I am carrying a huge basket of stories that I gathered on my trip. Each day I added new stories emerging from the deep conversations I had with people in my travels through Reno, Lake Tahoe, Oakland, San Francisco, Atlanta, Asheville, and finally Lake Lanier. I want to share all of those stories with you, but some of them need to ripen in the basket a little longer before they’ll be ready to be harvested.
First of all, let me tell you that this trip was all about love. Here’s what I posted on Facebook when I first got home…
After all of my travels in five states, after all of the deep and soulful conversations, after the early morning sunrises over the lake, after the sharing circles, after the ziplining, after the skinny-dipping, after the wandering in the woods, after the cracking open of many hearts, after my talk about the courage to lead differently, after bountiful feasts from the hands of many farmers, after the laughter, after the tears, after the deep body hugs and the tenderhearted kisses… after it all fades into memory, my learning can be boiled down to the words on the mug I brought home… Love more. Love fiercely and deeply. Love courageously. Love ridiculously. Love the sky and the earth and the dogs and the caterpillars. Love the wine and the music. Love the brave hearts and the fearful hearts. Love the ones that are easy to love and those who are more difficult. Love with wild abandon. Love until your heart cracks wide open and we all see the fleshy softness inside. Love more and let yourself be loved. Don’t be afraid of love.
It might sound rather pie-in-the-sky, but it’s the ground on which I stand. Love is what let me go on this journey when so many of you supported this dream. Love is what let me connect with beautiful people all along the way. Love is what inspired me to share from my heart on stage. Love is what gave me the courage to believe I had something to share. It’s all about love.
Almost as soon as I got home from my journey, reality smacked me across the face. There’s a huge crack in our basement wall that will probably cost us thousands to fix, my aunt died of brain cancer while I was away and her funeral was yesterday, I’m dealing with a nasty bug bite that I got in Atlanta that seems to be infected and I spent yesterday evening in urgent care, and there’s a little heartbreak in my relationship with one of my daughters. Any of those things individually could have sent me into a tailspin of despair, but they didn’t. I’m okay. I’m more than okay. I am feeling strong and courageous, and – more than anything – loved.
LOVE has made me resilient. LOVE has given me courage. LOVE has given me hope.
At Patti Digh’s Design Your Life Camp at Lake Lanier last week, Maya Stein and Amy Tingle did something so breathtakingly beautiful and full of love, I found my heart breaking wide open. First of all, they’d brought their vintage trailer MAUDE (Mobile Art Unit Designed for Everyone) along to camp and they were inviting everyone to visit to make art tags to hang in a tree. Secondly, they each had vintage typewriters, and if you offered them a single word, they would each write a spontaneous poem on an index card made especially for you. They did both of these things with beauty, grace and generosity, not asking to be paid or flaunting their brand in anyone’s face – simply offering this gift to anyone who would receive it.
The first time I saw them with their typewriters, I felt a little overwhelmed – not sure I could step forward and feel worthy enough of the gift. I was intrigued, but it felt somehow vulnerable and tender to give them a word and then simply receive. I had already received so much on this journey (and even before the journey in order to make it possible) that the gremlins were saying “You’ve received enough. You had the AUDACITY to ask people to help pay for this trip. How DARE you think that you are worthy of another gift?”
When I came out of the session the next evening, though, and saw them with their typewriters again, I knew I just had to do it. I knew I was worthy. I knew, deep down in my bones, that I wanted this gift and was ready to receive it.
I stood in line and waited… and agonized over what word was the right one. I wrote one word down, but then it didn’t feel right, so I scratched it out. Just before I got to the front of the line, I knew what my word was. Resilient.
Resilient is how I feel these past couple of months as I emerge into my work in a bigger way after the hard, hard year of losing Mom, watching my husband have a heart attack, breaking my foot, and then finding out my brother has stage 4 cancer. Resilient is what I’ve been in the past, after losing dad very suddenly, having a stillborn son, and watching the man I love wrestle with depression so powerful he attempted suicide twice. Resilience is one of my strengths and it’s one of the gifts I give to my clients in this work of being real and courageous and hopeful in this broken world.
And so I stood there, tenderly and anxiously, waiting to see what they’d do with the word resilient.
What emerged floored me and broke me open.
Here’s what Amy wrote:
The Amy she mentioned is Amy Dier, who had just shared a very personal story from the stage about learning to love and trust herself and allow herself to be seen. She was a former police officer who’d gone into law enforcement partly because she’d been raped when she was a teenager. She said she’d only shared the story of her rape with 8 people before saying it aloud in this room full of 150 people. After sharing the story, she invited us all to stand in a circle and she walked around the circle, looking into our eyes, and saying to each of us one at a time “I see you.”
