about white supremacy.
Everyone is talking about what happened in Charlottesville last weekend, but the problem with much of the response to this event is that it gives us a clear “them” to vilify. “Those horrible neo-nazis and white supremacists. Can you BELIEVE what they’re doing and saying?”
When we isolate them and their extremism, we miss the point that white supremacy is part of our culture and it’s something that ALL WHITE PEOPLE benefit from.
“The overtly racist White Supremacists marching in Virginia are not a part of a binary, they’re part of a scale. When we capitalize the words “White Supremacy” and treat it like a monstrous philosophy, it is an extreme that can be handily rejected by the majority of whites.
“However, on the same spectrum, less extreme, are the various forces that lead to the overrepresentation of whites in nearly every desirable facet of society, and to the contempt and distrust with which POC are seen. We have decided to call these things “white privilege,” but one rarely mentioned aspect of white privilege is the privilege to use language to pretend it isn’t white supremacy. Richard Spencer and his ilk are the id, not an aberration but rather a natural byproduct of unchecked white privilege.” From the article Why Privilege is White-Washed Supremacy.
If we all benefit from it, then we all must participate in dismantling it. This is not just a leadership problem (though good leadership would certainly make a difference). It’s not just an American problem (there’s lots of racism here in Canada too). It’s a problem that every one of us can participate in addressing.
Here are some things that you can do to help dismantle white supremacy. (Note: this list is meant primarily for white people and it emerges out of my own years of wrestling with my whiteness.)
1.) Do an inventory of how white your lens and life are. Do you surround yourself with white friends? Are your bookshelves full of books by white writers? Do you primarily watch TV shows and movies with white people in them? Are you doing business with, banking with, signing up for courses with, and hiring mostly white people? If so, ask yourself what you need to do to change the fact that you are centring whiteness.
2.) Listen to, read, and amplify the voices and wisdom of people of colour. Commit to reading only books written by people of colour for a year. Share at least one article each day on social media written by a person of colour. Sign up for courses with people of colour. Follow them on social media. If you have a public platform, share it regularly with voices that your audience needs to hear from.
3.) Buy from and amplify businesses owned by people of colour. You can do a lot of good by being more intentional about where you spend your money. Do your research and search out businesses owned by and run by people who look different from you. And then tell all of your friends about where you’re spending your money, not as a way of bragging about how socially conscious you are, but as a way of promoting these businesses and supporting their success.
4.) Consider the power of your vote. Do your research about the people you’re voting for. If you can, support people of colour running for political office (if they represent your political views). If the candidates in your neighbourhood are white, then at least talk to them about what they’re doing to address racism and white supremacy. Don’t just take their word for it – find out who they’re hiring, who they’re engaging in their campaigns, and who they’re doing business with for a better picture of how white their lens is.
5.) Talk to your racist neighbours, friends, family members, grocery store clerks, bus drivers, etc. Stand up for the people they dismiss. Challenge their attitudes. Invite them to multi-cultural events or lectures where they can expand their thinking. Don’t just ignore it because “they’re otherwise such kind people.” When you’re silent, you are complicit.
6.) Talk to the children in your life about racism and white supremacy. Point out the areas where they are benefiting from white privilege. Have hard conversations about news stories like Charlottesville. Model for them by letting them see you reading books by people of colour, having meaningful friendships with people of colour, voting for people of colour, and challenging your racist relatives. Help them develop strategies for addressing the racism they may be witnessing in their schools, sports teams, etc. (AND, when they grow up and start learning things you don’t know and listening to voices you haven’t heard, be willing to learn from them.)
7.) Research and send money to non-profits run by and working with communities that have suffered from oppression/colonization/conflict/etc. Non-profits that are run by white people, that have mostly white people on the board and on staff, etc. may be upholding white supremacy by not including the voices, wisdom, abilities, etc. of the people they say they’re serving. Note: I specifically said “send money”, because if you choose to send them the physical items YOU THINK they need, then you are taking their autonomy away. Unless they ask for specific items, let them make their own decisions by giving them money to spend as THEY see fit.
8.) Stop spiritual bypassing or other avoidance techniques and dare to peer into the shadow side of our culture. If you believe in “love and light” than dare to shine that light into the darkness of racism and white supremacy rather than trying to pretend that “we are all one race” or “I don’t see colour”. The fact that you have the option to avoid this kind of negativity is a sign of your privilege. Your spirituality is selfish if it lets you “rise above” the ugliness of the world.
9.) Learn to sit with discomfort. Do the personal work (mindfulness, therapy, coaching, etc.) that will build your resilience and help you deal with negative emotions in a more healthy way. If you are always running away from fear, shame, anxiety, etc. then you won’t have the courage to step into difficult conversations where you might be challenged for your white privilege, covert racism, etc. If you shut down every time someone expresses an opinion different from yours, then you’ll stay in your little bubble and not contribute to the change this world needs.
