I see more and more women (and some men) who are finding their way back to the things they love to do – painting, dancing, writing, hosting, horseback riding, hiking, taking pictures, acting, etc.
I work with a lot of these people, in my coaching and workshop facilitation, and I love to see the delight in their eyes when they talk about what they truly love to do. Some, for example, sit in my Creative Writing for Self-discovery circle and talk about how writing poetry feels like a homecoming – like something they’ve been longing for but didn’t know they were missing. Others start playing with mandalas and can’t believe how much joy it brings them to hold pencil crayons in their hands again.
Almost always, though, I see that delight in their eyes fade when I ask them “why don’t you do more of it?” They stammer a reply that sounds remarkably similar to all of the other excuses I’ve heard (I’m too busy, it makes me feel guilty, my partner makes fun of me, I can’t take the time away from my kids, etc.). And when they come back a week later, they sheepishly say “I wanted to do the homework, but couldn’t find the time.”
The bottom line is that they have been fed a lie that what they love to do is trivial. It’s the thing you do only if you have time after all of the important things are done. It’s just a hobby, so shouldn’t be taken as seriously as washing the dishes or crunching numbers at the accounting office you work at.
I have struggled with this lie in my own work too. Sure I teach transformational workshops online and off, but it’s not really that important, is it? It’s just stuff people do on the fringes of their lives – it doesn’t fit in the “mainstream” where people are doing real work. Even though I believe in it deeply and know it can transform people and communities, I have trouble marketing my work in the corporate world, because… well… won’t people make fun of me for trying to sell something so trivial in a serious environment?
Mandala journaling? That’s fine for people with time on their hands, but don’t try to get a serious corporate executive to colour in a circle. It’s far too trivial for someone with an important job title. Gathering in circle? Oh that’s just for women who aren’t doing the big, important work in the world. It’s not going to fly in places where people are having tough conversations and changing the world.
But it’s all a lie, and I know that. It’s the lie the patriarchy has been telling us for hundreds of years to keep us silent and to keep us from changing the accepted structures and heirarchy. It’s a lie we’ve been fed again and again, since childhood, and we don’t know how to change it because we’ve received so many wounds over it, we’ve learned to hide our hearts and keep our deepest loves secret.
Imagine if we could rise out of the shame and the fear and truly believe in what we love to do.
Imagine if we could convince governments to move their chairs into circles and have real conversations instead of the polarizing shouting they do at each other from across the room. Imagine if business meetings started with some quiet journaling or mandala-making. Imagine if there was daily dancing in the corporate offices downtown. Imagine if the heads of corporations and governments had to go on vision quests or self-discovery retreats before they could be trusted to lead.
It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? Your first thought, like mine, was probably “oh, it would never work”. But what if every time we heard that voice of resistance in ourselves, we recognized it as the voice of the patriarchy trying to silence us, and we challenged it instead of accepting it?
A few weeks ago, I co-facilitated a weekend stakeholder consultation for a national association of city planners. Because we knew it would be a difficult conversation, we encouraged them to use circle to ensure that everyone was heard. There was some reluctance to our recommendation, but fortunately we had an ally on the planning committee, and so we went ahead with it. The circle transformed the way they gathered. People made positive contributions throughout the weekend because they felt heard. Important decisions were made AND people felt valued and hopeful.
The circle is NOT too trivial for people who are making important business decisions. In fact, I think it’s imperative.
A few years ago, I was facilitating a team planning retreat for a non-profit, and I invited everyone to start with some simple yoga poses, and then we played with modeling clay and tried to envision our future through clay. Halfway through, one of the people in the room said, “but when are we going to do the real work?” He was anxious to get to the strategic planning we needed to do. I didn’t say much, but when we were finished, we looked at each other’s clay creations and saw a great deal of vision for where the team needed to move. “Oh, I get it,” said the person who had resisted. “This IS the real work.” Yes, it is. We saw more vision emerge from the pieces of clay than we would have in a traditional brainstorming session.
Art-making and yoga are NOT too trivial for people doing world-changing work. In fact, I think it’s imperative.
It’s taken me years to stop believing the lie (and it still creeps in now and then), but I believe that the world is crying out for us to do this work. It’s transformational for EVERYONE, not just the people with time on their hands after the real work is done.
It starts by changing us individually, and with that as a base, it can change governments, change international relationships, change the way we treat our earth, and change our communities.