What Amy the poet had no way of knowing was that Amy Dier and I do indeed share a story or two – the story of surviving rape, as well as the story of learning to believe we are worthy of being seen.
The second poem, from Maya, was the perfect addition, in a way that neither poet could possibly have known.The day after I was raped by a man who climbed through my bedroom window, I was supposed to take part in a triathlon relay race. I was going to ride 40 kilometres on my bicycle, while others did the running and swimming legs. This felt like a courageous and fierce act for me at the time, given the fact that I’d never believed I was athletic enough to be in any competition of that sort.
I never completed that bicycle ride. My body was too sore after the abuse it took at the hands of the rapist. Plus I felt a strong urge to drive home to the farm to be with my Mom and Dad.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t get back on the bicycle, again and again and again. My whole life has been an act of getting back on that bicycle, each time I fall down. Through all of the deaths, disappointment, and tragedy in my life, I keep getting back on my bicycle – both literally and figuratively. (Ironically, I was actually on my way into the garage to go for a bike ride with my daughter when I broke my foot in Spring. Another metaphor, perhaps?)
And that brings me back to love. I get back on my bicycle because of love. I stay in a marriage that has been challenging because of love. I keep showing up for funerals because of love. I drive across the country to be with my brother after cancer surgery because of love. I sit beside my mother and watch her die because of love. I show up for my teenagers even when they’re snarly because of love. I travel across the country and sit in circle with myriads of beautiful people because of love. I coach my clients and host retreats because of love.
I do what I do because I have been given a lot of love and because I have a lot of love to give.
I pour love into everything I do. And love is what sustains me and gives me courage for this work. Because love is worth it. Love has made me who I am, and that is a beautiful thing.
The next time you need courage or resilience, remember that it starts with love. Give love and receive it and you will be able to get back on that bicycle, no matter how many times you fall.
When you stand at the very centre of the Carol Shield’s labyrinth, as I did yesterday evening, and speak out to the edges, you will hear your own voice echoed ever so slightly back to you. You have to listen very carefully to hear it and you have to be standing in exactly the right spot or the echo evades you.
In labyrinthian journeys, the centre is known as the place where you open yourself to receiving from Spirit, after walking in and releasing what was previously getting in the way.
Which begs the question… what am I meant to receive from the echo of my own voice? What wisdom is already hidden in me that I might not yet be aware of?
Yesterday in church the pastor spoke about giftedness – how we need only be faithful with our gifts in order for them to multiply. At the centre of the labyrinth, I thought about that in relation to my voice. It’s a gift that already exists, coming out of a wisdom that God has already planted within me, and I don’t need to keep looking elsewhere for my source of inspiration.
Faithfulness to our gifts means that we must exercise them, train them, and grow them. Practice and study are both very important, but what’s also important is a deep level of trust in the gift itself.
In our eagerness to perfect the gift, and our insecurity about using it before it is sufficiently polished, we forget about the ancient wisdom already there. We forget that the unpolished gift already has beauty.
When I was a child, I had a growing realization that I had a unique ability to see things – to really see them in a deeper way than most people did. When I would try to explain things that I’d seen to other people, I knew by their lack of understanding that they’d never witnessed them in the same way that I did.
These were fairly ordinary things, but for me they had an aura of magic. For example, I was always captivated by the image of deer leaping over fences. That sight would freeze me in my tracks and I was stand in awe at the magic I had just witnessed. When I would try to explain how that sight impacted me, people would usually look at me with a puzzled look and I knew that they’d only ever seen deer leaping over fences as ordinary and not transcendent.
I stopped talking about things that seemed mystical to me. It made me feel too much like an oddball. Now, years later, I recognize that ability to see things as a part of the ancient wisdom buried in me. I am a meaning-maker, a storycatcher, a seer… perhaps even a mystic. I see metaphor and meaning in things that pass many people by. I receive messages from deer or trees or sunsets and I walk away changed. It’s still not always easy to talk about (as I mentioned in my last post), but I am growing in my ability to trust it.
One man saw the immense physical beauty and enjoyed the event in itself. This man was the “sensate” type who, like 80 percent of the world, deals with what he can see, feel, touch, move, and fix. This was enough reality for him, for he had little interest in larger ideas, intuitions, or the grand scheme of things. He saw with his first eye, which was good.
A second man saw the sunset. He enjoyed all the beauty that the first man did. Like all lovers of coherent thought, technology, and science, he also enjoyed his power to make sense of the universe and explain what he discovered. He thought about the cyclical rotations of planets and stars. Through imagination, intuition, and reason, he saw with his second eye, which was even better.
