It all starts when a real estate agent sees me naked. It’s 8:30 a.m. and I am emerging from my bathroom, where I’d been blow-drying my hair, into my bedroom where I am about to get dressed. He is standing there, in my hallway, looking completely flummoxed.
My real estate agent (not the one standing in my hallway), had told me that the first viewing by a potential buyer was happening at 9 a.m., and I’d planned to be dressed and gone from the premises before then. Due to some mixup, this agent had booked an 8:30 showing that hadn’t been communicated to me (a pattern that repeats itself later in the week, though not with such dramatic results).
I dress quickly and hurry out of the house. At the doorway, I see a large pair of men’s dress shoes – an unusual sight in a house that has housed only women for the past seven years. Outside, in my driveway, stands the young, flustered agent, in his socked feet. I suppress a giggle when I consider the mad dash he’s made from the house. Trying to save face (but not looking at mine), he swears to me he’d booked the appointment and swears he’d called out when he’d let himself into the house. I brush it off, climb into my car, and drive away.
Throughout the remainder of the day, as I juggle the chaos of running a home-based business while multiple showings disrupt my day, I burst out laughing whenever I remember the man in my driveway without his shoes.
Only later – perhaps the next day – I surprise myself with the realization that the encounter did not trigger me. A strange man intruded on my private space and saw me naked, and… I laughed!
I have spent years healing from the trauma of what has happened to me in bedrooms, and years creating a sanctuary where my body can finally release its hypervigilance and feel safe. Many times, I have despaired at how long it takes for my body to learn a new story. But now, thirty-four years after a man climbed through my bedroom window and raped me in my bed, and seven years after I ended the marriage that compounded (in smaller increments) the trauma of that rape, my body didn’t respond with fight, flight, or freeze when a strange man burst through the boundary I’d so carefully constructed. My only response was laughter.
By the next day, my sense of humour has dwindled. The chaos of having my life so frequently disrupted starts to take its toll. Though no other agents see me naked, they want to come at all hours of the day, they change their appointments at the last minute, and I am left juggling the many Zoom calls my work requires with their expectations that I be out of the house so that their clients can snoop through my bedrooms and poke around in my kitchen. Ten minutes before teaching a class, after learning of a last minute scheduling change, I rush to my sister’s house to borrow her internet and kitchen table.
Surprisingly, the agent’s gaze on my naked body seems to impact me less than the parade of people whose gaze falls on my naked house. I don’t know what to make of it. Despite my efforts to distract myself, including a short road trip out of town with my sister-in-law over the weekend when the greatest number of showings are happening, I can’t ignore the churning in my stomach when I think of all of those people in my private space, looking through my closets, intruding on the sanctuary of my lovely backyard, judging my stained furniture, and casting a critical eye on the cracks in the walls and peeling paint on the kitchen cupboards.
There are moments when I want nothing more than to chase them all away, change the locks on the doors, and hunker down in my own house, protecting it from intruders as though it were a city under siege. There are moments when I want to yank the For Sale sign out of the front lawn and commit to the house that I will never, ever leave it.
This house and I have been through so much together. Twenty-four years ago, with a toddler and a new baby, my former husband and I moved in, our hearts full of dreams of the home this house would become. Perhaps I should have known, at the end of that long day of moving, when my body was completely spent but I still had to find a few more drops of strength and kindness with which to feed my babies and help them feel safe in the midst of monumental disruption, that a pattern had been set that would repeat itself again and again in this house. “The way you start your day determines how well you will live your day,” some motivational speaker once said, and perhaps the way you move into a house determines how you will live in that house.
I spent many, many days exhausted, trying to muster up those last drops of strength, courage, and kindness in this house. There were all of those years of mothering small children while working a full-time job. There were the years of my former husband’s depression and there was his second suicide attempt. There were the many times I tried to convince myself I was happy in a marriage that didn’t nourish me. There was the way that my body kept telling me that my bed was not as safe as my brain pretended it was. There were fights and heartbreaks and disappointments and there was that moment, every day, when my body tuned in to the sound of the door opening, trying to anticipate the mood that I’d need to decipher, manage, soothe, support, or deflect in order to help my children feel safe.
