I’ve come to the woods to remember who I am. As I write this, I’m off-the-grid, offline and unplugged, tucked into a tiny cabin by a lake, with just enough solar power to occasionally charge my laptop so that I can write. I cook over a propane stove and haul water in a bucket to wash my few dishes. The only bathroom facility is a compost toilet in a little outhouse just a little further up the hill. I brush my teeth with a cup of water and then spit into the woods. I haven’t showered or looked in a mirror for two days. When I need a break from writing, I wander down to the dock and watch the ripples on the lake. In the evenings, I light a fire and sometimes I read under the light of my headlamp.
Just now I wrote in my journal, “I love it here. It soothes my nervous system. It ignites my creativity. It allows the words to flow onto the page. I love it in all its variations – the rain of yesterday, the sun and warmth of the day before, the deep fog of this morning, and even the chill that made me pull my sleeping bag tighter in my little loft bed last night.”
This kind of solitude and connection with nature nourishes me and re-ignites the spark that sometimes gets dampened by the over-stimulating, demanding, noisy world. I am more myself here, more grounded, and in greater equilibrium.
I know myself here. I remember that I am part of nature – both contributing to it and receiving from it. I am in reciprocal relationship with the woods, the birds, the lake, and the trees. I talk to chipmunks and listen to the songs of the loons floating across the lake. Sometimes I talk to myself.
I know my body and I trust her needs. I know how to meet those needs with the simplicity of what’s available to me. I have little judgement of my body out here in these woods, because I see it in relationship to all that is around me – everything that is both imperfect and wildly beautiful. There’s a gnarly oak tree not far from where I sit and… gosh, she is beautiful in all her imperfection. Out here, I begin to move to the rhythm of the woods and the moon, and my body remembers herself into beauty.
The noise of the city makes me forget these things sometimes. I forget my natural rhythm and my place in the order of things. I forget my beauty and I begin to see myself through the lenses offered up to me by social media, advertising, and capitalism. My body begins to absorb the ways that she has been devalued. In the city, I am fat and aging, and both of those things make me more invisible. In the city, I know my flaws and I get sucked back into the drive for perfectionism. I judge myself through the yardsticks that the patriarchy, white supremacy, and colonization have imposed on me. I evaluate myself through the expectations of other people.
Out here, I disconnect from all of that. I disentangle myself and I stop performing according to the script for which I was trained. I become more fully embodied, more fully in love with myself, more fully visible.
Sometimes I find myself wishing I could stay here, in these woods, but I’m not sure that is wise or even possible for me. I know that I need community too. I know that I need to be part of the world. And I know that this deep connection I have nurtured with myself and with the natural world I am part of is a gift that many are longing for, so I have some responsibility to bring it back into the city with me. I know that, so I sit here in this beautiful place and I write words that I will share with you, my readers and friends.
Sometimes when I teach people the practice of holding space for themselves, they think it’s simply about self-care, but that’s only a small part of it. Holding space for yourself is about knowing yourself, truly seeing yourself. It’s about living a deeply embodied life. It’s about making yourself visible so that you can see yourself more clearly without the lenses that have been passed down to you. It’s about recognizing the harm that’s been done to you by the systems you’re part of. It’s about healing that harm, and then divesting yourself of those systems as much as you can so that you can be free.
Ultimately, holding space for yourself is about freedom. It’s the kind of deeply embodied freedom that I feel when I’m out in these woods. It’s about connection with all that is and acceptance of all that cannot be changed, and it’s about presence. It’s about nurturing relationships of reciprocity and grace with all human and non-human beings, knowing that you are an integral part of all of it.
No, I can’t stay in these woods. I will emerge in a few days and return to the places where people gather to have meaningful conversations and to wrestle with the many complexities in the world. I will emerge because I still have work to do and a contribution to make. But I will return to these woods whenever I need to be reminded of who I am.
On my semi-regular walk this morning, I found myself in the woods and suddenly realized I wasn’t really IN the woods. I’d headed down a familiar path, and yes, I was surrounded by trees, but I wasn’t really present. My body could have been anywhere while my mind was on its own separate journey. My mind was busy bopping around, thinking about all of the things involved in launching my new program today, and ruminating over some challenging conversations I’ve had recently. Truth be told, I hadn’t noticed a single tree and, even though I didn’t have my headphones on, hadn’t heard a single bird.
When I suddenly realized my lack of presence, I stopped in my tracks and started taking it all in. I noticed some of yesterday’s raindrops still on a few leaves. I noticed the graffiti on the rail bridge I was about to pass under. I noticed some clouds moving in and wondered if there would be more rain.