The third man saw the sunset, knowing and enjoying all that the first and the second men did. But in his ability to progress from seeing to explaining to “tasting,” he also remained in awe before an underlying mystery, coherence, and spaciousness that connected him with everything else. He used his third eye, which is the full goal of all seeing and all knowing. This was the best.
The third man, who sees with his third eye, is a mystic. As soon as I read Rohr’s description of what it means to be a mystic, I knew that this had something to do with the way that I’d always seen the world. The seeds of mysticism were already there when I stood in awe of deer leaping over fences.
I have read a thousand books, taken a thousand classes, and yet none of them can teach me to access the ancient wisdom – the wisdom of the seer – that is already within me. None of them can point to the gift that is meant for me to share. For that I must quiet all of the external voices, remove myself from the noise of my life and walk a labyrinth or wander the woods. That is when my own voice is echoed back at me and I know that I already have what I need.
What is the ancient wisdom buried in you? It may be body wisdom, heart wisdom, or head wisdom. It may be the ability to see justice, create order, experience beauty, shape stories, make people laugh, or offer compassion. What did you already know as a child, but might have been afraid to speak of or do or be because it made you seem like an oddball? What do you now need to do to create space for that wisdom to emerge?
To start with, find a quiet place where your wisdom can echo back to you through the silence. Walk away from the noise of other people’s voices and expectations and stand in silence with your God. In that quiet place, let your gift emerge from its hiding place, let it fill your heart with knowing, and give yourself permission to trust it. Then, by all means, practice, train, and polish it, but don’t forget to use it in the meantime. It already has value.
The gift is yours – be faithful in using it and it will multiply.
I am home after nearly two weeks of journeying across the prairies. It was amazing. I am replenished, encouraged, and feeling full of the goodness of this earth and the people on it.
I am still on a bit of a high and not entirely sure that I have the right words to articulate what this journey meant for me, but I’m going to try anyway, before it slips too far into the past and is lost in a sea of other stories that want to be told.
Part 1: Journey to myself
“In solitude, at last, we’re able to let God define us the way we are always supposed to be defined—by relationship: the I-thou relationship, in relation to a Presence that demands nothing of us but presence itself. Not performance but presence.” – Richard Rohr
Though I could have easily gotten to Calgary with one long day of driving (and have done it many times), I chose to make the trip in two days so that I could savour the trip and enjoy a night of camping by myself. As Richard Rohr writes in Falling Upward, the older I get and the more I learn to love and understand myself, the more I enjoy my own company.
From the moment I left the city limits, I knew there was going to be something special about this journey. It was a stunningly beautiful day, with the kind of fluffy, storybook clouds artists and photographers pine for. It was also the perfect season, when there are still rich summer greens mixed with subtle autumn golds, browns and reds. The canola and flax are in full bloom, the wheat and barley fields are readying themselves for harvest, the round bales are beginning to be laid out across golden hay fields, and the calves born in early summer are strong, virile, and rambunctious.
Everywhere I looked, the prairies seemed to be laying out their finery for me. I couldn’t resist stopping for photos of bright red barns set against bold blue skies, fields where flax flowers flowed like the waves on a peaceful sea, and ditches where butterflies and dragonflies danced from wildflower to wildflower.
When I pulled into Regina, I stopped for a bottle of wine and a cheap plastic wine glass (to enhance the picnic I’d brought from home) and headed to my campsite by a lake. The first thing I spotted at the campsite was a shiny loonie (dollar) on the ground – like someone had left it as a good luck charm.
Pushing through a broad strip of clover that stood higher than my head and smelled of heaven, I came to the lake. There in front of me, for no reason I could ascertain, was a picnic table half submerged in water. I waded out to the table and sat on it for awhile, snapping photos of fishermen, seagulls and rocks. The sun was about two hours from sunset, as far as I could tell, but I didn’t want to miss a moment of its setting. So I brought my picnic lunch and journal to the table and spent the next two hours on my little wooden island in the lake, hidden from view from most people by the huge stand of clover along the shore.
Those two hours were magical. My senses were heightened after a day full of prairie beauty, and every angle, every bit of light, every shadow, every rock, every bird, every line, and every reflection was drenched in beauty. For two hours I sat in awe, watching the light change on the lake and the clouds glow in the sky. God’s presence was palpable. It was one of those thin places that the Celts talk about, where heaven and earth collide.
After the sun set, and night began to drift across the lake, I lit a fire at my campsite and had another magical hour of capturing light of a different kind – orange, glowing, flickering, pushing against the darkness. From the largeness of the sunset sky to the smallness of my cast iron fire pit – I was mesmerized by light.