Despite what the motivational speakers say, a pattern can only hold for so long before something shatters, before you choose to end a day differently than it began. Seven years ago, it was time for that shattering, time to rearrange what had so long ago been set into motion.
Though I was restless and ready to leave this house and all of the memories it held when the marriage was dismantled, I knew that, more now than ever, I had to muster those last ounces of strength, courage, and kindness in order to give my daughters the home and stability they needed for the tumultuous teen years. With resolve, and much trembling, I pushed through all the paperwork, stress and worry of buying the house all over again so that it would only be my name on the land title. I didn’t know if I could afford it alone, since my business was still in the early days of making enough money to survive on, but for my daughters’ sake, I knew I had to try.
Not only did I succeed in keeping the only home they’d ever known, I worked hard to make it better and more safe. Even before the marriage ended, knowing that they’d each need their own tender space to hold them through the disruption, I redecorated each of the girls’ bedrooms. Then, when the master bedroom was finally mine alone, I did the same for me. From there I moved on to the living room and kitchen, and finally the backyard, tearing out old flooring, painting old cupboards, hiring people to redo the floors and backyard, and learning to use power tools so that I could build shelving units, desks, and tables. I did the best I could with what I had.
A week after the naked encounter with the agent, the date arrives when my agent will accept offers. There have been about 30 showings in a week, so she expects there to be a bidding war that will land far above the asking price, but it doesn’t turn out that way. The repairs needed on the foundation, the cracked basement walls and cracked living room ceiling have scared people off more than we expected. We’ve priced it much lower than comparable homes in the neighbourhood, knowing that it will require repairs, but even that low price doesn’t convince people it’s a good investment. Add to that the interest rate increase and talk of recession, and buyers have become more reluctant than they were a month ago.
The only offer I receive is below my asking price, and there are conditions that include a full inspection. I decline their offer and make a counteroffer. They decline that with another counteroffer, just a bit higher than they offered in the first place. I am devastated, but I give in, knowing that there’s very little chance anything better will surface.
I consider declining it and taking the house off the market. I consider staying here and pouring more money into the house to increase its value. I consider whether I’m willing to give up my plans to relocate to another city and whether I can be happy living here alone with all of my children moved away and only the memories for company.
I spend a lot of time crying in the next few days as I wait for the house inspection to happen and the deal to be finalized. I cry about the fact that people don’t love my home as much as I love it. I cry about the 29 people who looked and then turned away. I cry about the fact that all of the work I’ve put into the house in the last seven years feels like a financial waste. I cry about the fact that I will leave this home less financially stable than I’d hoped to be at the beginning of the next phase of my life. I cry because it’s so easy to turn “they don’t value my house” into “they don’t value me”.
I cry especially on the day that the house inspection happens. For three hours, I have to be away from the house while a stranger pokes even deeper than all of the people who came before. This time, they will evaluate every square inch of the house, critiquing the windows, the furnace, the appliances, the walls, and the foundation. This time, they will open every closet and look for leaks under every sink.
I wake up that morning suddenly remembering that there are some old mildew stains I hadn’t managed to clean off the trap door at the top of my closet that opens up into the attic. It’s one of the only spots I forgot to clean in the two-month frenzy to prepare the house for sale. I worry that the inspector will take the mildew too seriously and warn the buyers to back away from the deal. I cover the clothes hanging in my closet with an old blanket, climb onto a chair, spray bleach onto the ceiling and scrub.
A few hours later, when it’s nearly time for the inspection to be over and for me to be allowed back in, my agent calls. The inspector wants to know if he can move the clothes in my closet to access the trap door into the attic. I say yes, both relieved that I took the time to clean the mildew and annoyed to know that someone is currently rummaging in my closet.
When I get home, there are far too many signs that someone has been in my home and the frustration boils into rage. I feel disrespected and somewhat violated when I see how many items have been moved away from walls and not returned to their rightful places. On one of the hottest days of the year, all of the curtains have been pulled open and the furnace has been left on.
What is the value of a home? As I wait through the evening for my agent to give me the final word, I ask myself that question. Can the value of this home, that has held so many of my heartaches and born witness to so many of my traumas, really be measured by a dollar figure on the piece of paper my agent passes across the table to me? Can any amount of money tell of the worthiness of this house, when it has been a refuge through so many storms?
