My youngest daughter is on the cusp of graduating from high school. Her oldest sister is on the cusp of graduating from her first university degree, and the middle one is only a year behind. There are moments when I hold my breath, knowing these days in which we all live under the same roof are fleeting and soon they will all have launched into their own separate lives.
Before they go, I hope I pass on at least some of the following bits of wisdom.
You’re not obligated to accept every gift. Whenever they receive a gift from me, they are allowed to tell me that they don’t like it and I do my best not to make it about me and instead to find them something they’d like better. Though I want them to embrace gratitude and to treat people with respect, I don’t want them to assume that they are obligated to receive gifts they don’t want or that they are responsible for looking after the feelings of the gift-giver. When gifts come with strings attached and an indebtedness to the giver, they are not really gifts but tools of abusers and manipulators. As we’ve seen in some of the #metoo stories emerging out of Hollywood, abusers offer elaborate promises and gifts (ie. roles in movies, good jobs, etc.) so that their victims feel a sense of obligation that includes their silence. I hope that by learning that they have the right to resist unwanted “gifts”, my daughters are better equipped to stand up to the tactics of abusers.
You can leave the party early. Especially when they were in high school and starting to attend parties that could possibly get out of hand, I worked with my daughters to ensure that they had an exit strategy in case they ever felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave before their friends did. Even if that exit strategy included me having to get up in the middle of the night and bundle up against the cold to go pick them up, I tried not to shame them for trusting their instincts if it wasn’t safe to accept a ride home with a friend who’d been drinking, or if people were doing things at the party that didn’t fit with their values or comfort zones. I hope that those party exit strategies can be carried into their adult lives and they can apply the principle to jobs they don’t like, relationships that are toxic, commitments they regret making, etc. They don’t have to feel obligated or give in to peer pressure if it means staying where they’re unsafe, uncomfortable, unhappy or undervalued.
You get to feel your feelings and don’t have to be a caretaker or shock absorber for other people’s feelings. I spent a lot of years caretaking other people’s emotions and being a shock absorber when those emotions were particularly volatile (and stuffing down my own emotions in order to do so), and I don’t want that for my daughters. I want them to know that their own feelings are valid, even if those feelings make other people uncomfortable. I want them to know that big feelings are okay, even if other people try to gaslight them into not feeling the way they do. I don’t want them to spend all of their time trying to regulate themselves on other people’s behalf. I want them to find healthy relationships with people who take responsibility for how they feel and who don’t try to stifle other people’s feelings. I want them to know that within healthy relationship, co-regulation is possible, but only if people honour rather than quash those feelings in each other.
You can come back home after you mess up. We’re not looking for perfection in this household, and so I try to admit my mistakes to my daughters, apologize when necessary, and let them know that this is a place where it’s safe to fail. I don’t want them to hide their mistakes or weaknesses, but to speak of them openly so that they can learn from them and grow. And I want them to know that I will provide a safe haven for them to return to when they need to lick their wounds and/or process their shame. I want them to feel safe when they’re here so that they can return to the world feeling more brave.
Sometimes disruption is necessary. But it will rarely be easy. I want them to know that they should follow the “rules” that make sense and help to keep people safe, but I also want them to know that they can break the “rules” that are outdated or that are meant to keep people small and compliant. This isn’t always easy for me to pass on, especially when I’m the one attached to the outdated rules, but I do my best. I want them to know that they don’t have to stick with the status quo when the status quo is harming people. I want them to know that they can speak truth to power. I want them to know that they’re allowed to be disruptors if the disruption is in the service of positive change. Disruption isn’t an easy path to choose, though, so I also want them to be prepared for the ways in which people will resist them and possibly try to hurt them for having the courage to be disruptive.
Power and weakness are companions, not opposites. I want them to see that vulnerability and authenticity are important parts of what it means to be powerful. I want them to know that generative power often emerges out of places of the greatest weakness. I want them to see that sometimes, in their moments of greatest weakness, admitting it allows other people to show up and be powerful and together we can create collective power that is greater than any of us can hold alone. I hope that they’re not afraid to claim their own power, but that it is always “power with” rather than “power over”.
