“Can the liminal space also be joyful?” Someone asked me that recently, at the end of a talk I gave to facilitators of Deep Democracy in Belgium.
“Yes, definitely!” I said. “I’m in such a liminal space right now!”
If you’ve read my book or taken my courses, you know that when I talk about liminal space, I usually talk about emotions like confusion, fear, loneliness, and grief as part of the journey out of an old story and into a new one. As this person pointed out, though, the liminal space can also be a time of joy. In fact, it can be a time when we prioritize our joy as the guide that leads us into the new story.
As I write this, I’m in a cozy little apartment on the western coast of Italy. After I finish writing, I will likely walk down to the water for a while and, if it’s warm enough, I may sit at an outdoor café with a cappuccino for a few moments before I join a Zoom call this afternoon. It’s a good life I’m living, in the middle of this liminal season.
At the end of August, I stepped into the liminal when I walked away from the house I’d lived in for twenty-two years, gave away all of my furniture, packed my personal items into a storage unit, and started living out of a small suitcase. I’m calling it my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. I could also call it my Prioritizing my Own Joy Tour.
When I ask myself why I did this – why I gave away so much and walked away from a home I’d poured a lot of love and care into – I come up with a few answers. For one thing, I no longer felt a strong pull to live in Winnipeg, especially since none of my daughters live there anymore and neither of my parents are alive, but I wasn’t sure where I wanted to live next. For another thing, I crave adventure and I love to travel, so when a few invitations to teach in Europe lined up, it seemed a good time to have a longer visit here. And for a third thing… I wanted a lighter and more agile life, with less attachment to things and less need to worry about the maintenance of a house.
But there’s something else too – something deeper. I think I knew, intuitively – like the caterpillar knows when she crawls up into a tree and surrenders to the process of metamorphosis – that it was time for change. There was a growing restlessness – a sense of something new wanting to be born in me.
Like a vision quest, or even like a gap year where students go away for a while to figure out who they are, I felt the need to re-explore my own identity and discover the ways in which I am being reshaped. For one thing, my relationship with my daughters is being reconfigured, now that they are all adults living away from me, and I need to explore who I am when less of me is shaped by motherhood. For another thing, my relationship with my work has been reconfigured, now that I am in a business partnership and we have a teaching team running our online programs. And for a third thing, I’ve completed my next book which will take my work in a slightly new direction and which is an even more deep dive into my personal stories than I’ve shared in the past.
Where does joy enter into all of this? Well… it became more and more clear to me in recent years (especially as I was writing my new book), that, in whatever ways I was going to reconfigure my life at this pivotal moment, I wanted to be more intentional about placing joy at the centre. As I talk about in the book (which will come out next year), there is a deep vein of martyrdom and unworthiness living in my body, inherited through my lineage and the systems I’m part of, and I wanted to be intentional about disrupting that narrative and living into a new story. Like the girl in the Velcro dress, I wanted to strip away the things I was carrying that weren’t mine to carry.
That’s why, on this season of liminality, I am leaning into joy to help guide me into the new story. I am being intentional about noticing what gives me joy each day and what steals my joy. Each day is different – sometimes I find joy in solitude, sometimes I find joy in companionship, sometimes I need hours of walking, and sometimes I need a day spent in bed. I’m trying not to judge those needs or desires – I’m being mindful of them and responding in the best way I can.
(It should be mentioned here that prioritizing joy does not mean that it is ALL joy. I haven’t banished any of the other emotions that pop up – especially when my dear friend Randy died in October. I let myself feel the complexity of emotions and do my best to turn my face back toward joy.)
Back in the Spring, when I was in the process of selling my house, I got the following line from a Mary Oliver poem tattooed on my arm: “…let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”. I’m paying attention to what the soft animal of my body loves and I’m trying to give her more of that.
In the past, I might have read a post like this and dismissed it as the empty pursuit of hedonism (especially since I was raised with a great deal of consciousness around sin), but that’s not what I’m talking about. This isn’t the blind pursuit of pleasure that obscures the needs of others and the injustices around me. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
What I’ve been learning, as I explore the themes of liberation and tenderness on this trip, is that an honest pursuit of joy that includes a disruption of the narratives around martyrdom and unworthiness, can be the most radical act of defiance against the oppressive systems that cause the injustices we’re all surrounded by. To love ourselves, to free ourselves, to live joyfully, and to treat ourselves and each other with tenderness is to dare to create alternatives to those systems that seek to bind us in their trauma and oppression.
We have been raised in systems that teach us to measure our own bodies against other bodies in order to prove our own worth. We’ve been taught by our schools how to measure our intellect and our athletic ability. We’ve been told by the media and by our institutions which bodies have more merit and which ones deserve punishment. We’ve been taught by capitalism how to determine our worth based on our productivity, wealth and status.
Performance measurement, perfectionism, and punishment… those are the themes that run deeply in these systems of hierarchy and oppression. All three are rooted in trauma and we pass that trauma from generation to generation, upholding the systems as we do so. We learned these patterns in our infancy and they’ve been so present all of our lives that we don’t even notice the ways we’ve internalized them. We are largely blind to the ways that they inform our own relationships with our bodies.
Diet culture is one of the ways we punish our own bodies and measure our performance. (For more on this, read Reclaiming Body Trust, by Hilary Kinavey & Dana Sturtevant.) Grind culture is one of the ways we sacrifice our bodies on the altar of capitalism and we internalize the perfectionism of that system. (For more on this, read Rest is Resistance, by Tricia Hersey.)