It’s the lie of capitalism, I realize, that tells us that worth can be measured. It’s the lie we’ve been told again and again – the lie that has taught us to commodify our lives, our bodies, our stories, our talents, our land, and all of our possessions, placing the value of one above another, diminishing it all to a dollar sign on a piece of paper.
The feminist rage boils up in me as I realize the grief and shame that I’ve been feeling about people devaluing my home is the same old grief and shame I’ve felt about people devaluing my body. “The basement is cracked and the house is showing its age,” they say, casually, as if this home is only a commodity. “Take $50,000 off its value.”
“Your body is fat, female and showing its age,” they say, casually, as if this body is only a commodity. “Take $50,000 off your value.”
My agent finally arrives, and the evening drags on with multiple back and forth phone calls while the buyer’s agent points out what the inspector has revealed. He tries repeatedly to bring the price down even more. Fed up, I say a firm “NO” when my agent is on the phone with him. “He heard your no,” she says when she gets off the phone and I’m not sure if she’s admonishing me or cheering me on for being so clear. Either way, I don’t regret it. I know that I have the power to walk away rather than let this agent chip away any more of my value, and I know that I will carry my head high whatever the outcome.
Finally, the sale goes through and my agent leaves. I crawl into bed, unsure of how I feel.
The next morning, it begins to settle in that I have sold my house. The remnants of grief still cling to me, but I become resolved to pick myself up and carry on. “It’s only money,” I tell myself. “It says nothing about the value of my home and nothing about the value of me.”
I look around my home and see it through the eyes of love. I peer out my bedroom window and watch the birds land in the branches of my sturdy maple tree and the squirrels scamper along my fence. I touch the walls with tenderness, like I used to touch my children’s skin when they were little. I soften my gaze as I peer at my naked body in the mirror. Home and body – both priceless, both loved.
I remember the words of Sonya Renee Taylor in The Body is Not an Apology. “Living in a female body, a Black body, an aging body, a fat body, a body with mental illness is to awaken daily to a planet that expects a certain set of apologies to already live on our tongues. There is a level of ‘not enough’ or ‘too much’ sewn into these strands of difference.” I feel that in my body and I feel it in my home.
Our systems – capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy – are structured to profit from our self-hatred, Taylor says, convincing us to buy more and more things to try to cover up our shame and prove to each other and ourselves that we are worthy of love. We are measured with yardsticks that teach us whose bodies have more worth, whose lives should be protected, and who should be shamed for taking up space. And when the walls of our homes are similarly measured, it feels personal.
“Think of body shame like the layers of an onion. For decades in our own lives and for centuries in civilization, we have been taught to judge and shame our bodies and to consequently judge and shame others. Getting to our inherent state of radical self-love means peeling away those ancient, toxic messages about bodies. It is like returning the world’s ugliest shame sweater back to the store where it was purchased and coming out wearing nothing but a birthday suit of radical self-love.”
The only way to disrupt a system that oppresses people by measuring their worthiness is to stop complying, stop measuring.
It’s now a few weeks since a strange man saw me naked in my bedroom. It’s a few weeks since I burst out laughing at the thought of him standing in his socked feet in my driveway. I notice now, as I think of all of the people who have passed through these rooms since then, measuring the worth of what I love, that I am able to laugh at that too. I see them all in my mind’s eye – buyers, agents, and inspectors – lined up in their socked feet in my driveway, unable to look me in the eye as I walk by. But my head is held high and I am dressed not in a shame sweater, but in my “birthday suit of radical self-love”.
That young real estate agent can know nothing of the value of an aging, saggy female body. He can know nothing of what this body has carried, how this body has triumphed, and how many times this body has nurtured and protected those who are scared or lonely. If there is shame to be had in that moment when this body was seen naked, then he can carry it. I refuse.
Similarly, nobody who walked through these rooms can know anything about the value of this home. They can peer into the closets and peek into the attic, but nothing they see with their untrained eyes will tell them of the stories this house has held or the way it has sheltered my family through the storms.