The next day was much like the one before, with equally piercing blue skies and impossibly white clouds. I wandered on the beach, took pictures of more birds, feathers, and rocks, and then started the drive to Calgary. At one point, a storm rolled in, and the clouds changed to dark and dramatic. After two days of beauty, I wasn’t surprised to see a rainbow show up.
By the end of the day, I felt like I had just been courted by a devoted lover who was doing everything s/he could to make me feel special. In the words of Richard Rohr in the quote above, I was very much in “the I-thou relationship, in relation to a Presence that demands nothing of us but presence itself.” I found God on the prairies and God laid out the finest that the prairies had to offer to make sure I felt loved.
For more photos of my prairie journey, here’s a little video I put together.
Part 2: Journey to my family
“Always remember, there was nothing worth sharing
Like the love that let us share our name.” – The Avett Brothers
The purpose for my trip to Calgary was to visit my oldest brother, Brad, who’d been diagnosed with cancer a few weeks earlier and had had a three foot section of his colon removed the week before. When I’d heard about his cancer, I’d felt an intense need to spend time with him, and so I took advantage of the opportunity. It’s been a hard year for our family, after losing Mom to cancer in November, so the bond between us feels especially important.
If you met my big brother, you might marvel at the many ways that our world views are different, and – on the surface level – you might even question how we find common ground. His politics lean further right than mine do, he’d rather spend the afternoon in a hockey rink while I’d choose an art studio, and he doesn’t see the point in much of the self-discovery or community-building reading and writing I do while I’d be bored to tears with the kind of detail-oriented computer coding he does. (It almost seems like a cliche that he has a degree in math and I have a degree in literature.)
And yet… if you looked at only those things, you’d be missing a lot. For one thing, there’s something about 47 years of shared history, stories, jokes, faith, questions, and grief that creates a common language that few people in the world can understand. There is great safety and comfort in that common language, especially after you’ve lost a few of the only people on earth who know it. When you are in a place where you can speak that language and ask those questions without fear of judgement, it is worth more than gold.
And there’s another thing… unleash us in the mountains, on the prairies, or by the seashore with our cameras, and both of us can wander happily for hours. (Or – in the case this week – lament the fact that we can’t wander for hours due to a recently broken foot and major surgery.) And then we can sit together on the couch for another couple of hours going through the pictures to find the few in which we’ve captured the light just right.
In those things, there is plenty of common ground to make a trip across two provinces after a cancer scare an indescribably worthwhile thing to do.
I didn’t know how this visit would go, and frankly, I was a little worried to see what cancer was doing to my normally energetic and adventurous brother. On top of that, my sister-in-law (whom I also love dearly, and would easily cross two provinces for as well), has been dealing with some pretty heavy things this year, and my teenage niece has had an interesting recent time of learning more about her identity as well.
I expected their home to be full of turmoil and sadness… and yet… it wasn’t. There was a surprising amount of peace and grace in their home, not to mention a whole lot of love. My brother has a remarkable capacity for accepting life as it is and enjoying every moment that he can, and my sister-in-love has a remarkable capacity for making meaning of what is and articulating it in a way that shines new light into it. Plus they both have a deep faith that sustains them and gives them hope.
One of the most poignant moments of the visit was when I stood next to my brother in church (yes, he’s stubborn enough to go to church two days after being released from the hospital) and sang “Come Thou Fount”, a song that has a rich history in our family and was sung at both of our parents’ funerals. “Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come; and I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.” The Bible verse that those lines are inspired by was made into a wall hanging for Mom and Dad’s 25th anniversary, and hung in their home for twenty-three years after that until Dad died and the farm was sold.
Another poignant moment was standing at the shores of Lake Louise on a drive into the mountains. My recently broken foot and his surgery wounds meant that we couldn’t walk far, but it felt like a moment of grace to be able to stand there with him and Sue, enjoying the beauty around us. We are all broken people, heading inevitably to our deaths, and yet there are moments of beauty, grace, and light, and for that we carry on in this journey.
Part 3: The journey to others
“In helping others, we shall help ourselves, for whatever good we give out completes the circle and comes back to us.” ~ Flora Edwards
The final destination on this journey was a small prairie town, perched on the border between Saskatchewan and North Dakota, that looked a lot like the prairie town I grew up in. In North Portal, people trust each other enough to not only leave their doors unlocked but to leave the border unlocked. When you go golfing, you start out in one country and end in another, and they trust you to leave the parking lot through the same entrance (Canadian or American) that you entered through – no passport required. There used to be churches on either side of the border, but when their numbers dwindled, they joined and now meet in the new Canadian church in winter and in the older American church in summer.