Your body is your own. For years, I gave away my own body because I believed I was under contract to do so and because I was being coerced even when I was unwilling. I accepted the old rules of what it means to be a woman in a marriage, because that was the only way I’d seen modelled and the only way that I’d been taught to behave. I’ve spent the last several years reclaiming my body and relearning how to treat it, and I want my daughters to see that another way is possible. I want them to know that they can lavish love on their own bodies, that they can protect their own bodies, that they can say no to anyone who doesn’t treat their bodies well and that they can say a big and holy YES to those who make their bodies feel alive, safe and loved.
You can ask for what you need, but those needs shouldn’t supersede the needs of those more marginalized than you. I want them to know that they are worthy of having their needs met. I want them to pay attention to themselves enough so that they are actually aware of their own needs and can articulate them clearly. I don’t want them to be afraid to ask for what they need or to be so focused on other people that they consistently overlook themselves. I don’t want them to be haunted by shame for being too selfish or asking for too much. However, I don’t want them to be greedy and I want them to recognize how meeting their own needs will sometimes mean that people with less access to privilege won’t get their needs met. I want them to be aware of injustice and be willing to sacrifice their own needs in order to centre those who rarely get their turn. I want them to balance self-care with other-care, and worthiness with justice.
You can love who you want, as long as that love is generative and not stifling. This is a home in which there is little pressure to be heteronormative. Two of my daughters have, in fact, come out and we have celebrated them and embraced their choices and never asked them to be anyone other than who they are. I want them to know that whoever they choose to be in an intimate relationship with, they don’t have to be afraid to introduce that person to me for fear of my judgement. I do, however, want them to know that I will speak up if I see the person they’re in relationship with treat them in ways that harm their spirits (or the other way around). If they choose to be in relationships (and they are always free to choose singleness instead), I hope that those relationships are ones in which they are supported to flourish and grow and shine.
Friendships matter. Community matters. Family matters. But no relationships are worth abandoning yourself over. I hope that they find deep and lasting friendships (and hang onto the ones they already have). I hope that they surround themselves with people who will support them, challenge them, laugh with them, travel with them, grieve with them, and feed them. I hope that they recognize that friendships are worth fighting for, that forgiveness and grace are necessary parts of being in relationships with flawed human beings, that having people in your corner is essential for meaningful success, and that conflict is worth working through when you’re with the right people. I want them to find out how much richness comes when they make friends with people whose skin colour is different from theirs, whose beliefs are different, and/or who grew up in other countries.I also want them to know, though, that sometimes it’s best to walk away from friendships or communities that hold them back. I want them to dare to choose their own growth and happiness over stifling relationships. I don’t want them to stay stuck in places or with people that don’t value or respect them.
The hardest parts of life are usually the ones that result in the most growth. There’s a part of me that longs to protect my daughters from the hard parts of life, but the wiser part of me knows that I have grown most when life has been hard. I have been changed by grief and trauma, and I know that the work I now do is rich and meaningful because of all of the darkness and pain I have traveled through. I want them to recognize that they have the strength and resilience to survive hard things and that there is something to strive for on the other side. I hope that they always know that they don’t have to survive the hard things alone and that, whenever I am able, I will walk alongside them. I also want them to know that they should never be ashamed to ask their friends or family for help, to hire a therapist, and/or to seek treatment for mental illness, trauma, etc.. I don’t want them to bypass the pain, but rather to move through it with grace and grit and people who love them.
There’s a lot of beauty and magic in the world – don’t miss it. Some of my favourite moments with my daughters are ones in which we’ve stood in reverence in front of a stunning sunset over the mountains, we’ve giggled with glee at an amusement park, we’ve sat around a campfire watching the flames leap up, or we’ve driven for hours and hours just to hear our favourite bands in concert. I hope that they always give themselves permission to have fun, to seek out adventure, to be in awe of the natural world, and to surround themselves with beauty. I hope that they take the time to pause and notice even the simplest bits of magic. I want them to live fully and reverently and to fill their lives with meaningful experiences.
I have been contemplating the above quote ever since I heard it on the radio yesterday. We are, all of us, products of the “crooked timber of humanity”. None of us has ever emerged perfectly straight.
Before being shaped and carved by the woodworker’s tools – life’s chipping and sanding away of our imperfections – we are all irregular, imperfect, and unfinished branches of the crooked timber of humanity. Even after the shaping, our imperfections continue to show, but we learn to cherish rather than hide them.