I’m no longer going to willingly participate in things like diet culture or grind culture. I’m intentionally choosing to liberate myself from those patterns of harm and I’m seeking a new path. I’m treating my body with tenderness and challenging myself every time I hear a voice in my head telling me I’m not worthy of that tenderness. I’m being tender with my fat belly, my crooked teeth, and my fussy feet that can only wear the most functional of footwear. I’m prioritizing rest and play. I’m letting my inner child speak the things that she wasn’t allowed to say. I’m honouring the longings that I’ve so studiously silenced in the past. I’m pulling away from social media whenever it sparks feelings of “not-enoughness”. I’m being especially kind to myself whenever I fumble.
I let go of a lot of physical baggage in August when I moved out of my house, and, in the months since, I’ve been working to let go of a lot of psychic baggage. I am carrying less martyrdom, less unworthiness, less self-criticism, less anxiety, and less trauma. Just as I hoped, I am living with more lightness and agility, in more ways than one.
I’ve been inspired by the writings of many wise teachers on this journey toward more liberation and tenderness. Here’s a list of some of the books that have especially inspired me:
If you, too, have a growing awareness that it’s time to liberate yourself from some of the patterns you’ve learned from your lineage and the systems you’re part of, and it’s time to treat yourself with more tenderness, perhaps you’d like to join me in Costa Rica in January for Liberation & Tenderness: A Gathering for Seekers, Lovers, and Dreamers? It will be a special time in a beautiful setting when we’ll collectively explore the burdens we no longer need to carry so that we can ALL live with more lightness and agility. We’ll do our best to put joy at the centre of our circle, while also honouring all of the feelings that might surface in the process.
I’m on my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. After selling my house and putting my personal things in storage, I set off on what is likely to be a 5-6 month adventure, starting in Europe. (You can follow along on social media – #liberationandtendernesstour.)
Perhaps you want to know what I mean when I talk about Liberation and Tenderness? I’ve been thinking about these themes for a long time, but I don’t always articulate what I mean by them. While sitting on the train yesterday, somewhere between France and Belgium, I started writing a list of what each term means for me at this moment in my life. Here’s what I have so far:
Releasing the expectations of other people;
Allowing all parts of me to be seen (when I want those parts to be seen);
Divesting from harmful systems and institutions that don’t have my best interests (or other people’s) at heart;
Recognizing the ways I’ve been socially conditioned to behave and letting go of those that are harmful;
Healing and releasing internalized oppression such as misogyny and fat phobia;
Healing codependency and letting others carry their own burdens;
Allowing myself to live according to my own rules (and breaking some that are imposed on me);
Testing my comfort/discomfort with certain things (like travelling alone) to see if I’m limiting myself based on other people’s fears and social rules or my own;
Walking away from spaces/communities/institutions/individuals that don’t care about me;
Believing in my own worthiness and right to care and comfort, despite the measurements for worthiness that exist in my culture;
Releasing all of the “shoulds” attached to being a middle-aged mother and caring for my daughters in the ways that feel right for me and for them;
Releasing the expectations of perfectionism, productivity, and all of the other pressures imposed by capitalism;
Accepting my neurodivergence and not putting pressure on myself to behave and think like neurotypical people do;
Reclaiming body trust and not accepting the restrictive eating that is part of diet culture;
Choosing adventure when I want it, and stillness when I want that instead; and
Making decisions about where I want to live and/or travel based on my own longings and my joy.
Loving my fat body without shaming it;
Loving and caring for all of the wounded parts of me;
Pushing back against the punishment and judgement of a patriarchal, colonial system, and choosing grace and compassion instead;
Refusing to allow the rules of the systems I am divesting myself of to be part of the spaces where I work;
Offering myself grace and forgiveness when I mess up;
Offering others grace and forgiveness when they mess up;
Making repairs when necessary and expecting the same from others, but not making punishment one of the steps to “righteousness”;
Recognizing and soothing the trauma caused by systems, generational pain, etc.
Trusting my body;
Making loving choices on behalf of my body and my heart;
Slowing down and being mindful;
Spending lots of time in solitude and contemplation, usually in nature;
Holding space for ALL of my emotions when they surface;
Honouring the complexity of holding both joy and grief simultaneously;
Being soft and honouring softness;
Recognizing that some of my resilience is born of trauma and letting myself be less resilient when I feel beaten down;
Soothing myself when my trauma gets triggered;
Having healthy boundaries that protect my tenderness;
Seeking out people who honour my tenderness and hold me that way;
Healing the parts of me that are reluctant to trust people;
Letting people care for me; and
Letting go of the dread that something bad is always waiting – just around the corner – to ruin my joy.
As you can see, there are several themes that overlap in the lists. I’ve come to the conclusion, as I consider these themes, that they are inextricably intertwined. You can’t fully liberate yourself (in the way that I’m defining liberation) without tenderness. And you can’t really be tender without holding a core value around liberation. They are companions, supporting each other along the journey.
“We create most of our suffering, so it should be logical that we also have the ability to create more joy. It simply depends on the attitudes, the perspectives, and the reactions we bring to situations and to our relationships with other people. When it comes to personal happiness there is a lot that we as individuals can do.” ― Dalai Lama XIV, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World
In The Book of Joy, which consists of a week-long conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmund Tutu, the two spiritual teachers talk about how they approach joy not as a feeling, but as a lifestyle – one which they’ve each learned to cultivate even in the midst of extreme hardship. Both have been through wars and have been exiled from their countries, and yet, when you watch them together in their advanced years, you can’t help but be drawn in by their playfulness and delight in the world and each other.