If there is shame to be had in the cracked walls or mildew stains, I refuse to carry it. Two months from now, when I walk away from this home that I have loved so dearly, ready to start the next chapter in my story, I will do so with my head held high. There may be fewer dollars in my bank account, but the value of what this house has given me will never be measured by that.
In the middle of the house sale, I decide it’s time to finally book the tattoo appointment I’ve been considering for several years. A few days after the sale is finalized, I visit the tattoo parlour and have the words of Mary Oliver inked on my forearm where I can see them easily: “…let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
I will wear those words as a promise to myself to the end of my days. This body cannot be measured. And neither can my home.
At the smallest level, you are the individual at the centre (with your own system existing within your body). Then you are part of a number of microsystems (your family, school, peer groups, local church, etc.). Next is the mesosystem (which weaves together the relations between microsystems and exosystem – for example, the relations between your family members and their coworkers). Then the exosystem (your neighbours, friends of family, mass media, government agencies, social welfare systems, social media, etc.). Then the macrosystem (attitudes and ideologies of the culture, ethnicity, geographic location, socioeconomic status, etc.). Finally, the chronosystem holds all of the experiences of a lifetime (environmental events, major life transitions, and historical events).
Let’s expand the analysis of the person who’s a member of a local church. Not only is it insufficient to examine that person separate from the church that they’re a part of, it is also insufficient to examine that church separate from the broader systems that it is part of. That local church is likely part of a denomination that shapes the traditions, historical relevance, ideologies, beliefs, and biases of that church. That denomination may have multiple levels of influence, from the localized grouping of churches, up to the global governance structure. It is also embedded within a religion that informs, among other things, what version of God is worshipped and how members of that religion interact with people of other religions. And then there is the neighbourhood, city, country, and region of the world that the local church is located in – all of these things also have influence, meaning that a local church in one country won’t look the same as a local church in another country even if they’re in the same denomination.
At an even broader scale, that local church (and, by extension, each member of the church), is being influenced by what’s at the macrosystems level. This is where things like colonization, patriarchy, white supremacy, classism, racism, and capitalism come into play. A church rooted in the patriarchy, for example, will likely still be led by a man, and where white supremacy is an issue, that man will likely be white. And, here in North America in particular, no church is completely free of the colonization that built our countries.
ALL of these systems are at play in that one individual who is a member of that one local church, and so that person cannot be fully witnessed without recognizing what’s at play. Even when that person leaves that church, the systems will still be at play, especially if the person is unconscious of the way that they’ve been influenced while part of that church. (Also at play will be all of the other systems that individual is part of – family systems, community systems, work systems, etc.)
Systems usually evolve as a way to organize us. A system without some form of organization won’t be able to sustain itself or serve the purpose it’s meant for, and so, if we value a system and find meaning in it, we organize it. Imagine, for example, a school that has no sense of order – nobody is responsible for doing the teaching or clean up and students are allowed to do whatever they please. That’s not education, it’s anarchy. (Some would suggest that it would eventually become a self-organizing system, if the desire for education is great enough.)
The problem is that what organizes us often begins to control us. When we become too rigid to allow a system to evolve, when we put the value of the system above the value of the individuals in that system, and when we embed a measurement of worthiness into a system (what Isabel Wilkerson refers to as Caste), then that system is no longer just organizing us, it’s controlling and measuring us. That’s when we end up with the dominance and oppression of systems like colonization.
Then, when a system begins to control people using dominance and oppression, that system begins to cause trauma in its people. A system that causes trauma becomes a system full of traumatized people and (because what happens at the micro level is also what happens at the macro level) it is therefore a traumatized system. Once you have a traumatized system, it becomes particularly destructive and particularly difficult to change. That’s when you see the levels of brokenness that have been showing up in the world – like climate change, and what’s currently happening in the Ukraine.
A traumatized system (just like a traumatized individual) needs people that can hold space for it while it heals. But the challenge is that EVERYBODY in that system has become traumatized and so it’s difficult to step outside of the system enough to help it with its healing. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of trauma.
I am not without hope, though. I have personally witnessed many people, in recent years, who are waking up to this trauma enough so that they can heal it in themselves, and then move themselves far enough outside of the traumatized system so that they can offer healing back to that system and the people in it. These people are learning to work with each other, with the natural world, and with whatever form of spirituality might support them, so that they can work to heal a broken world.