I believe it’s imperative. The world needs this kind of change. And it will have to start with a healing of our collective wound and a new belief that this is worthy work we are doing.
If you are on the path to the work you love, or you want to step onto that path, consider a journey through Pathfinder.
If you want to practice openhearted writing, consider joining a small, intimate virtual circle on Friday, February 14th.
You fail at something, your work is rejected, or you second-guess what once had value and suddenly you find yourself spiraling into a dark chasm of self-doubt.
It starts with a critique of one project (“this is no good”), and before you know it, you question everything you ever created (“nothing I create is any good”). From there it’s a slippery slope into a dark hole of self-loathing (“I am no good”).
It’s all about the stories we tell ourselves. When the self-doubt spiral takes hold, instead of reminding ourselves of the learning and successes that have emerged out of past failures, we dig up all of the stories that point to our overall lack of worth. Like carrying stones around in our backpack that weigh us down and keep us from completing our journey, we drag around a lot of old stories that no longer have any value.
It started happening to me just last night. I’ve been trying to put the finishing touches on my memoir. I finished it a year and a half ago, but every time I try to do a final edit, something big changes and I end up feeling like there are still far too many loose ends. It’s been a great source of frustration, and I’m now at the point where I’m considering abandoning it all together and chalking it up to a meaningful process for my own value rather than a product I need to share.
As I sat there staring at 185 pages of hard work that might never come to anything, stories of “I don’t know how to finish this” became stories of “I seriously doubt whether this has any value and is worth publishing” and “I don’t know how to write a book” and “I’m really not a great writer anyway, so why should I bother?”
We ALL suffer from self-doubt now and then. When we’re in the spiral, we convince ourselves that everyone else has it easier, but that’s simply not true.
The people you most admire all have self-doubt too. Their success is not because they never doubt themselves, but because they’ve learned to work through it rather than get stuck in it.
What can you do when the self-doubt spiral threatens you?
1. Get into your body. The self-doubt spiral is the function of an over-active brain – a brain that is far too often driven by the ego. The ego’s job is to protect you from harm and to make you look good at all costs. Failure doesn’t sit well with the ego, so it will do whatever it can to convince you not to try again. Getting into your body (dance, run, walk, swim, etc.) helps the brain shut down the ego so that you can take a more honest look at where you’re at and focus on the stories that serve you better than those the ego keeps dragging up.
2. Go outside. Stand in front of a tree, lie in a field of grass, play in the snow, or dig in your garden. There’s something about being outside in nature that helps shut down the spiraling ego trap. Leaning on a tree that has been through the seasonal cycles of growth, harvest, and dormancy and then keeps showing up the next time Spring nudges it into growth, reminds us of our place in creation and our own strength to keep showing up the next time growth is required of us.
3. Help someone. Step away from the project that’s failing and go help someone else with their project for awhile. Or bring soup to a friend who’s sick. Showing up for other people helps shift us out of the self-centeredness of our failure stories. When you have a sense that we are all in this together and the community benefits from everyone’s best efforts, you’ll have renewed courage to carry on with offering the gifts that can benefit the world. Your community needs you and letting your own failure get in the way of that doesn’t serve anyone.
4. Develop simple rituals for halting the ego stories in their tracks. As the stories come up, write them on slips of paper and burn or bury them. Or write them on leaves and let them float down the river. Or create a shoebox home for your ego where the stories can be kept without getting in your way. You might even want to craft an ego creature out of clay and each time you sense your ego is trying to get in your way, have a conversation with it, or feed it your failure stories and then tuck it away while you go on with what needs to be done. Rituals help us find closure and they mark the passage into a new way of thinking.
5. Recycle your stories. When you have a beverage container that no longer serves a purpose, you recycle it so that it can be made into something else of value. Do the same with your stories. Turn them into something with value. Here’s a simple mandala exercise for that purpose:
1. Write down the stories that make up your spiral of self-doubt. Write them in a spiral freehand, or use this online tool to reconfigure text into a spiral.
2. Cut the spiral. Enjoy the fact that it’s already looking prettier than those stories in your head.
3. Cut the words apart. (It’s quite therapeutic to cut a sentence like “I am a failure” into separate words that no longer carry as much baggage.)
4. Prepare a colourful mandala in whatever way you choose. (I wanted to stick with the spiral shape, so I used that as my basis for colouring.)