With them as my inspiration, I am doing my best to cultivate a lifestyle of joy. I am intentionally chipping away at some of the old stories that tell me I am not worthy of joy, I am working to heal the trauma that gets triggered when too much joy is present, I am removing things in my life that actively serve as thieves of my joy, and I am finding daily practices that help to grow a strong foundation of joy.
If you have been following along on my journey over the past several months, you will know that, after helping my daughters launch into their own lives, I have sold my house, packed my belongings into a storage unit, and set off on a nomadic journey for at least six months. I’ve got some in-person workshops to do in Europe and then in Costa Rica, and then… I don’t know where I’ll settle (or if I’ll choose to wander for a while longer). I’m letting my heart be my guide. Right now, I’m in a seaside town in Spain, and though I planned to spend only a week here with a friend, I’ve already booked additional days because my body feels so relaxed and peaceful here. That’s how I intend to make decisions for the next six months (and hopefully the rest of my life) – by checking in with my heart and body and not just my often-overactive mind.
I am calling this my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. I want to continue to liberate myself from old stories and limiting beliefs and I want to find more freedom from the bounds of oppressive systems like the patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism. I’m doing my best to challenge things like internalized fatphobia, misogyny, martyrdom, and shame. I believe that tenderness is the path toward the liberation I seek, and I believe that joy is the outcome. In other words, it’s not hedonism I’m talking about, but a deep, intentional, and sturdy joy.
Cultivating a lifestyle of joy doesn’t mean that I expect to be always happy. No, life continues to have its challenges, and I don’t intend to gloss over anything with spiritual bypassing or avoid feeling the hard stuff when it comes. At the beginning of this journey, for example, I spent a few days with my beloved friend Randy, who is dying of ALS, and I carry the grief of that anticipated loss with me everywhere I go. Instead, like the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop, I want to create a bedrock of joy that offers a solid foundation for whatever may come.
“’Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say,’ the Archbishop added, as we began our descent, ‘save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.’” – The Book of Joy
Last week, when I was in Italy enjoying a week-long food, wine, and art tour in the Abruzzo region, I noticed exactly what the Dalai Lama talks about in the above quote. As I opened myself to more joy, I was feeling ALL of the things more deeply. I stood in the crypt of a twelfth century abbey and felt the grief and longing of centuries of spiritual seekers who’d stood there before me. I stood in a cattle barn, and the familiar smell flooded me with grief over the loss of my dad. The grief was real, and yet… none of it diminished my foundation of joy. If anything, the moments of grief made the joy even more vibrant.
I don’t believe you need to pack up your belongings and set off on a quest like mine to cultivate a lifestyle of joy – I believe you can do it right where you are, right now. Here are some of my thoughts about how you can begin to cultivate a lifestyle of joy:
Make peace with the fly. For this piece of wisdom, I must credit my friend Randy, whose body has been ravaged by ALS. When I spent time with him just before leaving for Europe, the mobility in his arms and hands had become limited to about five inches of movement in his left arm. He is now completely dependent on other people for all his physical needs. Yet even in his dying and dependency, Randy embodies the kind of joyful lifestyle that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop talk about. His eyes still sparkle when I walk in the room and his grin still frequently flashes across his face. “I was lying in bed one day and there was a fly in the room,” he said to me, in one of the brief moments when he had enough energy for conversation. “It kept landing on my face, and I could do nothing to chase it away. I simply had to practice accepting the fly.” For Randy, after years spent cultivating a rich spiritual life and mindfulness practice, the fly became his teacher and the practice became acceptance of what was. Ever since that conversation, every time I experience a frustration (a person who annoys me or a situation that’s outside of my control), I try to ask myself “can I simply accept the fly?”
Laugh at broken doorknobs. This point is a lot like the last one, but it’s worth mentioning separately. On my second day in Italy, in the bedroom of an Airbnb I was sharing with some people I’d just met, the doorknob on the inside of my bedroom door broke off in my hand and I was left trapped, with no other escape route. Fortunately, I had my phone with me and could text the other occupants of the house to come and rescue me, so I wasn’t trapped for long. We shared a good laugh when they opened the door, and it became a shared memory that we could go back to later in the week when other situations seemed outside of our control. Sometimes you simply have to surrender to the ridiculousness of a situation, let other people rescue you, and then have a good laugh.
Let other people’s emotional journeys be their own. Some of the greatest thieves of our joy are other people’s problems – or rather, our attachment to their problems. Because many of us have codependent tendencies, we attach our own emotions to those of the people we love and we think we can only be happy when they are happy. We try to fix their problems because their problems become our problems and their anxiety becomes our anxiety. And sometimes, if we’re too happy, codependent family members or friends become resentful or afraid we’ll abandon them, and they try to drag us into their drama because it makes them feel more safe. But nothing is truly served in sacrificing our joy for other people. We can’t make them happier by giving up our happiness. We can hold space for them and help to soothe their fear of abandonment, but they must find their own pathway to joy. Holding space, as we teach about in the Foundation Program, is all about loving detachment.