In that town, there is an old school building that looks a lot like the place I spent the first nine years of my school life. There are not enough kids in town to fill it anymore, so they started bussing the kids to another town and sold the building to one of the townsfolk who put a friendly neighbourhood bar in one classroom and rents the other classrooms out to artists, healers, and others who need space.
In that building, Visions Art Guild holds their annual retreat. It’s a blissful week of summer camp for artists, with the local church ladies catering their meals, and everyone pitching in to do the dishes and keep the place clean. During the day, they make lots of art, have occasional inspirational sessions, and encourage each others’ creativity. In the evenings, they drink wine, make a little more art if they feel like it, and have a few good belly laughs (especially on the night of Frida Fest, when everyone dresses as their favourite Frida Kahlo painting or photo).
Every second year, they bring in a facilitator to inspire them in some area of growth. This year I was that lucky facilitator. On the theme of journey, I was invited to do three full sessions (a couple of hours each), three mini-sessions (about 45 minutes each), and one-on-one coaching sessions for anyone who wanted them (nine sessions). In between I got to make my own art and wander from station to station being inspired by the different styles and different mediums. Some worked in acrylics, watercolour, and oil, one added tiny twirly stitches to art prints, one did beautiful beadwork, one made fanciful beings out of found objects, one played with adding fabric prints of her prairie photos to her loomed rugs, one incorporated hand-dyed paper with natural objects, and one worked on a complex mixed media collage backdrop for her fanciful raven drawings. I dabbled with acrylics, watercolours, and mandalas, and took a lot of photos.
At the beginning of our week together, one of the retreatants helped me make a labyrinth in the grass, and that became the foundation of our exploration into the theme of journey. On the second day, I read Dr. Seuss’ “Oh the Places You’ll Go”, made road signs for the twelve places in the journey from the book (the prickly perch, the waiting place, etc.), and added those to the labyrinth. In addition, I’d collaged the words they’d sent me in response to some advance journal prompts onto a long piece of paper that represented the journey we were on for the week, and that piece of paper became a group art project that we added to throughout the week. We also made prayer flags to represent the things we most want to invite into our lives, our art, and our relationships.
What can I say about that week? For starters, it was SO MUCH FUN! Hanging out with artists and being inspired by their creative techniques and their capacity to see beauty made my own artist heart soar. For another thing, it was SO RELAXING! Yes, I was facilitating and coaching, but there was just so little pressure and the women in the group were delightful to work with and host in circle. They were receptive and responsive to my questions, they jumped into my activities with their whole hearts, and they embraced me as one of their own. And for another thing, it was very, very FULFILLING. In the coaching conversations, when I saw their faces soften with some new wisdom that was growing in them, and in the circle when I saw them opening themselves to new stories that will help them walk in the world with new courage, I knew that God was working through me to create safe space for their authenticity to show up.
This is my absolute favourite kind of work – gathering women in circle and fostering their growth, creativity, and leadership. This is the kind of work that feels so much like play I almost feel guilty when they pay me at the end of the week.
I left that little prairie border town feeling like I was floating on a cloud. That beautiful circle of women gifted me with more than I could have possibly gifted them. They gave me tangible gifts (shoes, jewelry, a hand-woven rug, artist trading cards, and more), but the intangible gifts were far greater. They gave me love, acceptance, inspiration, and trust.
Part 4: The scary part of the journey that reminds me of the value of all the rest
“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I would never have to live without you.” ~Winnie the Pooh
This part of the journey was so brief it hardly bears mentioning, and yet it was so impactful it belongs on this page.
About an hour before I got home, driving along a single lane highway, a half-ton truck coming toward me swerved into my lane when it was only about 100 metres away and came at me full speed. I swerved onto the gravel shoulder on my right, and then the truck swerved there too, looking like the driver was determined to kill me. I swerved left (thankfully there was no other traffic), missed the speeding truck by mere inches, and then started spinning out of control, convinced I would end up rolling in the ditch. I finally came to a stop in the middle of the road, and turned back into my lane.
In the rearview mirror, I could see that the truck had turned around and was coming toward me again. I took off as quickly as I could, not interested in sticking around to see if they were coming to check if I was okay and apologize or try to kill me again.
The rest of the way home, my heart was racing, and I kept bursting into spontaneous tears. Just the day before, while still at the retreat, I’d gotten an email from Brad saying that the prognosis on his cancer is not good, that it has spread to his liver and possibly his lungs, and that – even with chemo and surgery – there is an 80% chance the cancer will kill him within 5 years. Between my near-death moment and the knowledge that I might soon lose my brother, life started feeling exceedingly fragile.
