Handmade clothes my son’s body was dressed in after he was born.
If it hadn’t been for doctors’ errors, I would have a sixteen-year-old son.
Halfway through my third pregnancy, I could sense that something was wrong. My body didn’t feel right. “I feel like I have to re-adjust my hips every time I stand up to avoid the baby dropping from between my legs,” I said to my doctor when I called her. “Something feels too loose down there.”
She sent me to the hospital where an intern taped monitors to my stomach and I lay waiting for the prognosis. “Everything looks normal,” said the intern. “The baby is moving well and the heartbeat is strong. I’ve consulted with your doctor and we’ve decided that there is not enough of an indication of a problem to do an internal exam. At this point in the pregnancy, the risks of that kind of invasiveness don’t seem worth it.”
That was the first mistake. They should have checked my cervix.
A week later, I booked some time off work and visited another hospital for a routine, mid-pregnancy ultrasound. The moment the technician turned the screen away from me, I knew something was wrong. The sudden subdued tone in her voice confirmed my suspicion. An hour later, after an awkward call with my doctor, leaning over the receptionist’s desk and trying not to cry, I was on my way back to the hospital where they would now address the problem that had been missed the week before.
My cervix was open. The signals that my body had sent me were accurate – I WAS too loose down there. I was already four centimetres dilated – four months too soon.
After a variety of doctors visited and asked me the same series of questions over and over again, I finally found myself at a third hospital where I was placed into the hands of the only specialist in the city who had the skill to deal with my problem. That evening, Dr. M. spent nearly two hours explaining the situation to my husband and me.
I had an incompetent cervix. Though it had held firmly through my first two pregnancies, like a rubber band that has lost its elasticity, it no longer had the strength to hold itself closed for the nine months it was required to hold a baby in place. Nobody had an explanation – apparently it just happens sometimes. Because it had been open for awhile, the amniotic sac was bulging out of the gap, which is why I’d been feeling the discomfort a week earlier.
The next morning, after a fitful night that included a panic attack after I listened to the frantic sounds of another mother down the hall giving birth to a dead baby, I was wheeled into the surgical theatre where I was to undergo a cerclage. Like the drawstring of a purse, the doctor would stitch a strong thread through my cervix and then pull it closed, simultaneously pushing the amniotic sac back behind the barrier.
After I was prepped for surgery, Dr. M. entered the room with a young intern. It was a teaching hospital, so I was getting used to students following the teacher around. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Instead of Dr. M., it was the young intern who picked up the needle and stepped between my legs.
Dr. M. read the concern on my face. “Often it’s actually better to have the more experienced doctor watching and guiding rather than doing the stitching,” he reassured me. “It will be okay. She’ll do a fine job.”
That was the second mistake. Minutes later, the faces of both the intern and Dr. M. told me something had gone horribly wrong. “Pull it out,” said Dr. M. “We have to abandon surgery.”
The amniotic sac had been pierced by the needle she was using for the cerclage. My water was now broken. My baby was no longer protected. I would probably go into labour soon and deliver a baby too tiny to survive.
To the surprise of all of the doctors, I didn’t go into labour right away. In fact, hours stretched into days, and the baby seemed to be thriving despite the lack of amniotic fluid or protection from the outside world. Dr. M. watched vigilantly, doing two ultrasounds a day to make sure all of the baby’s organs were functioning properly.
After the failed surgery, I had another fitful night in which I wrestled with the demons that wanted to convince me to point the blame at the doctors. “It’s their fault,” they shrieked in my ear as I fought through the anxiety. “If they had checked you a week ago, or if Dr. M. had done the surgery, you wouldn’t be in this situation, expecting your baby to die at any moment.”
But there was another voice – a quieter voice – underneath the anger and fear. This voice said “You have a choice to make. Blame the doctors and let the bitterness control you, or let it go and choose a more peaceful way through this.” By morning, I had made a choice. I would let it go. Bitterness wouldn’t do me or my baby any good. I wanted to choose life.
The next day, Dr. M. came to see me and at the end of our visit, he paused for a moment. “The intern would like to come see you. She feels horrible about what happened and would like a chance to apologize. Will you see her?”
I took a deep breath. Was I ready to see her?
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll see her.”
A few hours later, she walked into the room. Her eyes filled with tears as she blurted out an awkward apology.
“I know you were doing your best,” I said, “and you made a mistake. I don’t hold that against you. Don’t let this ruin your career as a doctor. Learn from it and keep doing better.”
For much of the next three weeks in the hospital, I felt surprisingly peaceful. I started a gratitude journal and I had many long, luxurious conversations with the friends and family that came to visit. I joked with people who commented on my peaceful appearance that my hospital stay felt a little like being in an ashram – a retreat space away from my busy life that gave me time to reflect on the meaning of my life.
At the end of those three weeks, though, my peaceful state met the crashing waves of despair. I went downstairs for my morning ultrasound visit and discovered that my baby had died during the night. A few hours later, I had to go through the excruciating pain of labour and delivery, knowing the outcome was a dead baby. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done.
As I prepared to go home from the hospital, my breasts filling with milk my son would never drink, I checked in with myself about the choice I’d made three weeks earlier. Now that my baby was dead, could I still forgive the doctors for their mistakes? The stakes were higher – could I make the choice again? Yes, I decided that I could. Choosing not to let go would be to choose bitterness and hatred. I wanted to choose peace and forgiveness. I made that choice again and again in the coming months as the waves of grief came.