I have a beautifully carved necklace made from a slice of a branch (see photo at the top – made by Windy Tree). What I like best about it is the way the artisan incorporated the imperfections of the branch, turning it into the rugged edge of a cliff out of which a tree grows.
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of spending a few days with those closest to me on my crooked family tree. My three siblings and I took a trip down memory lane together, visiting our childhood haunts in the rural part of the province where we grew up. We drove past the high school we all attended and talked about our favourite and least favourite teachers. We ate lunch in the Chinese restaurant that’s been there as long as any of us can remember. We played on the swinging bridge that crosses the White Mud River where we all took swimming lessons and were baptized as teenagers. We stopped to see the cairn that was erected at the place where our elementary school once stood.
Our parents are both buried in a graveyard on a sandy ridge close to our home town, under the towering poplar trees. As we stood near their graves, we marvelled at the fact that they are really and truly gone, that we are forever orphans, that they are part of our past and not our future. Though we are all near or past 50, it still feels far too young to have lost both of our parents. Perhaps one never feels old enough for that kind of loss.
Our last visit was to the farm where we grew up. We moved there when I was one year old and Mom and Dad moved away after we’d left home and my brothers and I were all about to welcome our first babies. That farmyard holds a lot of our family’s stories.
As we walked around the now-dilapidated farmyard, we reminisced about all that we’d lived through on that piece of land.
“This is where Grandpa collapsed and died on our lawn.”
“See that concrete pad? That was the front doorstep of the tiny green house we first lived in when we moved here, before we built the new house.”
“This is where we had to drag cattle out of the water that one Spring when there was so much flooding. Oh how we hated Dad when he came to wake us up in the middle of the night because another cow was stuck.”
“We used to climb into the rafters of this barn to find the new kittens.”
“What was that Low German word Dad would use when we were helping him build the steel bins and he wanted us to know a bolt was tightened and we should move to the next one?”
“Mom would have loved to have seen all of these lilacs she’d planted so fully grown and in full bloom.”
“Remember all those times when Dad had to climb down into the well to prime the pump and we stood at the top praying that he’d make it out safely?”
What emerged, as we peeked into broken-down barns and climbed over discarded fence posts, was how harsh and beautiful our childhood on that farm was. Some of our memories still held a touch of the pain those moments had caused. Others were pure joy. Some of them brought back old resentments of the decisions our parents had made. Others honoured them for their courage and resilience.
We were poor and life was often really hard on the farm. We hovered on the verge of bankruptcy and sometimes the phone was cut off or creditors would show up on the yard. Some of our hard luck was due to sandy soil, harsh weather, and the myriad of things that make crops fail or animals die. But some of it could be attributed to our parents’ poor choices and lack of business sense.
And then there were the other things not related to money that were hard – Dad’s anger and impatience, Mom’s way of over-apologizing and never believing she was good enough.
Our parents were imperfect – products of the “crooked timber of humanity”. They made mistakes. They let us down. They made us angry sometimes.
But that’s not the whole story. They were also full of goodness. They taught us how to love. They modelled integrity and morality. They made sure our home was always safe. They made sacrifices on our behalf. Dad taught us to love learning and Mom taught us to love stories.
Harshness and beauty. Kindness and anger. Insecurity and compassion. Poverty and abundance. All mixed together in one imperfect family.
My daughters will some day gather, after my death, to similarly reminisce. They’ll talk about some of the hurt they carried because of me, but they’ll also talk about the deep way I loved them. Because above all, I love them, just as my parents loved me.
And in the end, we must believe that love wins. And imperfection is less important than love.
We are put on this world not to seek perfection, but to learn grace.
We are put here to learn to make beautiful things out of imperfect branches.
We are put here to discover our own resilience and courage even as we hold our pain.
We are put here to love, to forgive, and to persevere.
One of the questions I ask my coaching clients, when they talk about people in their lives who are challenging, is: “How is that person your teacher?” Everyone – those who love us and those who hate us and those in between – can teach us something.
Not everyone in our lives will be good to us and not everyone will have our best interests at heart. Some of you may, for example, have had much more horrible parents than I had and you’ll be struggling at the end of this article to find any good in them or to forgive them for what they did. When I say that “we are put here to love and forgive”, I do not mean that we are meant to put up with all of the harsh treatment that comes our way.