When I got home, hugs from my kids and a hot bath helped calm me down. I had to host a call for Lead with Your Wild Heart, so I did what I could to centre myself and be present for whoever showed up. Fortunately, the call morphed into a delightful hour-long conversation about the value of hosting meaningful conversations in circle, and I became energized talking about the work that most inspires me. That call also inspired me to write the following on Facebook:
Life is short. I know it sounds cliched, but believe me – it is. One day you find out there is an 80% chance your brother’s cancer may kill him in less than 5 years, and the next day a crazy driver tries to kill you, and then you find out a dear friend is having eye and kidney complications far away in South Africa and you can’t hug her, and everything just feels so fragile that you want to gather everyone around you and hug them and tell them to BE REAL, BE PRESENT, and BE GOOD TO EACH OTHER. There is just NO DAMN POINT in wasting your time doing things that are not authentic and full of love and true to the purpose God put you on this earth for.
Please… do me a favour, and stop wasting your time with lies and masks and artificial lives. Stop trying to please the people who don’t have your best interests at heart. Stop trying to live up to an unrealistic ideal that has nothing to do with who you are. Stop trying to find your happiness in money and possessions and fake happiness. Find people who believe in the beauty that is in you, hang onto them, and don’t stop holding each other until you all emerge with more courage to do the things the world is longing for you to do. And then hold onto each other some more, until you have spread every last bit of love God has put in you to spread and your work on this earth is done.
I nearly died on the highway today, and that moment shook me to the core, but at least I can say one thing… I would have spent my last week on earth doing EXACTLY the kind of work that I was put on this earth for – hosting REAL people in circle, giving them a safe space to be authentic, encouraging their creativity, and inviting them to live to their most beautiful potential.
I will keep doing this work and spreading this love until my time is done. Are you with me?
And with that, I end this part of my journey but continue on with the ongoing journey of my life, loving the people around me, living in the beauty that God is making of me, and serving the world with the gifts that have been entrusted to me with whatever time is left for me on this earth.
Like many Canadians (and people from all over the world), I have fallen in love with astronaut Chris Hadfield in the last four months. Not only is he an exceptional human being (Canada’s first commander of the International Space Station, a gifted musician, and a gifted photographer) he brings us all back to something that many of us lost when we left childhood – a sense of wonder.
His sense of wonder was paired with his great generosity, and that’s why so many people fell in love with him. He clearly took great delight in sharing his experiences with us.
I am happy to say that I was raised by parents who, like Chris Hadfield, taught me to witness the world with a sense of delight. Every Spring, my Dad would write “frogs” on the calendar on the first day that he heard them singing. If he found a bird’s nest in a tree, he would almost certainly drag one or more of us kids out to the tree to see it. One of my favourite photos is one that he took of dandelions – what he said were the most under-appreciated flowers in the world.
Mom was the same. On lazy Sunday afternoons, we would go for drives in the countryside and explore old abandoned homes, because she was intensely curious about what was inside. Any chance she got, she would climb trees, just for the fun of it. Even in her dying days, she watched the birds at her bird feeder and delighted in the variety and beauty of each of them.
On Mother’s Day this year (our first since Mom died), my sister and I drove out to the small town where we grew up to visit the graves where our parents now lay buried. We had a lovely day together, first at the grave, and then in the park with the swinging bridge we used to play on, and in the field where we used to hunt for crocuses when Spring finally came.
Instead of the desperate sense of emptiness that we both thought the day would be filled with, there was peacefulness and nostalgia in our conversations and our wanderings. Much of the day was spent doing exactly what Mom and Dad taught us to do – finding the beauty in the world. We got muddy on the riverbank, trying to get the right angle to photograph the swinging bridge, and we got our clothes covered in dry grass and dust, lying in the field trying to capture both the crocuses and grain elevator in the same shot.
I was reminded, once again, of the power of beauty for healing and transformation. The grief was still there, but in seeking beauty, we were able to breathe hope into our lives.
In our pragmatic, goal-oriented lives, we forget to pause for beauty. “Wandering in crocus fields is for people who don’t have important things to do with their lives,” we tell ourselves.
Wrong. Wandering in crocus fields is ESSENTIAL if we have important things to do with our lives. Beauty is imperative!
In my travels in the world, I have seen people whose lives are full of wealth but not much beauty. I have also seen people who live in poverty but surround themselves with beauty. I would rather live in community with the second group of people, because they know joy, they live generously, and their delight shines in their eyes.
Last night was one of those impeccable Spring evenings when the wind calms, the sun’s setting rays are warm and golden, and the air is full of the hope of new life. I couldn’t resist wandering through my neighbourhood once again, seeking beauty and letting myself be filled with awe.