Slow down and be mindful. Many North Americans (and probably other places in the world, but I can only speak of what I know) are addicted to busyness. In a culture built on capitalism, where productivity is highly valued, we think we only have worth when we are busy and making a meaningful contribution. But busyness numbs our emotions, keeps our nervous systems on high alert, and makes it hard for us to listen to the deeper longings of our hearts and bodies. Deep, embodied joy is cultivated in slowness and mindfulness, when we take the time to breathe deeply, smell the flowers, slow our nervous systems, listen to the music, and enjoy the flavours of a lovingly prepared meal. Last week, in Vasto, Italy, with a guide who understands what it means to live a good and intentional life – a life not driven by capitalism – I learned to make homemade pasta, to savour the flavours of olive oil from ancient trees, to bake bread in a brick oven, and to paint with the petals of a flower on the side of a mountain overlooking the sea. All of it was slow and mindful and all of it helped to soothe my nervous system and give my body a place to feel safe and at home.
Pluck only the chin hairs that matter. If you’re over 50 and living in a female body, you know about the chin hairs. Nobody told me that this would be a thing! When I arrived in Italy, after spending a very busy couple of months packing up my belongings and helping my daughters settle into new places, I looked in the mirror and realized how little time I’d spent tending to my appearance. There was a vast array of long hairs sprouting from my chin. Since I was about to spend time with a dozen women I’d never met, I pulled out my tweezers and started plucking. As I stood there, looking at myself in the mirror, I made a very intentional choice. “I will only pluck the chin hairs that matter,” I said to myself. “I’m going to leave my eyebrows bushy, and I’m not spending a lot of time fussing over my hair or putting on makeup.” It wasn’t just about chin hairs, though. It was about accepting my body as it is and treating it with tenderness. It was about liberating myself from the pressures to conform to a patriarchal beauty standard. In the week that followed, my commitment went far beyond chin hairs. When other women on the tour criticized their own bodies, talked about how they needed to “earn” their gelato with exercise, or worried about the pounds they might put on because of the abundance of food we were offered, I stayed silent. I was determined not to speak one word of critique of my body, not to contribute to the talk of food restrictions or body shame, and simply to be in loving relationship with my body. (For more on this, I recommend the brand new book Reclaiming Body Trust, by Hilary Kinavey and Dana Sturtevant.)
Let go of martyrdom and performative acts of sacrifice. This has become one of my most important areas of personal growth lately. I was raised with a very strong narrative around the value of martyrdom and acts of sacrificial service. I continue to unpack the ways in which my religious and family lineages taught me that sacrifice is next to godliness and I continue to question the ways that I act out of a subconscious belief that I only have value when I am being sacrificial. While I was traveling with other women last week, I could see so clearly how some of them had been raised with a similar value system. They were eager to give up the best room to someone else, eager to be the first to jump up to do the dishes, and eager to be of service even when that service was not requested, plus they expressed guilt when other people served them. As I witnessed this and noticed the same tendency in myself (especially when surrounded by others doing it), I tried to be mindful of what was genuine generosity and what was rooted in martyrdom as a conditioned response (for myself – I tried not to make assumptions about others’ reasons for doing it). There’s a fine line between generosity and martyrdom and I’m trying to find that line in myself, trying to allow myself pleasure and accept generosity without rushing to sacrifice myself for others. There is a way, I believe, of being of service to other people while also unapologetically receiving service from others and welcoming pleasure without guilt. (Just before I finished writing this post, the friend who I’m staying with in Spain decided to go for a swim at the beach just outside our front door. At first, I was going to stay inside and finish this post, but then I asked myself why I was denying myself the pleasure of a swim, and I closed my laptop and went outside.)
Stop trying to change other people. One of the other thieves of our joy is our attachment to the way that others should behave. Other people should be kinder, more patient, less angry, more generous, less chaotic, more playful, more mature, less serious, less critical, etc., etc. In other words, they should be more responsive to our needs and create a world that is safer and more comfortable for us. But when we attach our joy to other people’s behaviour we become, in a sense, enslaved to them. And… let’s face it… everyone has their own problems and insecurities and they’re all trying to get their own needs met just like we are, so they won’t always behave in the way that suits us. Last week, in a moment in which I noticed some agitation with other people’s behaviour, I looked around and could suddenly see the little child in each of the others I was with – a little child who had developed behaviour that was simply an adaptive strategy to help them cope with whatever they’d faced in their childhood. That awareness helped me be more patient and accepting of them, knowing that I too have such a child within me. To cultivate a lifestyle of joy, instead of trying to change people, we need to stop allowing their behaviour to control how we feel, and we need to “tend our own membranes”. (That’s a term that comes from my book, The Art of Holding Space: A practice of love, liberation and leadership.) Through a lifelong practice of self-exploration, we can become more aware of our own needs, we can discover who has the capacity to help us meet those needs and whose behaviour hinders us from having those needs met, and then we can develop healthy boundaries that help protect us from the behaviour that is harmful to us. “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” – Prentis Hemphill
Admittedly, I am far from perfecting any of these points, but some of my joy comes from accepting myself as a work in progress. I take solace in the fact that I still have several years to catch up to the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop. I’ll be patient with myself and keep practicing. I invite you to do the same.
Learn more about holding space for yourself and others, and about cultivating the lifestyle and relationships you want, in our upcoming online Holding Space Foundation Program.