No. That’s not it. You can learn to love with boundaries. You can end relationships that cause you great harm – even with your parents.
BUT, even the people who hurt us can serve as our teachers. Perhaps they teach us to respect ourselves more and not let them treat us that way. Perhaps they teach us our own courage. Perhaps they teach us boundaries. Perhaps they teach us forgiveness with detachment.
Instead of seeking perfection in others or yourself, seek for the lessons each relationship teaches you. Seek for the ways that you can grow because another person has been part of your life. Seek for the pinpoints of grace. Seek the piece of art that emerges from the imperfect branch.
I am writing this newsletter, once again, from my perch in the limbs of the large tree in my backyard. I am surrounded by crooked limbs, and I am grateful for the way their crookedness carved out this space that so perfectly cradles my body. I’m grateful for the smaller crooked limb that juts out at a strange angle that’s perfect for propping up my laptop. I am grateful for the canopy of crooked limbs that spread out above me, giving me shade from the sun’s heat.
Straight limbs are over-rated, especially in family trees.
p.s. If you need to talk to someone about your own crooked family tree and the ways that people serve as your teachers, perhaps I can help. I’m taking on a few new coaching clients.
There’s a piece of my story in this unfolding year that I have had a hard time writing about. I still don’t know quite what to say, but I also don’t want to pretend that it’s not going on or that I’m trying to keep it a secret.
This summer, my twenty-two year marriage unraveled and my husband and I are now separated.
That’s the simple version. The more complex version is the part that’s difficult to talk about, because it is not my story alone and I am determined never to write anything that might hurt anyone I care about. My husband, my daughters and I are all fumbling our way through this, trying not to hurt each other, trying to heal from past wounds, and trying to emerge stronger and wiser.
I share it, though, because sometimes people turn to me for expertise on what it means to hold space for people, and I don’t want to pretend that I have figured out everything there is to know about keeping relationships healthy. Like you, I falter sometimes, and I fail people, and I make decisions that might be hard for people to understand. I am still very much on a learning journey.
Early this year, after I wrote the post that went viral, about what it means to hold space for other people, what became more and more clear to me was something I’d woken up to about five years earlier. My husband and I no longer knew how to hold space for each other. We’ve tried and tried, but repeatedly we’ve failed. For my part, I spent too much time judging him and thinking I needed to rescue or fix him, and for his part, he no longer understood me and had no idea how to support the kind of work I was doing or the changes I was undergoing as a result.
For a long time, I tried to tell myself that it didn’t matter that we were in such different places – that I was in this marriage for the long haul and that my daughters were better off with us together – but I could only fool myself for so long. We were hurting each other in our failure, and, after repeated attempts at marriage counselling, it finally became clear to me that we were not doing our daughters any favours by staying in this broken place.
There is much that remains unresolved in this story and I continue to learn from it as I navigate this new path. I stumble sometimes, and then I fall into grace and am given a hand up to get back up on my feet again.
And that is where I will leave this story, in an unresolved place where there is still healing to be done and forgiveness to be offered. I am learning, despite much impatience and struggle, to stay in the unresolved places until what’s meant to emerge can find its own way and time to unfold.
When we see brokenness, our tendency (based in a childish desire for the world to be clean and orderly, black and white) is to rush in to fix it, to find a solution, and to put it back the way it once was. But the invitation of a deepening spirituality is to allow it to remain unresolved, to ask ourselves why we are uncomfortable with it being unresolved, and to consider that perhaps something new wants to grow in its own sweet time without the limitations of “the way things used to be”.
As a writer and teacher, I feel pressure sometimes, on my blog and on social media, to only share a story when it has a complete ending. If I share it when it is still in the unresolved stage, too many people will rush in with advice, solutions, or judgement, responding to their own need to see it fixed in a way that makes sense to them, and then I will feel defeated, inadequate, and not fully heard.
What I most value (and this is why I spend so much time in circles) is to be heard, to be valued, and to be supported in whatever stage of the messiness I am in. This, I believe, is what all of us truly want. Because the best path out of the messiness is rarely the quick fix that first rushes to mind.