10.) Find places for conversations and meaningful action. Join an ally group that supports the causes of people of colour (eg. SURJ). Start a conversation circle where you can wrestle with the hard conversations. Seek out Facebook groups or other social media forums. DON’T rush in to do what YOU think needs to be done – instead, follow the leadership of the people most impacted by the issue and LISTEN.
The border appeared too quickly. On a small highway with little traffic, nobody had bothered to post a “5 km to the U.S. border” sign, so I was suddenly there with no time to prepare. With some trepidation, I pulled up next to the border guard’s window, took off my sunglasses, smiled my best “I’m not a danger to your country” smile, handed him my passport, and tried not to look nervous.
I could feel my heartbeat increase as he scanned his computer. Would he see the alleged “note on my file” that the last border guard had said he was putting there when I’d been told I didn’t have the right visa and wouldn’t be allowed back into the country without it? Would he turn me around and send me back home, even though I was visiting for pleasure this time and nobody would be paying me to work in the country? Would he, like the last border guard, wave a binder full of visa information in front of me and say “I’m not sure which visa you need, but I know you don’t have it.” I wasn’t sure… all I could do was smile, nod, and cooperate when he peered through my car windows at the camping equipment in the back.
Minutes later, he’d let me through without incident. My body reacted with relief, taking deep gulps of air to fill the lungs I’d apparently been depriving. How long had I been holding my breath waiting for this moment? Perhaps for months already.
I didn’t realize, until that moment, just how claustrophobic I’d been feeling, worried that I might no longer have easy access into the United States where so many of my friends, colleagues, and clients live. Many people live rich and full lives without ever owning a passport or crossing an international border, but I am not one of those people. I was born for expansiveness, for global wandering, for deep connections with people and places all over the world. A smaller life than that leaves me feeling trapped, with less air to breathe. (Yes, I am aware of what a privilege this life is, and how my normal privilege, as a white woman, is to easily cross the border into any country I’ve visited.)
After my breath slowed and I continued my long drive to the Boundary Waters for my canoe trip, I had a sudden flash of insight…
I have been performing for border guards all of my life, waiting anxiously with a smile on my face as they decide my fate, hoping I haven’t done or said anything that might offend them or turn them against me.
Every woman knows this story. So does every person of colour, LGBTQ+, disabled person, and member of other oppressed groups without access to power. We all know that we can choose to stay in our own “countries” (the spaces, jobs, neighbourhoods, etc., where those with power consider to be our rightful place). But if we dare to venture forth into more expansive “countries”, we have to face the border guards who have the power to create or dig up arbitrary rules about why we don’t belong there.
There were the border guards who told me which sports a girl was allowed to play. And some who told me what clothing was acceptable and wouldn’t create too much temptation for the occupants of the more powerful “country”. Others who said that I was pretty smart “for a girl”, letting me know that there was a limit on how far I could go with my intellect. And there were those who didn’t allow me into certain boardrooms or didn’t invite me to attend political events because I didn’t play “the (male) game” well enough. And some who told me I couldn’t be a good leader if I didn’t learn to keep my emotions out of it. And some who said that women weren’t as valuable in the workplace because they’d end up going off on maternity leave at some point. And others who implied that the business I longed to build was too “soft” to be taken seriously.
Most of those border guards didn’t think of themselves as border guards and were probably never fully aware of the fact that they were keeping me or anyone else out of their country. They simply saw it as their birthright to live in a more expansive country than I did, and when they saw me or anyone else trying to cross the border, they got nervous that there wouldn’t be enough space for all of us, so they pushed back, made up arbitrary rules, and protected their territory. Some were probably very uncomfortable enforcing these arbitrary rules, but they feared they’d be kicked out of their own country if they didn’t uphold them. (I think of my father, for example, who admired strong women and often told me so, but, as the leader of our small church, couldn’t let me do Bible reading or speaking from the pulpit because it would make other church members uncomfortable.)
Just like I could choose to stay in Canada, I could choose to build a relatively full and happy life within the confines of this country called womanhood, but that’s not the life I was born for. I was born with natural gifts in leadership and communication – both things I’ve often been told I’d need to suppress in myself because of my gender. The claustrophobia that had me holding my breath at the border had me holding my breath on a regular basis when I feared I’d reached the limits of what’s acceptable for my gender.
There’s another claustrophobia that I’ve wrestled with in my past and that is the claustrophobia of the faith I was raised with. There are many things I love about my Mennonite roots, but the “evangelical” part is one that my expansive heart wouldn’t let me hang onto.