I’m at the airport, ready to fly from the west coast of Canada to the east coast (where I’ll spend time with some dear friends), and then, next week, I’m heading to Europe for a few months, followed by some time in Costa Rica. I drove to the west coast from my home in the middle of Canada to move my youngest daughter back to university, and then I left my car with my middle daughter. All that I will wear and use for the next six months is packed into carry-on luggage.
If you’ve been following along on social media over the last few months, you will likely know that I sold the house I’ve lived in with my family for twenty-four years (where I raised my children), gave away most of my furniture, and packed my personal belongings into an 8’x10’ storage unit. All three of my children have left home over the last year, and now it’s my turn to leave the nest. In about six months, I expect I’ll be looking for another place to live (in a new city), but for now I’ll be living out of a small suitcase and smaller backpack.
It’s been a year of big transitions for me. Last year, I wrote about letting my daughters go. Now, in the wake of that big change, I have let my house and most of my belongings go. It was hard, but it was time. I knew the house had served its purpose in our lives and the next chapter of my life belongs in a different place – a place I will find when the time is right.
Someday I will write more eloquently about what it’s like to release as much as I have, but right now it’s still difficult to articulate. Some of it was good, some of it was hard, some of it was healing, and some of it was painful. The last four days in the house felt especially gruelling, when I (together with two of my daughters) worked from sun-up to sun-down, sorting and cleaning and carrying and donating and dismantling and packing and releasing. Part of me wants to block the memory of that hard time from my memory, but a wiser part knows it’s important to hold space for it all. It’s the kind of transition that changes a person.
As best I could, I tried (and continue to try) to walk through this time with mindfulness and intention, paying attention to whatever emotions came up, being tender with myself whenever necessary, and making choices that align with my values and needs. I am, as always, intent on living a mindful, liberated, tender, intentional life.
Here are some of the things I’ve been noticing about what it means to hold space for myself during such a time:
Even when you’re choosing something that you really want, there will be periods of grief. It can be surprising when the grief sneaks up on you, but it’s normal. There are losses even in a joyful transition. I was ready to leave my house and had planned for it for several years as I helped my daughters launch into their lives, but there were still moments when I simply needed to sit down on the floor and cry over all of the memories that were held within those walls. I wasn’t just letting go of a house – I was letting go of the last home where I’d live with all of my children, and the last place either of my parents would ever visit me. I was leaving the place I’d built my business, written my book, gotten a divorce, grieved my parents’ and son’s deaths, and loved and been loved abundantly and well. Each room I cleaned and each piece of furniture I moved out held a myriad of stories, and those stories had emotional triggers attached, so I grieved and released.
Fear shows up with many disguises, especially during big life changes. Fear can masquerade as anger, frustration, immobility, impatience and/or difficulty making decisions. “Look over there!” fear says, to distract us away from the truth that’s hidden underneath. I had moments when I’d suddenly be irritated with my real estate agent, belligerent with caring people who were asking questions I didn’t know the answers to, or unable to make a simple decision over what to do with a favourite bookshelf. When I’d get quiet with myself, I’d almost always find that fear was at the root. Whenever I’d give fear a voice, it would settle and release some of its hold, so I’d listen, soothe, make adjustments if necessary, and carry on. I tried not to shame myself for the fear or get too attached to it but to simply let it surface and then let it go. In the quiet space after the fear was finished with its blustering, I could usually make my way back to my original intentions and reasons for making the decisions I had.
The emotional waves will come and sometimes you’ll feel like you’re drowning, but when you treat yourself with tenderness in the midst of it, the tidal waves pass and soon the seas are calm again. I can’t tell you how many emotional roller coasters I’ve been on lately. There have been far too many to count. (The last one was just hours ago when I said good-bye to two of my daughters who I likely won’t see for six months.) Almost every day for the last few months I’d get knocked over by the waves at least once. When I tried to push the emotions away, they’d eventually find a way to resurface, but when I’d meet them with tenderness and mindfulness, soothing myself and not getting overly attached to the feelings, they’d pass and soon I’d be back on solid ground again. “This too shall pass” seems like a trite mantra, but it works. No emotions ever last forever.
Sometimes joy surprises you in the most unexpected way at the most unexpected moment. One of my favourite moments, in those last few unrelenting days in the house, came in the most unexpected way. We couldn’t decide what to do with all of the food in the pantry or the cleaning products or the random things that we hadn’t found homes for yet and we were running out of time. Two days before we had to be out of the house, I set up a table in front with a sign “FREE – I’m leaving the country – PLEASE take my stuff!” and then we filled the table to overflowing with canned goods, dry pasta, spices, cushions, etc. My daughter posted a photo and invitation on Facebook Marketplace, and within fifteen minutes, people were streaming to the house, happy to take anything we’d give them. While I was bringing out more things, I stopped to chat with some of the people. Many were newcomers to Canada, some having arrived as political refugees from the Ukraine, Algeria, and Chile. Though our conversations were brief, they were all lovely – human lives touching other human lives. Because many of them had, fairly recently, been on their own life-changing journeys, they all wanted to know about mine and they offered encouragement and support. One lovely man who’d sold his home in Chile to give his children a more safe life in Canada offered gracious advice about the grieving process. He and his wife then offered to help clean my house in exchange for the chairs and barbecue I gave them. At one point, when the table was almost empty, my daughters noticed that a family had come by taxi. “Mom!” one said. “We can’t let them waste a taxi ride! We have to find more stuff!” So we rooted through the cupboards and fridge for whatever was left and they took it all. I don’t think my daughters or I will ever forget how much joy it gave us to simply give things away and connect with the people who needed those things. It reminded me of my childhood, growing up poor on a farm, when I got a windfall – a couple of bags of barely used clothes that were just my size, dropped off by a neighbour.