I invite you then, to pause for a moment before you respond to my unresolved story or anyone else’s. In your pausing, listen first for what that person most wants from you. And then listen for what is unresolved in your own life that might make someone else’s messy story feel uncomfortable. Because when we sit in the messiness together, we grow truly beautiful and lasting things. That’s what it means to hold space for each other.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rilke
Thank you for holding space for me in my unresolved place.
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I am home, once again. The last time I wrote, I was just back from a week of writing at a cottage by the lake, and now I’m just back from a week and a half vacation with my daughters. How very lucky I have been this summer to find the time and space for writing, relaxing, and traveling with my girls!
Having been raised going to the
Winnipeg Folk Festival every year, my daughters have developed a passion for indie music festivals. It’s a passion I like to indulge, so last year we drove with them to Montreal for Osheaga and this year I drove with them to Chicago for Lollapalooza. They’re talking about either Outsidelands or Squamish next year, and I’d be happy to go to either place. Though I find the size of the crowds at the festivals a little overwhelming and usually only go for one day, I so greatly treasure these days on the road with my daughters, and know that this time in their lives is fleeting (the oldest two have already graduated from high school), so I pack my bags and I go.
On the way home, after a discussion about next year’s adventure, one of my girls said “Mom, you’d be game for almost anything, wouldn’t you?” And I said “Yes, I would. Give me an interesting place to go to and some quality time with my daughters, and I’m there.” (If anyone has recommendations for great music festivals in your parts of the world, I’d be happy to hear them!)
When we travel, we do our best to seek some balance for all involved, so after a full week of music festivals, shopping, an architecture boat tour, a crime tour, the Art Institute, and other touristy things in Chicago, we headed to a campsite at McCarthy Beach State Park in Minnesota. In the past, there’d be some mild protest on their part, when I’d insist on camping for a few of the nights on our trips, but they’ve become accustomed to the fact that a vacation doesn’t feel complete to me without some time away from cities and electronic devices, and they appreciate my willingness to indulge them in their interests, so they comply willingly now. Despite the rain (and the fact that I still have a wet tent in my garage that needs to be aired out), we had a lovely time reading, wandering, sitting around the campfire, eating s’mores, and watching the sunset on the beach.
There’s a great life lesson there that I want to keep unpacking (and may write more about some day). Seek balance between the fast-paced days and the slow-paced ones. Seek balance between what you want and what you are willing to give others. Seek balance in your connection with others and your connection with yourself. Seek balance in your plugged-in days and your unplugged ones.
When your life begins to feel out of balance, it may be a good time to head to the woods.
This morning, though it was a little hard to convince my body to get out of bed to return to work (and nearly everything on my computer seems to be protesting similarly), I woke up grateful that I have work that I love and that I no longer have to face that feeling of dread when vacation is over and I have to drag myself back to work that drains me. I have worked hard to find this balance in my life, just as I have found it in my vacations. Yes, there is work to do, but much of it feels so much like play that I rarely feel out of balance. (If you’re not there, take heart. I spent many years yearning for this lifestyle before it finally happened for me.)
During the remainder of the month of August and into September, I will be working on polishing up the newest version of my memoir (with the hopes of seeking a publisher in the Fall), and then I’ll be working on a couple of new things (a facilitator’s kit for Mandala Discovery, and some kind of course or retreat around the theme of Holding Space).
There are a few things you might be interested in for the Fall:
1. I’m really excited to announce that I will be hosting a retreat in Asheville, NC, October 8-11, with my dear friend Desiree Adaway. This is no ordinary retreat. It’s called Engage, and it’s for all (women and men) who consider themselves change-makers, edge-walkers, dream-weavers, or social justice activists. It’s a place for soulful conversations, broken hearts, hopeful dreams, and imaginative action. Desiree and I are both passionate about supporting people in social justice work, and lately we’ve both had a growing sense of despair about some of the injustice in both of our countries. In the U.S., young black men are dying at the hands of the police, and in Canada, there’s a growing number of missing and murdered Indigenous women. We feel called to support anyone working on these or other important social justice causes, and so we’ve created a place for people to gather and be inspired. Will you join us?
2. There is still space for a few people in my online Openhearted Writing Circle on September 18th. If you want to write from a deeper place (whether for your own personal growth or to share with an audience), this is the place to gather with others like you and be inspired. All you need to participate is a Skype account and an open heart.