5. Re-arrange the words into new stories – ones that uplift and delight you.
6-8. Keep going, arranging the words until you have a spiral of hope instead of a spiral of self-doubt.
9. Sit back and enjoy your new creation. And then carry on in your work, with hope and resilience instead of self-doubt and fear.
They’re just stories. The words can be re-arranged to make new stories.
Note: If you enjoyed this exercise, you can find 30 more like it at Mandala Discovery.
Three and a half years ago, I brought myself a promise ring.
I was visiting Banff at the time, after a business-related road trip through Western Canada. Visiting Banff always brings up mixed emotions for me. I love the beauty of the place, in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, but it holds a sad story from my past. I lived there the summer I turned 19, and it wasn’t a particularly happy summer. I was in that “trying to decide whether to stay safe in life or to take more chances and risk getting hurt” phase of early adulthood. Sadly, I let the things that happened to me that summer convince me that safe was a better option. I gave up the plans I’d had to change schools and move to another province and I went back home to nurse my wounds and play it safe.
One of the places that always brings up deep longing for me is the Banff Centre. When I lived there, my roommates and I sometimes went to watch visiting performers, and each time I went, I’d think “oh, if only I were talented enough to spend time at a place like this!”
When I visited three and a half years ago, I drove past the Centre and started to cry. I cried for the young woman I was more than twenty years earlier who believed she wasn’t talented or worthy. I cried for the hurts that young woman had already suffered and had yet to suffer. I cried for the long journey I’ve had since then, learning to trust both my worthiness and my longings, and learning to be both resilient and courageous through the hard times.
When I drove back into town after visiting the Centre and the resort where I spent the summer cleaning other people’s mess out of hotel rooms, I wandered through the downtown and dropped in at a jewellery store. In a flash of inspiration, I bought myself a promise ring with a blue chalcedony stone. (I later learned that the chalcedony speaks of spirit and trust and is known as the Speaker’s Stone, the stone of one who must measure his words. It encourages reflection and meditation, its gentle radiance preparing us for action but helping to hold back words we might regret. The great Roman orator, Cicero, is said to have worn one around his neck.)
Later that day, I sat in a cafe with my journal and wrote the following promise to myself:
– I will take more chances.
– I will believe that I am an artist.
– I will trust my ability.
– I will look for opportunities to paint and make art as often as I can.
– I will sign up for another class or workshop that stretches me.
– I will honour the muse.
I couldn’t go back and make those promises for my 19 year old self, but it wasn’t too late to make them for my 40+ self.
Last week, in the last lesson for Lead with Your Wild Heart, I invited participants to make a commitment to themselves and to honour it with some kind of gift, like a ring. That tweaked my memory and I went back to find the original post I wrote about the promise ring I’d bought for myself. I started crying all over again – not because I was sad anymore for my 19 year old self, but because I am delighted for my 46 year old self that I can honestly say that I have kept my promise to myself.
I have done just what I said I’d do. I took more chances (quit my job and started a business), started making more art and taking art classes, I’ve been honouring the muse, and trusting my own ability.
Nothing to date has felt so much like an honouring of that promise as the creation of Lead with Your Wild Heart. Nothing has felt so much like it is emerging out of my most authentic, most beautiful, most Spirit-guided self.
I’ve just opened registration for the second offering of Lead with Your Wild Heart, and I can say that I am thrilled beyond expectation with how beautifully it has turned out. This has been an exercise in trusting my own wild heart, and I know that it will serve as a gift to all those who take it into their own wild hearts.
And now… can I tell you a little secret? I’m dreaming of taking some version of Lead with Your Wild Heart to the Banff Centre for Leadership Development. I don’t know yet how to make that happen, but I’m sharing the dream in hopes that will help me get closer to it.
I’m trusting my wild heart and seeing where it leads.
I have the great privilege these days of co-hosting a women’s leadership program that meets every second week in a small town an hour and a half from the city where I live. There are so many things about this that I love, including the fact that I have a regular reason to drive out into the country and see the wide open prairies and the wild, alluring woods. With no parents left to visit, I don’t get out to my rural roots often enough to suit me.
On the drive out there yesterday, we had a rare and wonderful sighting of a lynx as it dashed across the road and ran off into the snowy woods. It felt like a moment of blessing.
