When I remember who I am: On freedom, embodiment, and holding space for oneself

Listen to Heather read the post:

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.


Are you longing to remember who you are? Join us to learn how to hold space for yourself at our How to Hold Space Foundation Program

My head knows, my heart knows, but my body’s still catching up

I’m writing this post poolside, at a beach hotel in Costa Rica. I feel like I’m in one of those commercials from the early days of smartphones, when the busy mom wouldn’t have time to take her kids to the beach because she had a meeting, but then she’d realize she could multi-task and take the meeting at the beach.

I’m not multi-tasking from the middle of a busy life, though. I’ve slowed down my life and reorganized my priorities, my business and my lifestyle so that I can work (and play) from anywhere while I travel. (I also no longer have to centre my children’s needs and desires in my choices.)

Moments ago, I was floating in the pool, blissfully alone, watching a hawk and a few butterflies drift through the sky above me while the palm leaves danced beside the pool. Floating – in a pool, the ocean, a river, or a float tank – brings me pleasure and peacefulness. The sound of the world is muted in my ears while the sound of my own breath is amplified. Time becomes irrelevant and my body feels light and carefree. Once I finish writing this post (or when I get stuck), I’ll be back in the water, floating again.

As I was floating, I was thinking about this journey I’ve been on – which I’ve dubbed my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. Since August, I’ve been wandering around the world with only a small suitcase, connecting with people, teaching in a few locations, and opening myself to whatever comes next in my life now that my daughters have all left home. 

One of the questions that I held for myself as I walked away from the house I’d owned for twenty-four years was: “What if I more intentionally seek out what brings me joy?” I’ve been doing just that, trying to orient myself toward joy in all of the choices I make this year. Joy led me around Europe, brought me back to Canada to spend Christmas with my family and then brought me to Costa Rica. Later this week, I’m following it to other places in Central America. 

It’s been a meaningful exploration. What I’ve discovered so far is that when I am more intentionally oriented toward joy, I make better decisions, I’m more able to be generous with other people, I’m more resilient, and I’m more creative. This past week, for example, I’ve written far more blog posts than I normally write in a week and I think it’s because I’ve been feeling grounded and joyful and can create from a place of abundance rather than scarcity.

A new awareness arrived for me as I floated in the pool just moments ago, and that’s why this blog post is showing up (even though I told Krista I wouldn’t write anymore this week). What I realized is that my quest for joy needs to be a holistic pursuit. 

I need to orient myself toward joy with ALL of me – my mind, my heart, and my body. 

It’s taken the longest to bring my body fully into the quest. For many reasons (trauma, religion, social conditioning), I’ve spent a large part of my life cut off from my body, not loving it, not caring for it, and not listening to its wisdom. Being more fully in my body has been a work in progress, and, while I’ve come a long way, there is still work to do. 

Despite my head and heart’s efforts, my body still has some discomfort with joy. In fact, the more I consider it, the more I feel like there is joy trapped in my body from years of having it shut down by a religion that told me that my body was sinful and that I shouldn’t dance or be sensuous or dress in ways that drew attention to myself or have sex before marriage or do most of the things that might allow embodied joy to find full expression.

My trauma tells me that embodied joy is not safe, and my body is hanging onto the vestiges of that belief system longer than the rest of me. My head and heart have worked through this with my therapist, but my body is still catching up. 

Sometimes, when my head and heart feel joyful, I notice my body respond with fear signals or dissociation, as though it’s trying to pull my head and heart away from a dangerous precipice. One of my most familiar remaining “tells” is a tightening in my throat, lips, or tongue – almost as though my body is afraid it won’t be able to breathe if I lean fully into joy. (One of my trauma incidents involves being nearly choked to death, so the fear of losing breath remains present in my body.)

Fortunately, my mindfulness practice and my tenderness practices have brought me to greater and greater awareness of what’s going on in these moments, and, although I haven’t fully resolved this in my body to the point where it no longer happens, I know that I have resources to witness it, soothe it and sometimes even transform it. Sometimes it takes time, but I can usually bring myself back to a feeling of safety and, ultimately, embodied joy.