4. In late October, I’ll be participating in the annual gathering of Gather the Women, in Parrish, Florida. If you’d like to experience the power of a women’s circle, I’d highly encourage you to consider this gathering. I deeply believe in the work of this organization and in the importance of spending time in circle with other women.
5. For those in Canada, there is also a Gather the Women gathering happening in Ontario, September 11-13. They don’t have a website, but at this link, you’ll find a poster. If that doesn’t work, let me know and I’ll send you the email address of the contact person. (I won’t be attending this gathering, but the organizers are all dear friends of mine and I know that it will be good.)
I hope that, in whatever way works for you, you are finding some balance in your life this summer. Thank you for being part of my circle!
It seems appropriate and metaphorical that my journey to the Gather the Women event I was co-hosting was a long and arduous journey, and yet filled with moments of beauty and grace. The thirty-five hours I’d planned to spend on a train turned into forty-five and a half. I’d looked forward to the many hours of reading, writing, contemplation, and staring out the window (especially after the hard week before), but there’s only so much of that a person can take before the body begins to complain.
The moments, though, when I watched a moose run across a pond, or a great blue heron flap its mighty wings as it lifted itself out of the water, or a perfect circle of sunlight streaming out of a dark cloud, made the difficult journey bearable.
When I finally arrived in Peterborough, along with the other three members of the planning committee, I was weary but excited for what the next four days would bring. Forty-five women were gathering from across North America to sit in circle, share stories, and honour their feminine wisdom. I felt incredibly humbled to have the opportunity to host such a gathering. (Side note: I just realized that there was one woman for every hour I spent on the train! That thought makes me smile.)
The night before the gathering was to begin, I got bad news that almost convinced me to return home. The results of my Mom’s CT scan had come back. It was confirmed that the cancer she’d been treated for over the past year was still growing in her abdomen. Grief swept in and encompassed me. I didn’t know how I would make it through the rest of the week and do the job I needed to do.
I shared the news with the planning committee, and they surrounded me with love and community. “Go home if you need to,” they said. “We’ve got your back.”
The next morning, I decided I’d stay. Something told me that being part of this circle of women would help me have the courage to return home to what I needed to face.
It wasn’t easy. The details of gathering – putting together registration packets and gift bags, writing flip charts, and cutting string for my creative workshop – felt so trivial in light of what I was dealing with. At the same time, though, creating a space of comfort and inspiration for the women who were traveling many miles (literally and metaphorically) to be there was not trivial at all.
Before the opening circle began, I stepped into the room where creative women were preparing to sell their art in a small marketplace. Near the entrance was the beautiful art of Maia Heissler. She was in the midst of hanging her beautiful Forest Friends on a small hand-made tree when I stopped to chat with her.
“I’ve created these specially for the gathering,” she said. “They tell the stories of women gathering. This one is of a woman celebrating, surrounded by the women who love her. This one is of a woman who’s been dealt a basket of sorrows. Her community of women are helping her bear the burden.”
“That one,” I said. “I think I need to go home with that one. I AM that woman with the basket of sorrows.” I didn’t tell her what was in my basket, but I asked her to hold the piece until I’d decided whether I could afford to buy it.
On Thursday evening, there was levity and celebration in the opening celebration. I could hardly bear to be in the room. I spent most of the evening lying on my bed, alone in my room. I emerged only periodically to hear some of the stories that were being shared. Another woman shared how she, too, had taken the train and been subjected to lengthy delays.
Friday morning’s opening circle was beautiful and powerful. One by one we shared stories of how we’d come to be in this circle. Each of us placed a meaningful object in the centre of the circle and then added water we’d brought from our various homes into a collective bowl. When it came my turn to share, I added water that I’d brought from the graveyard where my son Matthew is buried and said that it felt like I was carrying a vial of tears with me. I said nothing about my mom. Something told me to hold that story close for the time being.
In the afternoon, I lead a workshop on storytelling, courage, and community. The women were invited to break into small circles of three to share stories of times in their lives when they’d had courage and times in their future when courage would be required of them. Out of those stories, they chose words and phrases to put onto prayer flags to take home and remind themselves of how the community supports their courage.
I didn’t participate in the story-sharing. Instead, I walked around with my camera, taking pictures of the beautiful faces as they softened and grew more vulnerable within the safe circles of trust.