Yesterday’s session focused on facilitating change. The best change process I know of is Theory U, a process I was first immersed in at ALIA Summer Institute and that I’ve been a dedicated student of since.
I introduced the idea of a Change Lab, where-in we would walk through the U process by casting ourselves in the role of community leaders who recognize the need for change in how the community is organized.
I started out by sharing the story of Baba Yaga’s House in Paris, France, a home created for aging feminists by a circle of women who realized that none of the available models for seniors’ housing fit with their values or expectations of how they wanted to live. (I encourage you to listen to the podcast at the link above.) “Imagine we are these women,” I said. “We are faced with an established community model we know doesn’t work for us, and yet we haven’t found a new model that we’re comfortable with.”
From there I moved on to an explanation of Theory U, a method for co-creating social change. Instead of trying to find a direct route from challenge to solution – the way some of the more linear models do, with brainstorming, strategic planning, etc. – Theory U takes us on a deep dive into the unknown. Instead of trying to direct change, we host what is wanting to be born. Instead of trying to control, we let go and let come. Instead of expecting the future to look like the past with just a few tweaks, we invite a new future to spiral up out of the brokenness of the past.
In Theory U there are three main parts – sensing, presencing and realizing. In the sensing phase, we are invited to use all of our senses to witness what is present. We are invited to suspend our judgements, opinions, assumptions and mental models, and to use our eyes and ears and the feeling of our bodies to sense into whatever the context is. We host conversations, we ask good questions, we listen deeply, we watch with full attention, and we notice how our bodies feel.
In the presencing phase, we are invited into the inner work of grounding ourselves in our bodies and paying attention to what is emerging. We listen into the space and learn from the future as it emerges, letting go of our expertise and experience. Rather than moving directly into problem solving or brainstorming, we take time for retreat and reflection. The best place for presencing is outside in nature where we ground ourselves in the earth and lean into the trees.
The third phase is Realizing. In this phase – on the upward movement out of the U – we “let come” what wants to emerge. We bring insights, sparks of inspiration, and crystals of ideas into prototypes. We move into action quickly and create small projects that can move the vision forward.
When I introduced Theory U to a women’s circle in Ontario last year, someone pointed out that I’d just drawn a woman’s breast. She said it with laughter, but when we started to unpack that, we realize that there was resonant truth to what she witnessed. This process definitely has a feminine aspect to it (as is laid out in this article by Arawana Hayashi) and it relates well to an infant suckling at the source of his/her life. It’s about going back to Source, it’s about seeking nurturing and rebirth, and it’s about the kind of rest and retreat that a mother must seek every few hours when an infant needs to suckle. It’s about being innocent, vulnerable, uneducated, without judgement, and open to a new future, just like that tiny baby. Since that first observation, I’ve brought up the idea every time I introduce it, and it always opens up interesting dialogue.
Once I had introduced the Theory, it was time to move into practice. To start with, I did one of my favourite things to do in workshops – I dumped a pile of garbage on the floor (things I’d gathered from my household recycling bin). “This,” I said, “represents the chaos and brokenness of the systems that no longer work for us. Out of this, something new wants to emerge, but we don’t yet know what it is. It will be up to us to host that new thing into being, without relying on what was or casting judgement on the ‘way it’s supposed to be’.”
In the Sensing phase, I asked them to sit in one-on-one conversations with a few different people in the room. “Ask deep questions, explore what is present, and use your senses to witness what is. Suspend judgement and don’t rely on past or second-hand information.”
After a few rounds of conversation (too short, but all the time we had), they were invited to move into Presencing. “If it weren’t a cold winter night outside,” I said, “I’d encourage you to move outside for this part. Instead, find a quiet place inside where you can be alone with your thoughts and with whatever wants to emerge.” (As an aside, it felt beautifully appropriate that we were gathered inside a mandala home, a circular home built with great intention around honouring the four directions, giving space at the centre, and blending into the beauty of nature that surrounds it.)
The next phase brought them back to the garbage on the floor, where they began to explore what wanted to emerge. Some felt stuck and really didn’t connect right away with the garbage on the floor. Others were eager to jump in and host the emerging future. Before long, though, everyone had made a valuable contribution to the scale model of the new community that wanted to be born.
We spread our community out on a large piece of cardboard on the table. Some pieces represented a connection with nature, others represented a connection with our neighbours, others represented a connection with opportunities/arts/beauty/etc., and still others represented a deeper connection with self and the sacred.