With every bit of healing I do, I am getting better and better at floating in joy the way I float in water. Whenever I float in the water, I have to give myself over completely to the water, trusting the water to hold my body up so that I still have access to the air that will fill my lungs. Unless I become anxious to the point of stiffening my body, or waves threaten to topple me, the water is always trustworthy in holding me there.

I want to trust joy the way my body trusts the water. I want to lean into it, relax all of the muscles in my body, and trust that it will hold me close to the surface so that I can always take another effortless breath. 


Do you want to explore what it means to orient yourself toward joy? Join me and my friend Mary Scholl for a free webinar on February 26th… Practicing Lightness, Freedom and Joy

Letting grace in

shadows 2

My word for 2014 is grace.

At first, my intentions revolved around “serving as a channel of grace” and “being a co-creator of circles of grace”. Surprisingly though, the most valuable lesson I’ve learned so far is this…

In order to extend grace, I also have to be a recipient of grace.

And being a recipient of grace means that sometimes I have to extend that grace to myself.

Here’s how grace has been showing up for me so far this year…

1. Extending grace to my body

Last year when my mom was dying, four special friends recognized my need for self-care and gave me a gift certificate for Ten Spa. Mom’s decline was happening too quickly, and so I didn’t get a chance to use it. And then… well… grief, timing, stories of worthiness, etc. got in the way of me booking an appointment. Suddenly a year was gone and I’d done nothing with this generous gift.

As the anniversary of Mom’s death came and went and Christmas approached, I suddenly found myself longing for the day of pampering I’d denied myself before. I booked an appointment for a hamam spa treatment just after the new year.

My first thought when they gave me a plush bathrobe and ushered me into the luxurious sitting room where snacks and tea awaited was “This is ridiculous. How can I enjoy something like this when I’ve seen some of the worst poverty in the world?” That thought quickly passed though, as I filled my plate with vegetables and hummus, poured a cup of herbal tea, and sank into one of the plush white couches.

Before long, an attendant invited me into a private room where she offered me more snacks (Turkish delights) and explained the process to me. I followed her into the hamam spa, and suddenly what she said about it “feeling like you’re in another country” made sense to me. The hamam spa is a darkened, steamy, marble-covered room, with twinkle lights in the ceiling that look like stars. It has the feeling of a mediterranean beach at twilight.

First you take a hot shower, and then rub lavender salts all over your body… and then comes the good part. You lie on a marble slab and your attendant begins alternatively massaging your face and feet and pouring warm water on various parts of your body.

I hardly know how to describe the experience in a way that does it justice. Almost as soon as my attendant  touched me, tears welled up in my eyes. Her hands were tender, warm, and pulsing with energy. The combination of her gentle massage, the warm water, and the steamy room made me feel like I was once again swimming in the safety and comfort of my mother’s womb. Fully embraced in love, ready to be born again.

After the face and foot massage, she left me for awhile to lie in silence. Then came the second half of the treatment. I moved to a higher marble slab and she began the most amazing combination of exfoliation, massage, bubble bath, hair shampoo, and more pouring of water.

It was the most sensuous experience I’ve ever had. My body felt alive in a way it’s never felt before.

More than anything, my body felt sacred.

My body was a temple, cared for by the most loving hands in the kingdom. My body was worthy of honour. My body was a thing of beauty.

My body was a container for grace.

After I was finished and I laid in the quiet, candle-lit transition room, where they offer a yogurt drink and white blankets to curl up under before you have to head back into the world, I had an epiphany…

If my body truly is truly a sacred, beautiful, container for grace, then I need to start acting like I believe that IT IS WORTHY OF GRACE. And if it is worthy of grace, then I need to learn how to extend grace to it regularly, not just on those rare times when I can visit the spa.

Since then, I have been turning my daily bath-time into a body grace ritual.  While I soak in the hot tub, I do more than simply wash my skin and hair, I massage it tenderly, being mindful of the muscles that hurt and the places where I need extra attention.