I am grateful for every moment that brings wonder into my life, and I am grateful for the capacity to witness it.
And if you still need convincing that a search for beauty is imperative, watch this short video of a 109 year old Holocaust Survivor. “I see beauty everywhere.”
I wanted to find hope again. I really, REALLY longed for it.
I wanted to have some hint of what it will be like when I no longer feel buried under the grief of Mom’s death and the added trauma of Marcel’s heart attack and the accompanying financial stress, extra workload on my shoulders, etc., etc.
I know that “this too shall pass”. It’s what I cling to every time I find myself spiralling down into the hard places in life. “I’ve been through this before. I know that I can survive. It will get better.”
When I found the necklace in Ten Thousand Villages, I knew that I’d found my symbol of hope. It’s a tree of life, crafted by artisans in Cambodia out of the shell casings of bombs that litter the countryside. Perfect. Creating something beautiful out of destruction, loss, and grief. Making the land safe again by cleaning up the unexploded land mines and making them into jewellery. Hope out of hardship. Sounds pretty close to what I specialize in.
“…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4)
I texted Marcel a photo of the necklace. “Don’t you want to buy me something for Valentine’s Day?” I asked. Sure enough, he did. He was in the store later that day and the necklace was mine. I was delighted.
Not only was it a little bit of hope to wrap around my weary neck, it felt like a new trademark for the work I do with clients. “You too can find beauty in the grief and destruction of your lives. You can rise out of the brokenness and be courageous, resilient, and authentic. You can find deeper connection and more honest stories when you clean up the land mines and turn them into necklaces.”
And then, two days later, the necklace was gone. I stood in the bookstore bathroom, looking down at the chain on the floor. There was no tree of hope attached anymore. Somehow, somewhere, it had slipped off my neck.
I searched everywhere, but it was nowhere to be found.
Instead of holding my head up high and telling myself it was “just a necklace,” I took a nosedive into self-pity and hopelessness. “What the hell, universe? Do you hate me? Do you really want to take away the one thing that was giving me a bit of hope in all of this hardship?”
It was on my dad’s birthday that I lost my necklace. He would have been 79. Right there in that bookstore washroom (where I returned after retracing my steps throughout the store and into the parking lot), I sat and wept for all of the losses and grief stories in my life. The necklace was just the symbol (and the proverbial straw that broke this camel’s back) of everything else that has been lost in the last dozen years – my dad, my mom, my son, nearly my husband (twice)… and so many more, smaller losses. I wept and wept and let myself feel the weight of all of that grief.
And then the next morning, on my way to work, I had a car accident. Yes, really.
It was a minor car accident and nobody was hurt and there is only very minor damage to my car, but it felt like my whole world had fallen apart.
I sat in my office and cried some more. And raged at God. And cried some more. And raged. And cried. And then I got up, and moved my body a little, said a little prayer of gratitude that I hadn’t been hurt… And then… somehow… I carried on. I finished preparing for the workshop I had to deliver yesterday and then went out to the rural town where I was delivering it. I sat in circle with the women in the leadership program I’m co-hosting, and I let the conversation and the compassion in the room offer me a little bit of healing.
When I got home late last night, Marcel met me at the door holding a tiny silk package. Inside was another tree of hope necklace. He’d gone back the the store, told them about the clasp that had come undone, and they replaced it.
And now I’m wearing hope around my weary neck again – a neck made newly stiff from a slight case of whiplash, but a neck that is resilient and strong and will continue to hold my head up high when it needs to, and let it fall to my hands in tears when that’s what needs to happen.
I don’t have a neat little bow to tie this post up with. Life hasn’t become magically easy, and I still feel a little shaky and weepy, but this morning I am reminded that the real hope comes not from anything I can buy or wear. The real hope comes from the relationships that support me – my husband who cares enough to replace the necklace (and so much more), strangers at the store who were compassionate enough to believe him, the women in the circle who let me be authentic in their presence, my co-worker who let me be a little more broken apart than usual yesterday, the woman in the accident who thanked me for my courage in standing up to the man who caused the accident but refused to take personal responsibility, my friends who sent kind messages… and God, the source of my strength, who doesn’t promise ease, but promises courage if I dare to trust.
If another tragedy happens tomorrow, I might fall apart again, I might rage and scream and wallow in self-pity, but then I will get up off the floor and continue to make swords into plowshares. Because hope is still worth striving for. And love is still better than war. And light is still better than darkness.
And the tree of life grows best in the compost of the fallen trees of years past.
This much I can tell you – hard times are going to come your way. Grief, pain, anger, disappointment, hurt, tears – you’ll face them all in this lifetime.