Then, to help me stay present, I turned off the familiar path to a less familiar one. As I discovered while I was traveling this past year, unfamiliarity is more conducive to staying present because it forces me to notice things and pay attention so I don’t get lost. A few minutes on that path was enough to shift my brain out of its ruminating spiral. Occasionally it was tempted to go back there, but then I’d stop in my tracks again and look at a leaf or the trunk of an old tree.
In his book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it can Transform Your Life, Dacher Keltner talks about how awe, “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world,” can shift us out of self-consciousness, ego, anxiety, pettiness, and rumination. What I was doing, when I stopped on the trail to notice the trees, was hitting the pause button on all of those self-protective patterns my mind is habituated in, and landing myself more fully in the moment, more fully in the experience of being in a body that’s present in a beautiful world.
Keltner talks about many kinds of awe in his book (awe in people’s acts of bravery, for example), but says there is something special about awe we experience in the natural world. “In fact,” he says, “it is hard to imagine a single thing you can do that is better for your body and mind than finding awe outdoors.”
In a study that Keltner cites about the impact of awe, Frances Kuo had children diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder “go for a walk of comparable length and physical exertion in a green park, a quiet neighborhood, or noisy downtown Chicago. Children scored better on a measure of concentration only after the walk in the park. Getting outdoors in nature empowers our attention, what William James called ‘the very root of judgment, character, and will,’ and our ability to discern what is urgent from what is not and how to place the hectic moments of our days into a broader narrative.”
Time spent in nature can also make us less entitled and narcissistic. Keltner talks about another study in which one group of students was sent to stare up at trees and another group was sent to stare at a tall building. Later, when told of the compensation for being in the study, those who’d stared at trees asked for less money, citing reasons such as “I no longer believe in capitalism, man.” While participants were answering questions about the experience, a person (who was in cahoots with the researchers) walked by and dropped a bunch of books and pens. Those who’d stared at trees picked up more pens than those who looked up at the building.
As I did on this morning’s walk, I am trying to be more intentional about being in awe, especially in nature. I am also trying to be more intentional about having an embodied experience in a beautiful, complex world. There are far too many ways in which we dissociate and numb ourselves, especially because there is much in the world right now that activates our nervous systems and makes us feel wobbly and disconnected.
To help us all have a more embodied, awe-filled experience in the world, I’ve created a new program called A Full-Bodied Life. It’s both a self-study program and a community where we can have ongoing conversations about topics such as this. You can sign up any time you want and either study alone or join the conversations.
I was standing on the shore as the sun set. The lake was a large blanket and the waves lapping at my feet were so small and thin they looked like someone was pulling a string under that blanket.
To my right, the hombre sky faded from blue to pink. To my left, where the sun was gently slipping beneath the horizon, the blue faded into yellow and shades of orange.
This being November, long after beach-lovers have given up for the winter, I was mostly alone. A flock of geese landed for the night, taking a break from their seasonal journey to the south.
I stood in reverence, barely able to take in so much beauty all at once. It was an embarrassment of riches – a thin place, as the Celtics say, where the sacred feels momentarily reachable through the veil.
Two thoughts landed in quick succession in my quieted mind.
First… “How amazing that the world offers up such beauty, so generously, when there is only one person here to witness it!”
Then… “But…I am a part of this beauty, not apart from it! I am not simply witness, I am part of nature. Just like the geese, I am a momentary part of this landscape.”
It took a little longer for the third thought to land. “If the natural world offers itself so generously, without reservation, and I am a part of that world, then who am I to do otherwise? Who am I to pretend I am separate? And who am I to allow my insecurities, doubts, fear, and social conditioning to get in the way of my contribution to the beauty I’m already part of?”
My eyes filled with tears. First, to truly believe I am beautiful and part of a beautiful world… that’s not a natural way for me to see myself. I have a thousand reasons why I am not good enough, not thin enough, not pretty enough, not talented enough to claim “beauty” as part of my identity. Second, to recognize that what I have to offer to the collective beauty of the world is unquestionably worthy disrupts the narrative that so often runs in my head.
But what if I begin to truly inhabit this belief, the same way the sun, the geese, the sand and the water do?
Not just me, but you, my dear reader. What if we embrace a radical belief in collective beauty and our part in contributing to that beauty? What if we deconstruct all of those voices in our heads that tell us otherwise, and we simply stand at the shore in reverence and humility and choose to believe we are part of what we see?
Will it change the way you do your work? Will it change the way you create? Will it change the way you show up for your friends? Will it change YOU?
This morning I had a lovely conversation with one of the people participating in our Holding Space Foundation Program who’s been following my work since my blog post went viral. She mentioned how impactful it had been to her to learn that I’d been toiling in relative anonymity for ten years before my post went viral and millions of people suddenly showed up at my website. That I continued to be faithful to the work despite how few people were noticing it early on meant a lot to her.