In the Berkana Institute’s Two Loops Model (below), we’re given a hint about what happens when people begin to move away from a traumatized system. The upper loop represents the dominant system, which was once vibrant and alive and served a purpose (the top of the loop). At some point, though, a system’s purpose is fulfilled, and then it needs to complete its cycle so that it can die and make space for a new system. Lots of people resist that system’s death, because it keeps them safe, but some people recognize that the system needs to die and they step away from that system. If those people were traumatized by the dominant system, they must do healing work or they will continue to perpetuate the same trauma that was embedded in the system. As they heal, their imagination becomes reawakened and they become innovators who begin to imagine the birth of something that can replace the dying system. That’s what the bottom loop is for – it represents the evolution of the new system.
In addition to the innovators, there is also a role for hospice workers – those who are willing to support the hospice work of the dying system. Once the old system has been released, the hospice workers join the innovators.
That’s why I’ve created my new course, Know Yourself, Free Yourself. I want to support those people who are waking up – those who are doing their healing so that they can become hospice workers or innovators (or both). I want to help them see the systems more clearly. I want to walk alongside them as they examine their lineage, trauma, beliefs, biases, and relationship patterns. I want to help them imagine themselves as whole people, apart from the systems that measure and control them. I want us to imagine collective liberation and generative love. I want us to know community, connection, and joy. I want us to set our imaginations free so that we can dream our way into new ways of being.
I hope that you will join me in this. It feels really, really important, and perhaps even urgent. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve created three levels for the registration fee – because we want this program to welcome into the circle people from around the world and from across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Tucked into the corners of the mirror in my bedroom are two photos of me. In the black and white photo, I’m a young child, reaching across the table to dip my finger into a bowl of sugar. In the coloured photo, I’m a twenty-six-year-old, standing next to my sister, with a large backpack on my back and a smaller one on my front.
Mostly, I forget that the photos are there, but sometimes I catch sight of them and then I pause for a moment to remember those younger versions of me. When I’m feeling particularly reflective, as I am today, I wonder about the thoughts, fears and dreams of each of those younger versions of me.
They are both, in their own ways, reaching for sweetness. The young child, with a guilty look on her face, is trying to sneak some of the sugar before the grownups notice, snatch it away, or shame her for it. She’s already grown accustomed to being called chubby, and if she didn’t know by then, it wouldn’t be much longer before she’d find out just how undesirable it was to be fat and how shameful it was to want a little more sweetness in her life.
The young woman is standing on British soil on her first grand adventure. She’d reached for sweetness across the ocean, backpacking across Europe to feed her wanderlust. What you can’t see on the photo, though, is the engagement ring on her finger. She’s coming home from that trip to get married and settle down. It will be years before she crosses an ocean again.
Beneath the sweetness of both photos, there is an undertone of sadness. When you peel back the layers, they tell the story of a young woman who’s learning about the limitations of what she is allowed to reach for. She’s learning how far she can go before she gets pulled back. She’s learning not to want too much. She’s learning about shame and expectations and acceptability and responsibility and… all of what it means to grow up a woman.
In the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once, Evelyn Wang is a Chinese-American woman who runs a struggling laundromat with her husband, Waymond. Through a strange turn of events, she discovers that she’s living in a multiverse and that every choice she’s made throughout her life has created an alternate universe where another version of her continues to live out the consequences of the other option of that choice. (For example, in one, she chose not to marry and is living a successful life as a movie star.) In the Alpha Universe – the original universe – people have discovered the existence of other universes and they have found a way to “verse-jump” between them, to access the skills, memories, and bodies of their parallel universe counterparts. They have come to Evelyn for help.
The multiverse is being threatened by Jobu Tupaki, who turns out to be Evelyn’s daughter Joy, whose mind was splintered in the Alpha Universe when the Alpha version of Evelyn pushed her to extensively verse-jump and inhabit other bodies. Evelyn (the laundromat version) is tasked with stopping Jobu Tupaki in order to save the multiverse. To do so, she must verse-jump and briefly inhabit other versions of the person she could have been if she’d made other choices.