I wish I could promise you otherwise, but my life story bears the truth of what I’ve just said. You will face the death of people you love, you will find yourself lost in the abyss, you will be betrayed by those closest to you, and you will go through periods of devastating self-doubt.
Last night I had a powerful dream that the whole world was falling apart. It was probably a reflection of the many conversations I’ve had with people recently who’ve felt like their worlds were falling apart. In the dream, there was a major catastrophe (something like an earthquake) and there was calamity all over the world. I spent most of the dream trying to find and rescue people who were lost in the damaged world. It wasn’t a stressful act – it was just something that needed to be done.
I know what the dream means. This is my work in the world – helping people navigate their way through broken places in their lives; helping them see the light when they’re lost in the dark. Quite significantly, in the dream I was doing it with the help of my Mom and Dad. Both Mom and Dad have been my torchbearers, and even after their deaths, they continue to help me in this work.
I’ve gotten mad at God sometimes, for not giving me a calling in which I could invite people onto an easy path. Instead, I got the calling to help people navigate in the dark. It’s hard to market the dark path – it just doesn’t sell the same way “ten easy steps” does. Once I finally surrendered to it, though, I realized that my calling is much deeper and more beautiful than the easy one I longed for. This is a good life, despite the pain – and maybe even because of the pain. Light is so much more stunning when you know what darkness looks like.
Here’s what I’ve learned about navigating in the dark:
You can survive more than you think you can. You’ll hit what you’re sure is rock bottom, and you’ll think “I can’t possibly live through one more hardship”, and then rock bottom will be taken away from you and you’ll be falling again, to a new bottom. You can survive it. Trust the Source of your strength, the God of your understanding, and the strength you need will show up.
You can fall apart, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be permanently broken. In the cycle of life, deconstruction has to happen before construction can begin. The falling apart is necessary – let it happen. Don’t try too hard to hold yourself together. Old patterns need to die (painful but true) before new patterns can emerge. Think of the seed that needs to crack open for a tree to grow. Yes, it’s painful for that seed, but if it doesn’t crack open, it withholds life.
Your greatest enemy is the shame of what you’re trying to hide from the world. Shame will cause you to do unhealthy things just to maintain your reputation as a “pulled-together” person. Let go of your image of a pulled-together person and practice letting go of the shame. I say “practice”, because it takes time, effort, and some pretty deep personal work to recognize the shame and gradually let it go. (See Brene Brown’s work or Cath Duncan’s work for more on shame resilience.)
Let go of any illusion you have that you are in control of what happens. There are many in the self-help world who will tell you that your thoughts attract what comes to you in your life, but if you believe that when hard times come your way, you will be side-swiped by self-hatred in the middle of your grief. You didn’t bring this on. The best you can do is live through it with some measure of grace. And if you don’t always feel full of grace, forgive yourself for that. Let the grace come from some other Source than you.
As any white-water rafter will tell you, your safest bet is to surrender to the waves and stay vigilant for the rocks and whirlpools. Let the grief happen. Ride it out and do what you can to guide your boat between the rocks, but don’t try to resist it. You can’t stop the river, so you might as well ride with it and trust that it will eventually take you to a place of calm. Embrace the word “surrender”.
Search for the points of light. Pay attention to those moments when the sunset is particularly stunning, your friend shows up at just the right moment, a breeze kisses your cheek, you’re drawn to a blog post that was just what you needed to read right now, or someone offers to take over a task that’s become too difficult for you. Each point of light is God shining through the darkness. Those tiny points of light will guide you through the darkness until you see the dawn again.
Trust that this hardship is a deepening of your spiritual journey. Everyone wants an easy path to enlightenment, but nobody gets it. As Caroline Myss reminds us in Sacred Contracts, all of the leaders of the world’s major religions – Jesus, Muhammed, and the Buddha – had to go through times of testing before they could be commissioned into their roles as teachers. Your hardships will deepen your work and take you further into your calling. This I know from personal experience. I would not be doing the work I’m doing today if I hadn’t gone through the loss of my son.
Reach for other people in the dark. There are people who want to walk with you through this dark place. There are people who can help you see the light. It’s okay to reach for them. You don’t need to do this alone. Darkness is easier to navigate if you find someone holding a flashlight.
Life won’t always be this hard. When you’re down there at rock bottom and you haven’t seen a pinpoint of light for weeks, you’re going to become convinced that this is all there is to life and you’ll never be free of the pain. I’m not going to tell you that it’s easy or that you have to have faith. (Read Ronna Detrick’s excellent post about faith in the darkness.) I’m simply going to tell you that there will be light again. And the light will have a deeper, richer shine to it than anything you’ve ever seen before.