Maya, if you’re reading this, I want you to know that you, too, are part of the beauty of this world. You can stand on the shore and know that you are making a contribution, even when nobody else shows up to bear witness to the generosity of that beauty.
And I want you to know that too, dear reader. Stay faithful to your work, to your play, to your craft, and to your love. Show up on the shore again and again and offer up your contribution. Do it generously and without apology, even when it makes sense to nobody else but you.
I can’t promise you that millions will come, but I can promise that it matters. You matter. Your craft matters. Your love matters. Your beauty matters.
I want to write something for you today, dear readers. I want it to be wise or gentle or provocative or joyful or challenging or peaceful. Or maybe it can be all of that at once – whatever you need it to be.
I want it to stir something in you, to touch a tender part of you, to make you feel less alone, to awaken your passion. I want it to sparkle with originality, to shine with inspiration, to bubble with truth.
I want my words to create a warm cave for you to crawl into, where you will feel cozy and safe. Or maybe they can be a torch that you will carry with you when you step into dark places. Or perhaps a buffet table overflowing with goodness that will nourish and delight you.
What do you need today, dear reader? I want my words to offer you a little of that.
I am sitting by my window, watching yellow leaves flutter in the breeze, hoping inspiration will land in my heart and make its way to my fingertips. I want this because I want to send you a gift, with your name embossed on it, to remind you that we are connected and there is a thread that stretches from my heart to yours. To remind you that whatever you are going through, there is another person, perhaps on the other side of the world, who’s thinking of you and wanting goodness for you.
But today the words aren’t coming. Today there is only the dappled sunlight through the leaves. Today there is a mother on the sidewalk tugging her small son behind her in a blue wagon. Today there is this cozy blanket keeping my bare feet warm. Today there is the silence of a home without daughters. Today there are geese flying over my house to their winter homes in the south. Today there are feathery clouds in a blue sky and squirrels gathering provisions for the winter.
So, today, I will sit here in this gentle moment and send you kindness that doesn’t need to be wrapped in words. I will send you hope and peace and a little of the magic I see outside my window. I will send you the courage and fortitude of the geese who have so far to travel. I will send you the joy of the little boy in the blue wagon. I will send you the resilience and resourcefulness of the squirrels gathering what they need for darker times. I will send you the peacefulness of the tree releasing its leaves to settle into the long rest of winter.
I will sit here in this sunlight and hope that some of the light will bounce off me and be reflected in your direction.
And I will hope that you, like the squirrels, can gather some of the goodness buried under my meagre words and store it up to feed you in the lean months.
I have been sick this week, so I don’t have a lengthy reflection to share with you, but I thought I’d still take the time to offer one simple thought that came to me while I was in Vancouver.
I was fortunate enough to be in Vancouver for the blooming of the magnolia trees. We don’t have magnolia trees in Winnipeg, so it’s a rare treat to see them in bloom.
The tree outside the window of my friend Lisa’s apartment wasn’t quite ready to burst open, so she drew me a map to make sure I’d get to see at least one tree in bloom before I went back home to the prairies. “Glorious magnolia tree” is what she wrote on the map, and I carried that map with me in search of beauty.
The map did not disappoint. There wasn’t just one glorious magnolia tree but several lining a short block. Some of the blossoms were pale pink, some were white, and some were dark pink. All were in raucous, glorious bloom.
As I stood there, staring in awe at the sometimes refined and sometimes sloppy blossoms bursting out all over the trees, this thought came to me…
A magnolia tree makes no apologies.
It doesn’t ask permission to bloom. It doesn’t apologize for being big and bold and pink. It doesn’t worry if it’s not as demure as the tree down the street. It doesn’t hide its glorious blossoms behind leaves or branches.
There is not a moment’s hesitation in a magnolia tree’s fulfilment of its purpose. It only knows that it must live up to what’s put in its DNA to do. It only knows that it must respond appropriately to Spring’s invitation to burst into bloom or it won’t be able to produce seeds for future magnolia trees.
I wonder what it would be like if we all lived more like magnolia trees.
What if we simply trusted that each of us has a purpose that involves blooming and not hiding those blossoms? What if we dared to be big and bold and beautiful? What if we stopped worrying about how others will judge our shininess? What if our only authority on when to bloom were the seasons and not the people who prefer to keep us small?
If you want your life to amount to something – if you want to produce seeds that will grow beautiful things in the future – then you need to be prepared to burst into bloom when the time is right. No, you might not have a calling that looks as bold as a magnolia tree (perhaps you’re a tiny violet hidden in the grass close to the ground) but whatever you’re called to do…
Don’t apologize for bursting into bloom.
Just go ahead and burst open. And if it’s not your season to bloom, then rest for now and trust that the blooms will come.