When we sat discussing the panorama in front of us, we realized that the resounding theme of what was emerging was connection. We were all longing for connection – with each other, with the earth, with the water, with the Sacred, and with ourselves.
One woman asked “If recycling is the bi-product of a culture of consumption, what can replace consumption as our dominant paradigm that will no longer have a requirement for recycling?” Connection, we agreed. We need deeper connection.
Before we departed for the night, I invited the women to consider (in their private moments, when they were back in their homes) “How might each of us be ambassadors for connection in our communities? How might we begin to invite this future into the circles in which we live?”
The women left with new lights in their eyes that hadn’t been there when they’d entered the room – all because of a pile of garbage and a time of connection.
(Next week’s session flows beautifully out of this… We’ll be talking about making connections in women’s leadership circles, using the new toolkit created by my teachers Christina Baldwin, Ann Linnea, and Margaret Wheatley.)
Note: If you want more inspiration on this, visit Presencing Institute, read Theory U, Presencing, or Walk Out Walk On.
Half a dozen years ago, I was sitting in a sharing circle where Fidelis, a wise woman from Kenya, was sharing stories of the sustainable agriculture projects she was helping birth in rural villages in Kenya. Everyone else in the circle was of North American descent. As she shared her stories and the challenges her organization faced, people in the circle were asking questions and offering advice.
In a moment I will never forget, Fidelis smiled, shook her head a little, and said “Why do you North Americans always think you have to FIX things?” There was a note of frustration, but mostly genuine curiosity in her voice. She’d spent a fair bit of time in recent years meeting with North Americans, and she was struck by how uncomfortable we are with unresolved challenges. When her organization struggled with big issues like poverty, conflict, and marginalization, more often than not, North Americans tried to step in and offer some ill-advised quick fix. Instead of sitting with the community and listening to the stories and letting the problems teach them new lessons, they rushed into “fix-it” mode.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Fidelis’ words lately. She’s right. We are a culture that wants things fixed, clean, and resolved. We don’t like chaos, disorder, complexity, or ambiguity. We hide our messes and pretend that our lives are ordered and presentable.
I have been writing and talking a lot about grief since my Mom died, because that’s the journey I’m walking through and because I’ve made a pledge to myself that, on this blog and on social media and in life in general, I will be authentic and vulnerable and I will not gloss over the ugly bits or the scary bits or the places where I fail. It’s not always easy, but it’s still the best way that I know how to live and connect with people.
Grief is messy. Heartbreak is messy. Sitting with someone who’s dying is messy. (I haven’t told the whole story of that, because it’s still quite raw for me, but I’ll simply say that Mom did not die peacefully in her sleep.) Trying to move on with a broken-hearted life when everyone around you is in the Christmas spirit is messy.
I don’t share these messy things with everyone, because I know the mess of this is too uncomfortable for many people. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, though, I know that you value honesty and open-hearted grief and messiness, so I share what I can here.
My life is hard right now. I fought tears at the shopping mall yesterday in the middle of all of the “merry” shoppers. I fought tears in the evening while my kids put up the Christmas tree. I fought tears in church yesterday, when I watched my dear friend hold her new grandchild and had a flashback to the look of pride on Mom’s face when new grandchildren arrived.
There are many people whose lives are hard right now, not least of all those families impacted by the shooting in Newtown. It’s horrible. Grief is ugly and we’d really like to be able to fix it because we don’t want to see people hurting in such horrible ways.
But… here’s the thing… just because someone’s heart is broken doesn’t mean that we should try to fix it. Grief is supposed to be messy. Tears are supposed to flow. The ache is supposed to well up in our hearts when we least expect it. I know this. I’m okay with it. I don’t need it fixed. I just need to sit with it and let the tears flow when they need to. Those of us in grief need to be allowed the space to be broken for awhile.
This I know from the journeys I’ve already taken through grief… There are no “stages of grief”. There is no easy way through this. There is no “closure”. And time doesn’t heal all wounds. We each have to find our path through this difficult, life-changing time, and no outsider can offer words that will magically resolve all of the hurt and fear. It’s just the way it is and, like those complicated issues in the villages of Kenya, it can’t be fixed by simple solutions.