The bigger the transition, the more you need to be intentional about prioritizing time for processing, rest, and tenderness. It’s tempting to keep ourselves overly busy to avoid the feelings that want to come up, but in the end, we’re able to meet the transition with more grace if we give ourselves space. One of the best things I did during the month of August was commit to a morning bike ride to the park with my journal and give myself time to process whatever was coming up. Even though it sometimes felt indulgent, especially on those days when I had the most to do, I knew how much I needed it and how cranky and disoriented I could sometimes be without it. Sitting by the river every day, watching the waves below and the hawks above, helped me to stay grounded and less wobbly when the emotional waves threatened to overtake me. Because I’m introverted, it also helped to resource me for the times when I’d have to face numerous interactions with lawyers, bankers and other service providers.
In the words of Elsa in Frozen, “Let it go, let it go, let it go.” With so many changes going on, not only did I need to let go of a lot of stuff, I also had to let go of expectations, let go of plans, and let go of a vision of the way things “should” turn out. As I’ve already written, the letting go started when I made less money on the house than I’d hoped. It continued from there. When construction workers showed up to tear up the street in front of my house weeks before the move, I had to let go of my plans for a garage sale and a backyard party. Then I let go of most of my expectations that I’d make money off my furniture and gave most of it to an organization that helps support Indigenous families who are trying to get their kids out of foster care. “Let it go” became the theme of my summer as box after box of things left my house to go to local charities, friends’ homes, and then the homes of strangers who responded to our FB Marketplace invitation. I can’t say it was always easy, but I can say that the less I resisted the letting go process, the happier I was for the freedom and lightness that followed and the more I could appreciate the fact that others were making good use of the things they’d received. Sometimes I had to grieve the letting go (and that often happened during my morning times with my journal at the river), but once I acknowledged the feelings, I was able to face the adjusted reality with a measure of courage and grace.
You have to be prepared to drop the balls that bounce. A time of transitions is NOT the time to prove we are a superheroes who can do ALL the things. Instead we have to take on fewer responsibilities, say no to more commitments and set healthy boundaries, prioritizing our own well-being. If you’re anything like me, you will likely need more energy and time than you expect to need, so be meticulous about guarding what you need. I had high hopes, for example, of throwing a big backyard party to say good-bye to my friends. I had to let go of that plan largely because the construction on our street made it too difficult for people to find parking but letting go was for the best because I know I would have exhausted myself trying to host people in the midst of the chaos. I let go of other things too (like responding to email on a timely basis), acknowledging my own limits during a stressful and exhausting time. I’m still letting go of things, even as I set off on my adventure, because I know that I now need rest and restoration to replenish myself after an exhausting few months. (If you’re waiting for an email reply, please bear with me – I’ll get to it.)
Sometimes you need to send out a distress signal to remind yourself that there are people who care for you. On the morning of the last day before the new owners took possession, my daughter convinced me not to try to be a superhero about doing everything ourselves and to hire a cleaner to come after we’d gotten the last of the things out of the house. Once she got the okay from me, she hired someone to come at five o’clock and all day we kept counting down the minutes until we could rest and let someone else finish the work. Just before five, I made a last trip to the storage unit, and when I came home, I expected my daughters would have let the cleaner into the house. That isn’t what happened, though. When I pulled into the driveway, both daughters were sitting on the front step looking dejected. There had been a mix-up and the cleaner wasn’t coming. Now here we were, weary to the bone, and still had hours of cleaning work to do. “It’s time to call in reinforcements!” my other daughter said, reaching for her phone. “Everyone ask at least one friend to come and we’ll have it clean in no time.” So that’s what we did – we sent out a distress signal and within minutes, there were four friends in our house scrubbing our toilets and washing our floors. We were still there for a few more hours, but a surprising amount of energy returned to our bodies when we were surrounded by friends lending their energy to ours. Plus the shared Chinese food feast at the end was a good finale to a hard day.
Trust yourself. Trust your own resilience, your courage, your wisdom, your strength, and your ability to adapt to changes. In the midst of the hardest moments, I found resources I didn’t know I had. I saw the same in my daughters. Even when our bodies were ready to give out, we found inner pools of strength and courage that got us through to the next moment. Whenever I felt overwhelmed, doubtful, depressed, or afraid, I was always able to reach deep down for what I needed for that moment (though sometimes I needed to break down and cry first). Though it’s not really fair to compare what we did with an extreme endurance race by people who seem to have superhuman strength and courage, I sometimes found myself thinking about the show World’s Toughest Race (on Amazon Prime) where teams compete around the clock in some of the most gruelling conditions imaginable. Even when their bodies seem broken, they rally the strength for one more challenge. Though it’s not good to push ourselves in this way on a long-term basis, in critical moments, we find what we need to get through. We are surprisingly adaptable and resourceful human beings.