When I climb out of the tub, I nourish my skin with generous amounts of moisturizer, taking time to enjoy the experience instead of simply rushing through it.

I’ve also been more mindful of how I nourish the inside of this container of grace. I’m trying to drink only water and tea (with occasional glasses of wine), and eat what makes my body feel alive, happy and healthy. No, I’m not dieting or doing anything restrictive – I’m simply trying to be more mindful of how I honour this body of mine.

I’m also mindful of the fact that grace involves forgiveness, and so when I forget – when I indulge in half a glass of coke, I rush through my bath time, or I let the cold weather excuse me from a visit to the gym, I forgive myself.

It’s changing me, this new experience of grace. I am experiencing my body in a new way.

2. Letting a Circle of Grace Happen

Although circles of grace have become central to the work that I do in my teaching, workshops, coaching and retreats, there’s been something missing in my life – my own circle of grace where I can be the participant/recipient and not the teacher/facilitator. I’ve longed for this, but there was something always blocking me… I didn’t want to be the driving force behind it. Having initiated and hosted countless circles, I wanted the right circle of support to show up that I didn’t need to be responsible for. I knew that if I were to feel supported in the way I need in this work, I couldn’t be in a position that felt like leadership. So I waited…

And then it happened. In a surprising and serendipitous way.

The group of women who participated in my Creative Writing for Self-Discovery class in the Fall felt such a close bond by the end of the 8 weeks together that they decided they wanted to keep meeting. Because I felt bonded to them too, I decided to stay with them as well. The original intention was to form a book club, but when we met last night, we all realized that what we most need from each other is support and encouragement more than opinions on books, so we morphed into a women’s circle (that will occasionally read books together).

We passed around the “grace” talking piece that I’d received the day before from a client/friend, and we shared stories of heartache, courage, fear, resilience, unemployment, triumph, sexual harassment, divorce, parenting, and all of the little things in between. We hugged, cried, laughed, ate… and offered each other grace. It was a beautiful thing.

Much like my body, my heart is a container for grace.

And my job this year is not just to extend it, but to receive it. Last night, I received it.

“As you sow, so shall you reap.”

As I learn to receive grace, more grace will flow from me. When my container is full to overflowing – as it is right now – I can pour it out more freely to those who need it.

Trying to let go – What a closet purge taught me about myself

Me, on a rickety old boat in India, in one of my favourite skirts

Recently, a friend (who likes to shop more than I do) gave me three large bags full of great, almost new, hand-me-down clothes. It felt like Christmas, especially since many of them look better on me than a lot of the clothes I already owned.

Because I’m a bit of a pack-rat, I didn’t have alot of room in my closet or dresser for this windfall. So last night was purge time. As best I could, I tried to be ruthless and let go of anything that a.) I hadn’t worn for awhile, or b.) didn’t really enjoy wearing even if it was recent.

The clothes I packed up for goodwill fit into three categories:

  • Clothes that are too baggy because my body has changed OR because I’d convinced myself that an overweight woman like me shouldn’t wear fitted clothes.
  • Clothes that used to fit me a size or two ago, that I still really like, and that I hope to fit into again some day.
  • Clothes that I never really liked the look or feel of (once I had them home from the store and on my body), or that didn’t really suit my personality, but that I felt guilty about getting rid of because I’d invested money in them.

That list says a lot about the things that I hang onto:

  • Old ideas about myself and how I should or shouldn’t dress or I should or shouldn’t look.
  • Unrealistic ideals about what I want to look like “some day”, coupled with dissatisfaction over how I look RIGHT NOW.
  • Guilt and unhelpful attachment to choices I shouldn’t have made.
  • Shame over being the size I am right now and always a longing to be something different.
  • Feeling that it’s wrong to want to look my very best, and that some days I should just be satisfied with boring, poorly fitted clothes.
  • The sense that if I hang onto worn out, baggy, or not-quite-right clothes, I am fitting into the image I’ve painted of myself as a frugal/earthy person who doesn’t want to use up too much of the earth’s resources for her own consumption.
  • The idea that I’m supposed to dress a certain way (professional/practical/conservative/not-too-loud/not-too-sexy) to fit certain roles I have in my life and to ensure I don’t offend anyone or rock the boat.