What we overlook when we try too hard to fix things or rush to a solution is that there is much to be gained from healthy grief. Grief has always been my greatest teacher. Grief has taught me the importance of love in my life. It has taught me how to prioritize and let go of what doesn’t serve me. It has helped me find new meaning in the world around me. It has helped me connect in a deeper way to the cycles of life I see in nature. It has deepened my faith. It has strengthened my relationships and given me new friendships. It has improved and deepened my writing and teaching. It has even changed the course of my career.
Grief is not something to run away from. Grief can teach us, but only when we give it the space and time for deep learning.
The next time you see someone in grief, let the mess happen. Let the tears flow. Sit with them in their pain, and don’t try to resolve it. They don’t need advice or platitudes or suggestions that there are easier ways to get to closure. They don’t need to be made to feel like they’re doing it wrong.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t support them and that your words don’t help. The opposite is true. The person in the middle of the grief needs you around. They need to be surrounded by people who love them and won’t judge them. They need to have safe places where they can sit with friends who don’t try to fix them. They need to be allowed to cry big sloppy tears without worrying they’re offending anyone.
Grief, like winter, needs to run its course so that new things can grow when the season changes.
Imagine if we tried to “fix” winter like we try to fix grief. Imagine if we tried to rush the seasons – turned on giant heaters to chase away the snow and cold – and didn’t allow the trees to have the dormant time they need, or the seeds to properly germinate under the soil. We would destroy the natural cycle of things. Like a butterfly that’s plucked out of the chrysalis before it’s ready, the trees would shrivel up and die, the seeds would fail to grow viable grain, and the animals (and people) would die of starvation.
No, I won’t rush through my grief. I will survive Christmas, I will find comfort in my family gathered around me, and I will enjoy a few laughs now and then when the grief is less heavy, but I will also let myself cry when I need to. The tears need to come and the winter needs to run its course.
If I am not true to this journey, then the new growth and the deepened learning can not emerge when it’s meant to.
Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who was telling me the story of a recent four day vision quest she’d been on. With nothing but a sleeping bag and some water, she’d gone into the woods to spend time alone with her thoughts. It was an incredibly difficult and frightful time for her, but she emerged wiser, stronger, and more compassionate. As she shared the story of how those four days transpired, I was struck by how similar her experience was to the four days I was with Mom just before she died. Just like her, I’d gone through a wide range of emotions and sleepless nights, I’d had to let go of old attachments and expectations, and I’d emerged dramatically changed.
I haven’t processed everything I’ve learned from that “vision quest” yet, but I know that the learning was deep and life-changing. I’ve been to a new and deeper place on my journey and I know that I will grow as a result.
I call myself a “guide on the path through chaos to creativity” because I know that meaningful creativity doesn’t come unless we’re willing to sit in the middle of the chaos, fear, despair, grief, and broken-heartedness. It’s like Spring coming after Winter. I’m in an emotional winter right now, but, just as I tell my clients, Spring is more beautiful because of the challenge of Winter.
Flowers will bloom again – I promise.
sharing stories and stitching prayer flags at a recent women's gathering
I talk a lot about stories – how important they are in helping us find collective healing, how transformative they can be in encouraging us to dream of a new world, how much they connect us to each other and give us courage.
“But what IS a story?” the students in my Creative Writing for Self-Discovery class pushed back a few weeks ago. “How do you define it? You’ve made reference to the story arc and conflict and plot, but we still don’t know the ‘rules’. How do we figure out whether or not something we write fits the definition of story?”
“Next week,” I promised, and then went home and started brushing up on my definition of story.
When I incorporate storytelling into leadership and personal growth workshops, I purposely leave my definition fairly vague. “A story is simply your account of how things happened. It can be as simple as helping people see a new possibility by telling them ‘when Jim did this last week, it made his daily routine much easier.'” But this was different. This was a group of creative writers who want to master the craft of writing short stories – whether simply for their own enjoyment or for the possibility of getting them published some day.
I did what any teacher would do – I went back to the tried and true definitions from back when I was getting my English degree. I typed up a lovely list of story elements for my students – setting, plot, conflict, character, point of view, and theme. I found a helpful diagram of the story arc that demonstrates how a story moves from routine, through the inciting incident that changes everything, through rising tension, to the climax, and ultimately to the denouement (resolution). I defined the protagonist as the main character and the antagonist as whatever source of conflict arises from the inciting incident which the protagonist must conquer before there is resolution. As I prepared my notes, I had flashbacks of my literature professors (all aging white men, incidentally) drilling it into our impressionable mines that “unless there is conflict and some kind of climax and resolution, THERE IS NO STORY!”