In the end (spoiler alert), she must repair a breech with her daughter and talk her out of a nihilistic, destructive view of life so that she doesn’t destroy the multiverse.
As I stand in front of the mirror, remembering those other versions of me, I can’t help but wonder what life could be like if either of those two younger versions of me had made other choices. What if young-child-me had chosen not to accept the shame imposed by a fatphobic culture and had learned to live a life of radical self-love right from the beginning? What if young-adult-me had admitted to herself just how much she loved to travel and how much she doubted that marriage was the right path, and she’d sent back the ring and extended her stay in Europe?
Where would I be now, if I hadn’t been trying so hard to live in a way that was acceptable to my family/community/religion of origin? What if I’d had – right from the start – the kind of safety and belonging I needed to know it was okay to make different choices?
What we only see a glimpse of in Everything Everywhere All at Once is the long-term impact of laundromat-Evelyn discovering the alternative outcomes of the choices she made throughout her life. I want the sequel, the rest of the story. Does she simply accept the status quo, accept that she’s doing the best that she can, or does she recognize the possibility for making new choices that free her from some of the restraints of the old ones? What adjustments does she make in order to live a more liberated future? How does she learn to love herself into her own wholeness?
That begs the question outside of the multiverse… Is there a moment when a person can wake up and see the past, present, and future through less clouded lenses? Is there a moment when you have both the vision and the strength to hold the possibility that your life could still turn out differently? A moment that doesn’t bury you under the weight of regret over the intervening years since those original choices were made? A moment (or, more likely, a series of moments) when you can choose a path toward a life more free of the burdens of other people’s expectations and rules, and the weight of the cultural systems that have shaped you?
I believe there is. Like Richard Rohr in the book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, I believe that most of us reach a threshold in midlife when something happens – a fall, a tragedy, a failure, a relationship breakdown – when we can choose to cling to the life we’ve worked so hard to construct (a life that lives up to the standards we thought were acceptable and that offered us safety and belonging), or we can lean into something more ambiguous, more openhearted, and more authentic. It’s a liminal space moment, when we can choose to fall into the abyss – to release the past, deconstruct the rules and expectations we were working so hard to follow, and dare to become more fully ourselves.
Like a giant game of Jenga, we construct our lives out of the pieces we’ve mostly inherited or constructed based on what we’ve been taught – belief systems, values, rules, cultural practices, relationship patterns, identity, career path, gender expression, and so on. Then, somewhere in the middle, a few pieces get knocked out of our foundation, or we choose to remove them, or we see that they are made of nothing but vapour. Then suddenly what we’ve constructed begins to tumble. Suddenly we see that what we’ve built is precariously balanced and not as sturdy as we’d imagined it to be.
We can choose to accept the deconstruction of the tower, sit in the messiness for awhile, and then find the courage and strength to carry on. Or we can desperately cling to what was and keep plugging the holes and propping up the tower.
Easter weekend always brings back memories of a particular moment when I knew my Jenga tower was about to crash. In 2011, on Easter weekend, we got confirmation that Mom had cancer that would likely kill her. At a family Easter gathering, just after we’d learned about the cancer, my former husband and I got into a big fight. On the way home, while I tried to keep the conversation restrained so our sleeping daughters in the back of the van wouldn’t hear, I told him I was ready to end the marriage and would only give it another chance if he would take the initiative to find us a marriage therapist. Then, on Sunday morning in church, after years of trying to hang onto the shards of my faith, I finally admitted to myself that I no longer knew how to find meaning in the version of the Easter story I’d always heard in church.
Two years earlier, I’d quit my job to start self-employment, but didn’t yet have a stable income. A few years before that, my dad died. That meant that the four foundational pieces on which my Jenga tower was built – marriage, faith, career, and parents – were all at risk simultaneously, some by my choice and some by forces outside my control.
I woke up on the Monday after Easter with an all-consuming sense of dread, terrified that my whole life was about to be destroyed and that my daughters would be taken down with me. For the next few years, I tried desperately to plug the holes and prop up the tower. I kept going to church and I kept trying to save my marriage. Five years later, though, everything was gone – mom had died, my marriage ended, and I stopped going to church. There was nothing but a pile of Jenga pieces on the floor at my feet.