That’s a lot of baggage I’m trying to pack away in those goodwill bags. No, I’m not idealistic enough to believe that a one-time purge will allow me to shake all of those old ideas, but I have to start somewhere.

Here are some of the new ideas I’m trying to replace them with:

  • It’s okay to look great, feel great, (and maybe even a little sexy!) and enjoy what I’m wearing.
  • My style is somewhere in the range of eclectic/colourful/global/bohemian/wanderer/artist – and THAT’S THE WAY I DRESS!
  • I am a good steward of the earth’s and my own resources AND I appreciate and value the beauty and comfort in what the earth has provided for me.
  • I look good and feel good the way my body is RIGHT NOW, even if it’s far from society’s ideals.
  • It’s okay to be who I am and let that shine through the clothes I put on my body.
  • Old choices are in the past and I can let them go without guilt.

This body of mine

See this overweight, big-butted, 44 year old woman? She has become a RUNNER!

It’s true. It’s never too late to teach an old dog new tricks. A couple of months ago, I bought a fancy new pair of shoes (that fit my orthotic insoles), checked out this Learn to Run program (thanks to Jamie for the link), and started running. And… surprise, surprise… I love it!

I mostly just run on the weekends (during the week I ride my beloved bike to work – for a total of 22 km/day) and when on vacation (I can tell you a great running path in Maple Grove, Minnesota), so I’m taking my own meandering journey through the learn to run progam. As of this weekend, though, I’m able to run for 4 minutes, walk for 1 and then repeat it four times for a total of 20 minutes of running time. Woot!

As you probably know if you’ve been following this blog for awhile, I had breast reduction surgery back in March. One of the reasons I’ve never run before is that… well… how do I say this?  Flopping sucks. As does the sore back from carrying that excess weight. And… have you ever tried to find a sports bra in a double H? Nope, you won’t find one of those on the racks at Target. It seems bra manufacturers rightfully assume that few people with boobs that big will have “sports” in their vocabulary.

With everything else that’s been going on in my life since then, I haven’t talked much about my post-surgery thoughts. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel when I finally made the agonizing decision to go through with it. Would it feel like I’d betrayed my body? Would I feel like a bit of a fraud, especially since I’m not really fond of the plastic surgery trend in North America these days?

Well, let me tell you, there have been NO REGRETS! I feel great! My body is far from perfect, but it finally feels like it is in balance!

I’ve had several people tell me that my posture has improved, and I know that it’s true. My back feels stronger and less weighed down. The bra strap indents in my shoulders are disappearing. Plus there’s the psychological side – I think I was probably hunching my shoulders partly because I felt some self-conscious need to draw less attention to my breasts.

And then there’s the running. I’ve had a bit of a yearning to try running for quite awhile. Being a wanderer at heart, I’m always happiest when my chosen form of exercise includes the opportunity to see things and meander through the neighbourhood. Cycling’s good, but the truth is, I can be a pretty lazy cyclist when I want to be. I wanted to push myself a little harder, sweat a little more, so it was time to try running.

Well, who knew that I’d enjoy it so much? This weekend I even found myself thinking “I need to figure out what equipment/clothing I need to get in order to do this in the winter.” (Time will tell if the love affair lasts through the brutal winters we get.)

I haven’t lost any significant amount of weight since I started running, but the beautiful thing is, I don’t care! Really, I don’t! I’m learning to love this big ol’ body in new ways, I’m finding clothes that fit my new curves, and I feel healthy and strong.

When I dragged my daughter outside yesterday morning to take a post-running photo, it was with the thought that I would post it in a “look at me, not ashamed of showing myself at my worst – in all my red-faced sweaty glory” attitude. (The pictures really don’t do it justice – my face turns BEET red when I exert myself. And MAN do I sweat!)

But then I looked at the close-up and thought “Wow! I look so alive!”

Lovin’ the curves

I am falling in love with the curvy botticelli beauty I see when I look in the mirror.