When transitions feel too big to process all at once, and the feelings are too complicated to articulate, a ritual can help. There were so many layers to this transition that made it feel complex. I wasn’t just selling a house, I was leaving the city where I’ve spent almost all of my adulthood and the province where I’ve spent almost all of my life. I was also removing the safety blanket from my young adult children who won’t have a back-up home to retreat to when their lives feel hard or even a mom in the country for the first six months. (We haven’t figured out Christmas yet.) And I was moving away from my business partner and having to figure out how to transition our business relationship to virtual-only. And I was leaving behind my sister and some close friends who mean a lot to me. One day, I was feeling particularly restless and unsettled, so I decided to make a solitary drive out to the small town where I grew up, where both of my parents are buried. At the last moment, I took along a basket of stones that I had decorated several years ago and wasn’t sure what to do with in the move. On the way to my hometown, I came up with an idea for a ritual to help mark the places that had helped shape me as a child. At each place, I left a small cairn (a pile of stones meant to mark a significant place). It turned out to be one of the most meaningful things I’ve done in a long time. (You can watch a video of it here.) It helped me release some of what had been weighing me down and by my last stop (a beach where I used to attend summer camp), I was ready to let go of all of the remaining stones and walk away with a lighter load. Something changed in me after that ritual and I felt much more at peace with my uncertain future.
Lean into Mystery. In my book, The Art of Holding Space: A practice of love, liberation and leadership, I talk about how holding space is like “being a three-layered bowl” with the outer layer of that bowl being what you lean into. The two elements that make up that outer layer are Mystery and Community. I already talked about leaning into community above, but the other aspect is also important – Mystery. Mystery can be defined however you want to define it – God, Allah, Spirit, Universe, nature, Love, your higher power, Tenderness, etc. Whatever name you use for Mystery, especially in the midst of a big life change, it is helpful to have a sense of something bigger than you, holding you and caring for you. I have a tendency to become quite self-reliant in times like this (some of which is related to trauma and social conditioning), but I have learned that I am stronger when I lean into trust that not everything has to come from my own internal resources. In the hardest moments, I would try to lean into a sense that someone wiser than me was maintaining some sense of order in the universe and all would eventually be well.
Let yourself recuperate and integrate. To be honest, this is the one thing on the list I haven’t yet done. After emptying the house, I drove across the country to move my daughter into her university dorm and then did lots of mom-things like stitching up a duvet cover and making multiple trips to IKEA and Walmart to help her get what she needs for the year. The next stop is a visit with a friend whose health is deteriorating, and then I’ll spend time with my oldest daughter in Toronto (also helping her settle into a new space). In other words, I haven’t gotten to the “recuperate and integrate” phase of this process yet. I’ve barely found a moment to myself in the last two weeks. I’ll get there, though, because I know it matters. My first two weeks in Europe will be all about food, wine, beaches, and relaxation. In October, I’ll start teaching a series of workshops, but first I will rest, play and recuperate. I will give time for my body and soul to recalibrate after an intense summer.
I started this post at the airport on the west coast, but I am finishing it at the home of my friends Randy and Brenda on the east coast. Randy has long been a wise spiritual guide and generous friend to me (and some of you saw an interview I did with him for Know Yourself, Free Yourself) and now he is dying of ALS. Moments ago, in one of the fifteen-minute segments that he has enough energy for conversation, we spoke about how the journey that I am embarking on has some parallels with the one that he is taking. We are both releasing a lot of things so that we can journey forward with more lightness. We are both transitioning out of times in our lives when we were bound by duty and accepting that we’re no longer meant to be filling as many people’s needs. We are both leaning into the unknown and we are both learning to trust that we will find the resources we need and that people will care for us when we need it.
There’s at least one crucial difference, though – while I can at least make tentative plans and book flights and accommodations for the places I’ll be landing, he has to trust that wherever he arrives once his body releases his soul will be a place of peace, ease, and beauty. He’s a person with a strong sense of Mystery and he has told me that he believes that death will be a release into “pure joy” where the worries of this world no longer weigh him down. “Can you send a message back once you arrive?” I said to him just now, before he closed his eyes to rest. “Let me know what the accommodations are like in your new home.” We both laughed about what form that text message might take, when he has to find creative, non-verbal ways of getting me to hear whatever wisdom he has gained in his big transition. Up until now, we’ve always had words as our tools for communication.
I am not dying as Randy is, but I do believe that I am taking steps to invite more joy, liberation and ease into my life, and I know that I will learn many things in this big transition. I will be sure to send messages to you, my dear friends and readers, from wherever I am to let you know the lessons I learn along the way. Unlike Randy’s, mine will come by traditional forms of communication, like this newsletter and my social media feed. Watch for it and join the conversation!
****** On a somewhat related note, Krista (my business partner) and I have been grieving our Monday morning meetings when we’d talk about business but also talk about the state of the world and how we feel called to make a contribution through the Centre for Holding Space. Since we’ll no longer be able to meet in our neighbourhood coffee shop (thanks Little Sister for hosting us for several years), we’ve decided to experiment with our conversations and to share some of them with you. Eventually we will likely start a podcast, but for now we’ll be chatting with each other via short videos on TikTok (search for Centre for Holding Space), Facebook or Instagram. We’d love it if you’d follow along!
I am leaping into liminal space. I have sold my house and this month I’ll be selling my furniture, packing my personal belongings into storage and heading off to Europe for a few months. After that, I plan to spend some time in Costa Rica, and then… I don’t know. I haven’t yet decided how long I will live a nomadic lifestyle and how (or where) I will eventually come to define “home”.