Before the weekend ended, I bought the art piece of the woman with the basket of sorrows. Though it felt like more money than I could justify spending on myself, I knew I needed to take it home with me.
As the weekend progressed, I found my spirits lightening despite the heaviness in my chest. I was able to celebrate and dance and sing around the campfire. On Saturday afternoon, together with my delightful and spontaneous friend and mentor Diane, I went swimming in my clothes in the river that runs through the centre of Trent University. We convinced our new young friend Lindsay to join us. It was a lovely moment of lightness and joy.
As we drew nearer to the closing circle on Sunday morning, I contemplated whether or not to share the story of my Mom with the circle. I was a little conflicted. As one of the hosts of the gathering, I was somewhat reluctant to draw too much attention to myself, and yet as a member of the circle, it didn’t feel right to leave the circle without entrusting them with my pain. The beauty of the circle is that we all hold equal positions and one’s pain or joy is as important as another’s.
Just before the closing circle, one of the women with whom I hadn’t spoken much approached me. “You are a gifted woman, and you give so much to the group,” she said. “And yet there’s a sadness in your eyes. I want to honour whatever it is that gives you sadness.” At that moment, I knew I needed to share.
It took quite awhile for the talking piece to make its way to me. As it traveled, I listened deeply to the stories that were shared. So many women were going home with renewed courage and hope and strength after being part of the circle. It was a beautiful thing to behold.
When it came my turn, I began by saying that I felt like I’d just been held in the arms of the Great Mother. “I am conflicted,” I said. “It is always so exciting for me to come to an event like this, because I know that this is my calling – to be in places like this, and to teach more people about storytelling, circles, courage, and community. I want to go home and do big things – teach, write and speak. And yet I have received a new calling this weekend – one that I am much more reluctant to follow.”
And then I shared the news I’d gotten – that my own mother might not be with me much longer. “My calling now,” I said, “is not to do big things, but to do small things – to sit in circle with my mother and be with her as she journeys toward the end of her life here with us.”
I held my water vial up and said “before we meet again, there will be many more tears in this vial.” I looked around the room and saw that nearly every woman in the circle had tears in her eyes. My pain had become their pain.
What an incredibly moving thing it is to know that you don’t cry alone! I am surrounded, in that circle and in the circles I returned to when I came back home, with so much love and community.
Yes, I am a woman who has been dealt a basket of sorrows (as is my mom, my sister, my mom’s sister, my sisters-in-law, and the other women who surround my mom – and of course there are many men in that circle too), but I know that I don’t have to carry it alone, and for that I am immensely grateful.
On Monday, the day after Gather the Women ended, my sister and I went to see the oncologist with my Mom and her husband. There we were told that Mom may be with us for six months or more, but probably less than a year. She has the option of taking more chemo treatments, but that will merely prolong her life somewhat and not stop the growth of the cancer. In the coming months, we need to prepare for her journey into the next life.
I didn’t take the train home on the return trip, and yet I know that there is a long and arduous journey ahead of me in the coming months. I also know that that journey will have intermittent moments of peace, beauty, and grace, just like my train ride did.
This I know – we are surrounded by love and we are held in the arms of the Great Mother/Father. May I continue to trust in that.
I love Easter. There is so much good in it. There’s something about the resurrection story, and the many little reminders nature offers us at this time of year of how new things are born out of last year’s death that keeps me coming back to faith.
By the end of almost every Easter weekend, after the Easter services, the time with family, the great food, and the easter egg hunts, I’m in a happy, contemplative mood.
Almost every year… except last year.
Last Easter was horrible. Epically horrible.
On Maunday Thursday – my mom’s birthday – we received confirmation that my mom had cancer. A fairly serious kind in her internal organs that had way too many unknowns for our comfort.
Three days later, on Easter Sunday, my 18 year marriage unraveled. On the way home from an Easter “celebration” with my family, I told my husband that it was either time for us to live apart, or else we’d need to find someone who could help us overhaul our severely broken relationship. It just wasn’t working anymore. We’d forgotten how to communicate and I was tired of feeling angry, hurt, and lost.
I did a lot of crying in the weeks after Easter.