This has been a surprise for me. As I mentioned in this interview with the amazing Christine of Blisschick, I’ve never really liked mirrors. Mostly I’ve regarded them as necessary evils that help me make sure I don’t embarrass myself too much in public. I’ve never been able to celebrate what they reveal to me.

But things are changing. This morning after my refreshing post-bike-ride shower, I stood in front of the full length mirror and realized there’d been a significant shift in the way I respond to that image. I like what I see. I’m fond of my curves, my flaws, and my jiggly bits. Sure they’re not perfect, but they’re me and they’re beautiful in their own way.

The last couple of months have been quite remarkable in what they’ve revealed to me. This post was about some of that learning – how I’ve begun to recognize how separated my mind/body/soul are.

As I was processing the answers to Christine’s questions, I realized that there was still some old baggage I was carrying around – stuff that was contributing to the disconnect.

Twenty-two years ago (exactly half my life, incidentally), I was in the best shape I’ve ever been. I was training for a triathlon, in which I would do the cycling (56 miles, I believe) and other teammates would do the running and swimming. I was tanned and muscular.

Unfortunately, two days before the race, an intruder broke into my apartment during the night and raped me. It was one of the most horrible moments of my life, and I’m just now realizing what long term impact it had on me. I was determined to still participate in the triathlon, and even drove out to the town where it was held. But my neck hurt too much (from the intruder’s attempt to choke me to death) and so I had to give it up.

I did a lot of healing after that, and I was pretty sure I did all the right things to process it. I wrote like a mad woman, talked to alot of people, and even wrote a play which was produced in my university’s theatre about the experience.

But what I’m realizing now is that most of the healing I did was in my MIND and not my BODY. I didn’t really give my body sufficient space to process the hurt that she received at the hands of the rapist.

The year after the rape, I didn’t bike as much, and each year it became less and less of a priority. I immersed myself in my studies, my career, and (eventually) my life as a wife and mother. I spent a lot of energy trying to convince people I was smart and capable. I took on more and more leadership roles, and let my mind play centre stage in my life. I didn’t realize that to live fully, I’d need to give my body space once again. I buried the body hurt beneath layers of food and fat and avoidance.

About seven years ago, I started biking on a regular basis again, and was reminded of how good it feels to pedal, with the sun on my face and the wind in my hair. It was good – but it still wasn’t everything I needed to do to reclaim the body I’d left behind 22 years ago.

This Spring, new things have been surfacing, and as I mentioned in this post, I’ve read some books that have opened doors in me that I didn’t realize I’d slammed shut 22 years ago. I have become awakened to the disconnect between body, mind, and soul.

Half way through answering Christine’s interview questions, I went to my bra-burning birthday party. I had some time to kill before I got there, so I wandered along the river. Leaning against a low stone wall, I had an epiphany. These are the words my body spoke to me… “Of all of my five senses, I trust the sense of touch the least.”

I’m still processing exactly what that means, but in the meantime, I’m doing my best to change it. I’m closing my eyes and running my hands gently over rough stone walls. I’m wrapping myself in the soft silk blanket I bought a few weeks ago and noticing the way it feels against my skin. I’m welcoming my husband’s carress in a new way.

One of most important things I’m doing is feeling the touch of my fingers on my own skin in a new way. I’m spending time lathering sweet-scented lotion all over my body. I’m enjoying my shower more.

When I catch my mind whispering lies to me, like “that athletic woman on the bike that just passed is probably surprised that someone with such a large ass is riding a bike”, I reach out and touch the offended part of my body in a non-verbal apology. (Try it! You might be surprised how good it feels, even if you have to sneak a touch in public.)

It’s all been quite healing, and now I can stand to look in the mirror in a new way.

Twenty two years ago, an intruder did more than just rape my body – his actions damaged my mind/body/soul connection, made me bury a whole lot of body hurt, and shattered the trust I place in my own sense of touch.

This summer – on my bicycle, in my weekend morning runs, in the way I connect with food – I’m working on healing those broken pieces. Like the song says in my last post, “I want to live where soul meets body”.

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