In a game of Jenga, the toppling of the tower marks the end of the game. Life is not like that, though. Instead of marking the end of the story, deconstruction offers an invitation to write a whole new narrative. It’s the moment when you learn that you can let go of the pieces of the tower that don’t belong to you, and you can begin to build something much more sturdy, beautiful, and true. It’s the moment when you realize that the tower was probably also a cage.
My life was not destroyed the way my anxiety told me it would be. It was wobbly for awhile, and I woke up many mornings with that familiar sense of dread, but then I discovered that my deconstruction was liberating me from my tower/cage. It allowed me to tell the truth and to free myself of the parts of my life that didn’t feel true. I discovered I could build the kind of work that gave my life purpose and joy. I could grow relationships with much deeper and more authentic roots. I could search for the version of faith that felt most alive for me. I could say yes to what I loved and no to what limited me. I could find healing for the wounds left behind by the cage and I could grow in ways I never dreamed possible.
Today, when I look at those two photos of younger-me, with the reflection of current-me in the mirror between them, I invite them back into my life and I tell them that, from now on, I will do my best to be true to them. I will build a life that their dreams can be proud of. I will not let them be shamed for the ways in which they reached for sweetness. I will not let them be tethered to other people’s fears or limitations. I will continue to dismantle any of the pieces of the tower/cage that might still bind them.
Unlike laundromat-Evelyn, I can’t step into a parallel universe to discover the alternative outcomes of the choices made by either of the younger versions of me. But I can make choices on their behalf that honour and liberate them, choices less bound by whatever kept them caged.
There’s a pedestrian tunnel I pass through regularly, in all seasons. In summer, I often cycle through, and in winter, I pass through on foot. The tunnel provides a safe passage under a busy freeway. It’s a connecting point between my sister’s house and mine, and it’s also along the best cycling route from my house to downtown.
My friend Saleha laughs at me and shakes her head in puzzlement when I bundle up in -30° C weather and go for my daily walks. “It’s not weather that’s fit for humans,” she says, and she’s mostly right. This is the kind of weather that could kill me if I weren’t dressed for it or if I stood in one place for too long.
I do it anyway, because my walks help to keep me grounded and, as I said last week, they help me soothe some of the emotional overload that’s so often present these days. A few days ago, I snapped a picture of myself to send to Saleha just before heading out the door. She sent back a TikTok video and emoji poking fun at me.
I have the right clothes for winter walking – a down-filled parka and down-filled mittens, a pair of good ski pants, warm and sturdy boots, and a woolen hat and scarf. It can be surprisingly pleasant (unless there’s a lot of wind) and I usually come home sweaty and happy.
I was looking at the selfie I’d snapped for Saleha when it suddenly occurred to me what a good metaphor this is for how our bodies protect us when they sense danger in the environment. My layers of clothing protect me against the cold the way my nervous system protects me against the threat of harm. Like putting a coat on, my nervous system becomes activated (i.e. fight/flight/freeze/fawn) so that I can survive the threat and come home alive.
I love my parka for how well it takes care of me when it’s cold. I also love my nervous system for how well it takes care of me when there’s a threat. They both do their jobs beautifully. I am happy, though, when neither of those things need to do their jobs.
Imagine if I somehow convinced myself that I still need to wear those layers of clothing when I go to the beach in the summer and it’s +30° C outside in the blazing sun. You’d not only look at me funny, but you’d worry that I’d die of heat stroke from being overprotected.
That’s what happens when stress or trauma gets stuck in your body. Your normally well-functioning nervous system becomes convinced there is a threat when there is no real threat. It’s just trying to do its job, but it’s become conditioned to misinterpret the situation and can inadvertently cause harm.
Everyone’s over-reactive nervous system looks a little different (and can also be situation-dependent), so we don’t always recognize it in each other. (It’s not as simple to discern as a parka on the beach.) While one person might tend toward dissociation (freeze), someone else might have an easily triggered temper (fight), or they might run from the room as quickly as possible (flight). Others might become overly solicitous to the source of the perceived threat (fawn), or they might look after everyone else in the room and try to mitigate the threat while abandoning their own need for safety (tend-and-befriend).