When people ask about my future plans, some are incredulous, some are baffled, and some express their longing to do something similar. It’s hard to explain a choice like this – to completely uproot myself at the age of 56 – because I’m not sure I entirely understand it myself. I just know that the house I have lived in for twenty-four years, where I raised my three daughters, doesn’t feel like my forever home, nor does the city I live in.
If you ask me on a bad day, when I’m a little terrified of not having a place to call home or a little overwhelmed with all of the work I still have to do this month, I might look at you with a blank look on my face and say that I have absolutely no idea why past-me thought this was a good idea.
If you ask me on a good day, though, I will tell you about how I have always wanted to live an adventurous life, how I want to be playful with the future now that I am no longer responsible for giving my children a home, how I feel like this northern prairie city has given me all that it can, how I now feel pulled toward the ocean, and how I want to test the limits of my capacity to be liminal, alone and still grounded (while also seeking out the people who will hold me in this liminal space). I will tell you about the ways in which I have crafted my life for just such a moment, building work that is not tied to a place and growing an international circle of friends and clients.
Last year, I wrote about how I was helping my daughters launch from my home into homes and lives of their own, and, in many ways, it now feels like I’m doing the same for myself. We are at different stages of our launching, each seeking what’s next in our lives. In archetypal language, they are moving to the next step beyond their Maiden phase, and I am moving from Mother to Crone. (Some say that there is a Queen phase before Crone, and that is likely more accurate for me. I also think my daughters need a name for the phase between Maiden and Mother – or an alternative to “Mother”. Admittedly, these archetypes are a little limited and rooted in an older view of womanhood, but the overall concept still has some relevance.)
When these transitions happen, whether in youth or in later adulthood, there is always some time spent in liminal space where the old story can be released and the new story can be born. That’s where I am now, feeling wobbly and unsettled. I wish that I could say that, after all of the experience I’ve had in liminal space (plus writing a book about it), I am surrendering to the process and walking through it with grace and acceptance. But that is only true in those moments when my higher self manages to soothe the reactivity of the scared little girl in me who believes she is only safe when the world feels familiar and predictable.
What I know to be true in these times of liminality is that there is value in ritual and ceremony – exercises that help us mark the transition, process the emotions, release our attachments, soothe the reactivity, and honour the growth. To that end, I have begun to think of the next six months as a form of pilgrimage or quest. It’s not clear what I am looking for yet, but isn’t that the nature of a quest? That we don’t find the answers until we learn what the right questions are? I’m still looking for the right questions.
To surrender to the quest, when all feels liminal and the outcome is hidden behind a shroud, takes a special kind of trust, and in many of my wobbly moments, I’m not sure I’ve found that kind of trust yet. My higher self tells me I have, but my scared inner child keeps insisting she’s delusional and not to be trusted.
Sometimes one has to leap in order to discover they have the courage for flight. Before I leap, at the end of this month when I hand the keys to this house to the next owner, I’ll keep working on soothing the inner child so that the courage doesn’t get lost in all of the noise.
As I prepare for what next month will bring me, I am finding that mini-pilgrimages help prepare me for the big one. To that end, I am doing things like visiting places that feel sacred and have meaning to me and listening, one more time, for the wisdom that the prairies have to offer. I am also setting off nearly every morning on my bicycle, to find a place near the river where I can sit with my journal to process all of the big feelings coming my way. (You can read about one of those morning journal sessions over at the Centre’s blog.)
There is something especially meaningful about my morning pilgrimages. Although I write in my journal in many other places, the wisdom that comes to me after I have cycled to my location, while I sit and watch the river flow by feels uniquely poignant. It helps to sustain me during these disruptive times. The movement of my pedaling feet helps to soothe my activated nervous system, the trees and the river speak to me when I’m still, and the return cycle helps me integrate what’s been spoken into my journal before I return home. This is the way of a pilgrimage – first there is the going out, then there is the pause for listening, and then there is the return journey.
A pilgrimage – even one as minor as a bicycle ride to the park – holds within it the capacity to give us back our imagination. That’s the nature of the “pause for listening” at the mid-point of a pilgrimage. After releasing whatever keeps us attached to the past, we are able to see through more clear and creative eyes, imagining that which was not accessible to us in the midst of the clutter of our old stories and patterns.
This pattern of Release, Receive, and Return also shows up in a labyrinth walk, and that’s another place I’m visiting regularly this month. When I visit, just as I do at the park with my journal, I sit at the centre, in solitude and silence, and I am able to hear the wisdom that my scared inner child was masking with all of her anxious noise. The journey to the centre is not unlike the soothing walks I used to take my daughters on when they needed emotional regulation.
I would love it, dear readers (especially those of you who are also in the midst of liminal space), if you could all join me at the labyrinth, but I know that it will only be possible for a few of you. If you can’t be there, perhaps you can find your own form of pilgrimage? Perhaps you can set out for the park with your journal? Or find a labyrinth in your neighbourhood? Or visit a place that feels sacred for you, to see what wisdom the land wants to impart on you? I believe that there is something especially powerful about people collectively seeking wisdom for what comes next, and I believe that’s especially needed in the world right now. What might happen if we all do it simultaneously in our own parts of the world?
Wherever we are in our lives, one thing is certain – we will continue to face transitions up until the day our bodies reach the final transition, from life into death. We can meet those transitions with fear, anger, and resistance as our guides and companions, or we can seek the wisdom of our higher selves and invite acceptance, courage and peace to accompany us. If you choose the second, as I do, perhaps a ritual like a labyrinth walk (or other form of pilgrimage) might help.