I could no longer live within the confines of a “country” where we were taught that there was only one way to get across the border – to have access to the “true God” and to get the golden ticket to heaven. I could no longer live in a country where my Muslim friends, my Hindu friends, and my LGBTQ+ friends needed to be converted. I couldn’t be part of a faith that wanted me to become one of those border guards, letting people know how to gain access.
Once again, I don’t think anyone within the evangelical faith tradition thinks of themselves as border guards and some will be offended that I offer this analogy. The people I know well are loving and kind people who want to share the faith that sustains them and I don’t blame them for that – faith is a good thing to have and to share. But I know that my own personal claustrophobia only ended when I chose, instead of an evangelical church, to sit in circles with other seekers who choose not to believe that one way is the only way, that one “country” is the only good country.
In both of the situations I’ve mentioned, I learned, to one degree or another, both to live with my claustrophobia and to begin to serve as a border guard myself, conveying the rules to those who didn’t yet know them, letting some people know that they weren’t behaving in a way that warranted access, and protecting the privilege and power that I, too, have benefited from. When it comes to being white, for example, it served me well to work with the border guards in making sure we didn’t have to share the country of power and privilege with too many others. Sometimes, serving as a border guard is as simple as turning a blind eye to the plight of those who’ve been denied access.
I kept myself small too, serving as my own border guard and limiting myself with my own self-doubt, fears, and internalized oppression. It was easier to learn to live with the claustrophobia than to risk the judgement of the border guards I was taught to fear.
This week, I looked at the photos of the white supremacists marching with torches in Charlottesville and I saw border guards. These young white men desperately want to protect the “country” that they believe is their birthright. The world is changing around them and they feel threatened and backed into the corner by those people demanding access to what they’ve always assumed belonged exclusively to them. They watch the rise of Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, the election of a black president, increased immigration, and the legalization of same sex marriage, and they’re incensed with the fact that too many people are crowding into their “country”.
But the thing about being a border guard is that it’s a fear-based position. If you are tasked with protecting something that everyone else wants access to, you have to be ever vigilant and watchful and you can’t help but be somewhat paranoid. You can’t really trust anyone because you never know when they might threaten what you want. And you have to be willing to sell your soul for the cause of the country you’ve pledged allegiance to. When the rules change, you have to keep enforcing them even if you don’t understand or agree with them. One false move and you could lose your precarious position, so you learn to obey the masters that control your fate and dole out the power you’ve become addicted to.
Just like there is claustrophobia in being confined to a country that feels too small for you, there is claustrophobia in being a border guard protecting a space that outsiders are trying to get access to. I could see that claustrophobia on the faces of those young white supremacists. Their coveted space is getting smaller and they’re panicking over the fear that sharing it means less for them. Their wide open spaces don’t feel so wide open anymore.
I don’t only suffer from claustrophobia in a metaphorical sense – I face it in a very real sense in closed, crowded spaces. When it happens, I have a minor panic attack and have to find a quick exit to an open space where I can take deep gulps of air, just as I did when I crossed the border last week.
I’m sure some of those young white supremacists were feeling a similar desperate need for the fresh air they’ve convinced themselves they no longer have access to, and they’re willing to step on people in their desperation to get to it. If they only knew that the only way to breathe truly fresh air without feeling like you’re being closed in on is to allow everyone to breathe that air.
I don’t know for certain if this was the origin of my claustrophobia, but this is the first of it I remember… My older brothers and their friends had constructed an elaborate maze out of hay bales. As kids on the farm, we often built forts in the hay bales, but this was the first time I remember them building a maze, where you enter a dark, narrow doorway on your hands and knees and have to find your way to the exit, feeling your way along in the pitch black. Since you’re in a space only big enough for your body on hands and knees, there is no turning back.
I was always eager to hang out with my brothers, so I accepted their invitation to be the inaugural visitor to the maze. Once inside, I panicked. No matter where I turned, I couldn’t find the light at the end of the tunnel. The walls started closing in on me. I called to my brothers to let me out, but, at first, they laughed and said I’d have to keep trying. Then I started to panic, shrieking and flailing, desperate for light and fresh air, convinced I was going to die inside that dark tunnel. Finally, my brothers, who cared too much for me to leave me trapped, began dismantling the maze until they found me and could release me into the fresh air.
This isn’t just a story from my childhood – it’s a metaphor for what we need to consider in our culture right now. There are people trapped inside the maze of patriarchy and white supremacy, trying to get access to the same air that those outside the maze have access to. (Think, for a moment, of Eric Garner, who died telling the police “I can’t breathe!”) There are people who’ve reached the height of their claustrophobia and they’re flailing around and screaming, trying to get the attention of the people on the outside. Those who stand outside can choose to hang onto their fear that there is not enough air for all of us and continue to serve as border guards, serving the system they created and benefit from, or they can start to dismantle the system, one hay bale at a time.
I choose to be one of the dismantlers.
Because the air I breathe is only fresh if you have access to it too.