Right now, with this pandemic entering its third year, it feels like almost all of us have been walking around with our parkas on for two years, trying to protect ourselves from harm even when the harm is invisible and sometimes non-existent. Not only is the virus a threat, but, for many of us, there are relationship landmines to protect ourselves from, especially in families or communities where people have different opinions about vaccines, etc. Add to that the racial injustices and political unrest that seem to be escalating and it’s just… TOO MUCH.
When do we get to take our parkas off? When can we trust that the environment is safe enough to lean into? For many of us, that might take quite some time because our bodies have become so primed for danger. (Here in Canada, when Spring finally arrives, we often still take our parkas along on long road trips because we never know when the weather might take a turn for the worse.)
I am looking forward to Spring! In more ways than one!
This past weekend, in need of some intentional self-care, I went to the float spa. In a way, the float spa experience is the opposite of the walking-outside-in-winter experience. To get the full experience, you have to strip naked, surrender to the salt water, close the pod to block out light and sound, and float. No effort required. For an hour, you simply lay there and try to rest your mind and body in a womb-like space.
According to the website of the spa I visit, “Without the constant noise of analyzing the world around you, your body lowers its levels of cortisol, the main chemical component of stress. Your brain releases elevated levels of dopamine and endorphins. Not having to fight gravity lets your muscles, joints, and bones take a well-deserved break. Your body suddenly has loads of extra resources, which it gets to focus on things like healing and resting.”
A float spa experience is one of trust and good boundaries. It wouldn’t feel safe if the pod were situated in an area exposed to the public, but with the door to the private room locked, I am able to trust that no harm will come to my body. There are times, though, when I just can’t get to that level of trust. I’ve tried the float spa a couple of times when I’ve been in periods of high stress and burnout and I simply wasn’t able to quiet my over-active brain enough to enjoy the experience. Fortunately, this most recent visit was not one of those times.
This post is not meant to be an endorsement for float spas (they’re certainly not for everyone, and there are less expensive ways to get access to a soothing experience), but rather it’s meant to offer the comparison and to suggest that we all need to find and create spaces where enough of the conditions for safety are met so that our over-active nervous systems can rest. We all need to be able to take off our parkas sometimes, or we’re going to pass out from heat exhaustion on the beach.
One of the other things I do (that’s like a float-spa for my brain) is to stay off social media on the weekends because I know that social media often floods me with too much cortisol. I’ve also limited my activity on social media and limited the amount I express my opinion on hot-button issues so that I don’t get sucked into as many of the cortisol-inducing debates that usually end up leading nowhere (and are engineered by social media to keep us hooked). (That’s been especially challenging recently with our country so divided over the “freedom convoy”.)
I don’t want to “die on the beach”, so I need to regularly take off my metaphorical parka and climb naked into the pod. In other words, I had to make an intentional move away from warrior stance into tenderness.
It’s not that I intend to stay silent on issues of injustice, but if I want to function well enough to do the work that I love, I need better boundaries and more of what makes me feel nurtured and protected. Instead of being a warrior for social justice on social media (where I’m often convinced it makes little difference), I will do my best to continue to bring love, liberation and justice into the spaces I hold. I will protect those spaces with fierce boundaries and help people find what they need so that they can contribute to a world of more love, liberation and justice.
A few people have asked me, lately, why I’ve seemingly turned from my focus on holding space toward tenderness as a theme, and my answer is that those two things are inextricably intertwined. You simply CAN’T hold space without tenderness. And if you never offer tenderness to yourself, then you’ll be much more inclined to hijack space rather than to hold it.
That’s why I wrote the free e-book, The House That Tenderness Built, and why I’m hosting the workshop, Living in the House that Tenderness Built this weekend. I’m doing it because I want to give people their own version of a float spa, where they can take off your metaphorical parkas, let the sun shine on your faces, and let their bodies, minds and hearts rest.
I can’t fix any of the problems people face and I can’t protect them from injustice or a deadly virus, but I can help them find ways to treat themselves when the problems threaten to overwhelm them.
There is far too much evidence of the lack of tenderness in our world these days, and so it’s my mission to help people find it and bring it back. I want it for you and I want it for me. Let’s be tender together. It’s the only way we’ll find the resources we’ll need to step back into the less-than-tender world.