Tribe-building is important and valuable, but it only takes you part way down the path to an openhearted life.
This week, I’ve been contemplating what we should do with the people outside of our tribes.
It’s cozy and warm inside a tribe, and the people are supportive and non-threatening, so it’s tempting to simply hide there and close off from the rest of the world. When you’re hurting, that might be the right thing to do for awhile – to protect yourself until you have healed enough to step outside of the circle.
But the problem with staying there too long is that it creates a world of “us and them”. When you stay too close to your own tribe, it becomes easier and easier to justify your own choices and opinions and more and more difficult to understand people who think differently from you. Before long, you’ve become suspicious of everyone outside of your tribe, and when their actions threaten your way of life, you do whatever it takes to protect yourself. Fear breeds in a closed-off life.
Last week, I knew it was time to challenge myself to step outside my tribe. I’d been playing it safe too much lately, so when I saw a Facebook posting for an open house at the local mosque, I decided that was a good place to start. I shared the information with friends, but chose not to bring anyone with me. Bringing friends with me into unfamiliar territory makes me less open to conversations with people who are different from me and I didn’t want that – I wanted to go in with an open, unguarded heart. That’s one of the reasons I’ve learned to love solo traveling – it’s scary at first, but it opens me to a whole world of new opportunities and friendships that don’t happen as naturally when I’m hiding behind the safety of a group.
I have traveled in predominately Muslim parts of the world and have always been warmly received, so I knew that the open house would be a pleasant experience. It turned out to be even more pleasant than I’d expected.
First there was Mariam, a young university student who served as tour guide to me and a small group of strangers. Mariam’s easy smile and warm personality made us all feel instantly comfortable. She lead us through the gym to the prayer room and told us why she’s happy that the women pray in a separate area from the men. “I want to be close to God when I pray, not distracted by who might be looking at me or bumping into me.” Before the tour was over, Mariam hugged me twice and I felt like I’d made a new friend.
Then there was the grinning young man at the table by the sign that read “your name in Arabic”. His name now escapes me, but I can tell you he never stopped smiling through our whole conversation and was one of the friendliest young men I’ve met in a long time. He told me, while he wrote my name, that he’d learned some of his Arabic from cartoons. Growing up in Ontario, he’d preferred Arabic cartoons to Barney or Sesame Street.
At the “free henna” table, I met Saadia, who moved here from Pakistan three years ago because she and her husband wanted to give their children a better chance at a good education. Her husband is a doctor who’s still trying to cross all of the hurdles that will allow him to practice in Canada. Before our conversation was over, Saadia had given me her phone number in case I ever want to invite her to my home to give me and my friends hennas.
What struck me, as I left the mosque, was how much grace and courage it takes, when your people have become the object of racism, fear, and oppression, to open your hearts, homes, and gathering places to strangers. Instead of hiding within the safety of their own tribe and justifying their need for protection and safety from others, the local Muslim community threw their doors and hearts open wide and said “let’s be friends. We are not afraid of you – please don’t be afraid of us.”
I experienced the same grace and courage among the Indigenous people of our community last Spring after we were named the “most racist city in Canada”. Instead of retreating into the safety of their tribes, they welcomed many of us into openhearted healing circles. Instead of being angry, they taught us that reconciliation starts with forgiveness and the courage to risk friendships across tribal lines.
I will be forever grateful to Rosanna, who invited me to co-host a series of meaningful conversations with her, to Leonard who handed me a drum and welcomed me to play in honour of Mother Earth’s heartbeat, to Gramma Shingoose who gave me a stone shaped like a heart and shared the story of her healing journey after a childhood in residential school, to Brian who welcomed me into the sweat lodge, and to many others who opened their hearts and reached across the artificial divide between Indigenous and settler.
The more I’ve had the privilege of building friendships with openhearted people whose world looks different from mine, the bigger, more beautiful, and less fearful my life has become.
This week, I’ve read Gloria Steinem’s memoir, My Life on The Road and there is so much in it that resonates with the way I choose to live my life. It’s a beautiful reflection of how her life has been changed by the people she has encountered while on the road. “Taking to the road – by which I mean letting the road take you – changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories – in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. It’s right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present.”
Another quote speaks to how much broader her thinking has become because of her encounters on the road. “What we’ve been told about this country is way too limited by generalities, sound bites, and even the supposedly enlightened idea that there are two sides to every question. In fact, many questions have three or seven or a dozen sides. Sometimes I think the only real division into two is between people who divide everything into two and those who don’t.”
We don’t have to spend as much time traveling as Gloria Steinem does in order to live this way – we simply have to open our hearts to the people and experiences in our own communities that have the potential to stretch and change us and lead us past a life with only two sides. Sometimes a conversation with the next door neighbour is enough to help us see the world through more open eyes.