It was all good material that my professors would have been proud of… BUT… it didn’t entirely satisfy me. Something was wrong. Even though it was the kind of handout that would have gotten me an A in my university literature classes, the twenty plus years of wisdom I’ve gained since didn’t quite jive.
Then, while reading A Passion for Narrative, something jumped out and shook me out of my complacent regurgitation. You could say that it was my “inciting incident” where everything changed. It was this quote from Janet Burroway:
“Seeing the world in terms of enemies and warring factions not only limits the possibilities of literature, but also promulgates an aggressive and antagonistic view of our own lives. Further, the notion of resolution is untrue to life, and holds up perfection, unity, and singularity as goals at the expense of acceptance, nuance, and variety… Birth presents us with an alternative model in which there is a desired result, drama, struggle, and outcome. But it also represents a process in which the struggle, one toward life and growth, is natural. There is no enemy. The “resolution” suggests continuance rather than finality. It is persuasively argued that the story as power struggle offers a patriarchal view of the world, and that it would improve both stories and world if we would envision human beings as engaged in a struggle toward life.”
WAIT JUST ONE MINUTE! There’s a different way of defining stories? There doesn’t need to be a protagonist and an antagonist and the struggle doesn’t need to be AGAINST someone or something?
Something new in me woke up. Perhaps more truthfully, something old and primal in me was re-awakened. Suddenly it all made sense, and my storytelling wisdom lined up with my exploration of feminine wisdom.
We’ve been telling too many patriarchal stories! We’ve been letting our old white male university professors convince us that that’s the way it HAS to be! We’ve been conditioned to believe that our stories are not real stories unless there is an evil force to overcome. We’ve sat through hundreds of movies, read thousands of books, and listened to a million children’s stories that have all lead us to believe that there is conflict that needs to be overcome and that the only way to wrap up the story is to tie up the loose ends into some kind of (usually artificially constructed) resolution.
We don’t have to tell those kinds of stories anymore. In fact, the world needs us to start telling NEW stories – ones that are modelled on birth, where there is still a struggle, but this time we are struggling TOGETHER to bring about something new. There is no enemy. And the endings don’t need to be resolved, but rather they leave us at a place of continuance, growth, or just a whole lot of new questions for us to sit with.
This is so much bigger than simply a Tuesday evening creative writing class. This new way of engaging with story is about a new way of engaging with our economy, our religions, our communities, and our earth. It doesn’t have to be about competition anymore. There doesn’t have to be an antagonist in our stories. We can all be protagonists in the struggle together, birthing something new and ending not with a resolution, but with a step into the next story.
It all made sense to me when I read that quote, because THIS is what I feel most called to bring to the world – a new way of telling stories, a new way of walking through struggle, a new way of engaging with each other, and a new way of sensing the future. This is a new story that is actually more like an old story finally being reborn. Patriarchy does not have to rule us anymore. The old stories don’t have to control the way we see the world. We can usher in the Feminine. We can “shake the world with a new dream“. We can redefine ourselves as artists. We can build a new sacred economy. We can lead with our wild hearts.
It’s not easy letting go of the old stories. We’ll experience a lot of pain and resistance along the way. We’ll have to stand up to those wise old university professors and say “we respect your version, and it may have worked in the past, but we’ve got a new story to tell”. We’ll have to stand up to big business and say “you’ve created a lot of good products and you’ve allowed us to live in privilege, but it’s time to stop all this production and birth a new future.” We’ll have to challenge our governments and say “we’ve appreciated the way you’ve let us use our natural resources for our own ease and comfort, but it’s time to stop seeing Mother Earth as the antagonist in this story.” We’ll have to interrupt our meetings and public forums, move the chairs into circle, and say “thank you for leading us in the past, but we have a new way of gathering now and we believe it makes a difference when our chairs don’t mirror a hierarchical view of the world.”
This is what Lead with your Wild Heart is all about. I’ve gathered a Wisdom Circle of people who are willing to share the ways in which they’re learning to tell new stories, and together we’ll be “shaking the world with a new dream” – a dream where there are no enemies, we struggle together, and the end looks more like a set of new questions than a resolution.
I really hope you’ll join me and the other wise women who are starting to gather.