Ironically, a month before Easter, I’d started a series on my blog called “Let go of the Ground“, about how we are all called to surrender – to the Mystery, to the God of our understanding, to our calling, to Love. The premise was that – like the caterpillar who must surrender to the cocoon and enter the difficult transformation process before becoming a butterfly – we too must surrender and learn to trust what is emerging for us. I interviewed a bunch of wise people about their own surrender stories, and I was preparing to create an e-course on the subject. It felt like important work and I knew I had some wisdom to share, having experienced groundlessness and transformation many times in my life.
But then… Easter came, and groundlessness wasn’t just a topic for a blog post. I was living it all over again, and not by choice. The ground had been whipped out from under me and I was plunging through space without a parachute.
It’s easy to talk about surrender when you’re on the far side of transformation and you know what it feels like to fly. It’s another thing entirely when you’re in the messy, gooey chrysalis stage, you’re hanging by a fragile thread, and you have no idea when and how you will emerge.
The months after Easter continued to be hard. Mom started chemo, lost all of her hair, got continually sicker, went for surgery in the summer, and then spent a few more months in chemo. Normally an energetic, young-for-her-age woman who takes delight in climbing trees with her grandchildren and being the fastest one (and sometimes the only one) up the climbing wall when she goes to seniors’ camp in the summer, Mom could hardly handle the many hours she was forced to spend sitting or lying around. I could see her muscles twitch when someone else was in HER kitchen making food for her.
As for my marriage… we agreed that it was best for the kids if we stayed in the same house while we tried to repair what was broken. Like a couple of brick-layers trying to rebuild after a tsunami has wiped out the village, we gathered the pieces that still looked like viable relationship-building bricks, added a few new ones, and started piecing them together slowly but surely. Fortunately, we found a counsellor who was good at helping us do that.
Now it’s a year later, and I’d be lying if I told you I feel like a butterfly with freshly dried wings, fluttering effortlessly through the air. No, there’s lots of effort still involved, and lots of unknowns. I still feel pretty groundless.
But things are changing, and Spring has come again. When we rake away the dead leaves of last year, we see the tiny shoots poking their way out of the dirt built from many deaths in seasons past.
My mom started baking buns again last week, a sure sign that some of her energy is coming back. (When she starts distributing them to everyone in the neighbourhood who could use some nourishment, we’ll know she’s truly back.) Her chemo is finished, and it appears that the cancer has been halted for now. She cooked us a big meal for Easter and we celebrated together. True to form, she’s headed off on a trip with her husband later this week, headed to places where tulips bloom in rows and rows of wild and glorious colour.
Though it’s not perfect, my marriage feels much more stable than it did a year ago. We’re finding new ways of being truthful with each other and we’re working on rebuilding our trust. It feels hopeful, like there’s something worth fighting for. There are enough salvageable bricks that we can build a relationship that is better but still carries with it the stories of the old one.
It’s because of these stories that I continue to believe in the resurrection. Life comes out of death. Hope emerges out of darkness. Beauty follows surrender. God makes good things grow when we let our egos die.
There are many, many people who will try to tell you otherwise. They’ll try to sell you magic. They’ll try to tell you that life can be easy if you have enough positive thoughts and you surround yourself with people who are always happy, happy, happy. They’ll insist that if you attract good things, you won’t have to suffer.
I’m here to tell you that those people are telling you half-truths. Don’t get caught up in their deception no matter how convincing they are. They’re snake oil salespeople trying to make a quick buck out of your desire for an easy life.
Easiness is not the path to true happiness. Surrender is.
It’s not that I don’t believe in miracles – I do. I’ve seen them happen many, many times.
But the best kind of miracles are those that show up in the middle of the grit and suffering and messiness of life. The best kind of miracles are the hugs from friends when you need it most, the breathtaking sunset that brings tears to your eyes, the offering of support when you feel like you’ll crumble, the first crocus of the season – blooming despite the threat of frost, the fresh baked buns after a year of cancer, the tender touch of a loved one after you’ve regained trust, and the butterfly that flutters past when you’re lost in the woods.
The best kind of miracles don’t take you out of the suffering or make you immune to it, they simply help you bear it.
We need the suffering if we’re going to get to true beauty. We need the dying compost if we’re going to get crocuses in the Spring. We need the gooey chrysalis if we’re going to learn to fly.
Without the death, we wouldn’t get to celebrate the resurrection.