This week, I’ve been reading Wilma Derksen’s new book, The Way of Letting Go, about her thirty-two year journey to forgiveness after her thirteen-year-old daughter’s murder. The term forgive, she says, derives from ‘to give’ or ‘to grant,’ as in ‘to give up.’ Forgiveness is the process of letting go. It “isn’t a miracle drug to mend all broken relationships but a process that demands patience, creativity, and faith.”
I’ve known about Wilma since the story of her daughter Candace’s disappearance erupted in the media, five months after I graduated from high school (in 1984). Seven weeks after the disappearance, Candace’s body was found in a shed just a few blocks from her home.
A few years ago, I heard Wilma give a TEDx talk about forgiveness. What stood out about that talk was that, during the trial of the man accused of murdering Candace, Wilma realized that she could not hold both love and justice in her heart in equal measure. Though she longed for justice for Candace’s sake, for the sake of the family that was still with her, she chose love.
After hearing her speak, I reached out to Wilma and we have since become friends. Last year, while she was working on the book, she invited me to lunch to explore the idea of me being a guest speaker at a class she was teaching about forgiveness. Over lunch, she told me about how she had, after more than thirty years of processing her own forgiveness over the murder of her daughter, come to a somewhat different conclusion about forgiveness than what we’d both been taught in our religious upbringing. As she says in the book, it’s a long journey of letting go and making the choice, again and again, to choose love and life, just as I’d done in the hospital. It’s not about denying that you feel anger and hatred or that you want justice, but it’s a conscious choice not to let those things control you.
Toward the end of our lunch date, I decided to share something with Wilma that I’d hesitated to bring up earlier in the conversation – that my marriage had recently ended. I was reluctant to talk about it for two reasons: 1. I didn’t want it to dominate the conversation, especially when the focus was on her course and her work, and 2. since she was an “expert” on forgiveness and I knew her to be a religious person, I was afraid of what she might think of me for having failed at marriage. (I still carried some old shame about the sin of divorce.)
Wilma’s response caught me by surprise. Not only was she compassionate and non-judgemental, but she offered a simple reframing of a story I shared that helped me see even more clearly why the ending of my marriage had become necessary. She held space for me in the beautiful way that only someone who has walked through pain and has learned not to judge herself for her reaction to it can do.
I realized, in that moment, that I had placed Wilma on an impossible pedestal. For more than thirty years, I’d seen the media’s version of this somewhat saintly Christian woman who had some kind of super-human capacity to forgive the most egregious crime against her and her family. But the truth was much more complicated and nuanced (and, in my mind, appealing) than that. She was, just as I was, a very human woman who’d been nearly drowned in intense pain, anger, and fear, and yet she kept swimming back up to the surface in search of the light.
Forgiveness, for her, was not a pie-in-the-sky utopian ideal that meant she could live in peace and harmony with all who’d wronged her. Instead, it was a daily – sometimes hourly – decision to let go of fear, grief, ego, happy endings, guilt, blame, rage, closure, and self-pity.
I didn’t get to raise my son Matthew, but because, like Wilma, I chose forgiveness instead of bitterness, his short life transformed mine and his legacy is present in all of the work I now do. That three week period in the hospital with him was not only a retreat, it was a reconfiguring, sending my life in a whole new direction that lead me to where I am now.
At the end of the book, Wilma admits that her concept and experience of forgiveness are still changing and evolving. I’m with her on that. Life will keep giving us more chances to learn.
Sometimes grief comes like a runaway truck. You can see it careening down the highway toward you, but you don’t have enough time to get out of the way before it flattens you.
Sometimes it’s a slow moving train, and you’re stuck at the crossing, impatiently waiting for it to pass so that you can get on with your life.
Sometimes grief is a stealth bomber, dropping missiles from the sky and leaving you with an unfamiliar and sinister landscape that you don’t know how to navigate.
This Christmas, grief came to me like a sailboat – not disruptive or forceful, but with a strong enough wake to rearrange the pebbles on the shore.
It came in the dark while I was driving down the highway, on the way home from a full day of Christmas merriment at my brother’s house. It came on the same road where, six years earlier, I told my husband that, unless something changed, I couldn’t stay in the marriage any longer. It came while my daughters were peacefully sleeping in the van behind me. I was glad for the cover of darkness to hide the tears streaming down my face.
There is a unique grief that becomes part of your narrative when you’ve lost both parents and the partner you thought you’d spend the rest of your life with. It feels untethered – like there is nobody holding you to the ground anymore and you have to figure out how to do your own holding. It comes with a unique loneliness – a feeling of separateness – when you’ve lost those relationships at the first level of intimacy and the best that you now have is second-level intimacy. Those people care that you’re there and they love you dearly, but their eyes won’t light up when you walk into the room, and their hand won’t reach out to touch yours in a way that says either “you are my child” or “you are my beloved”.
I’d just spent the day with the people I adore (my siblings and their families), and my van was full of three girls whose love lights up my life, and yet I felt an undeniable sense of loneliness.
It was not unhealthy, this loneliness, nor was it even particularly painful. When it came, I felt no desire to banish it or even to resolve it in any hurry. There is no gaping hole in the centre of my heart; there is only a gentle gap that offers possibility for more fullness in the future.
I simply felt the longing in the loneliness and let it keep me company as I drove.
Longing is not something to be banished or feared. Longing is a friend, a messenger that points us in the direction of our hearts. Like a treasure map, it gives us clues that help us figure out where to dig.
Longing is what helps us make connections – with ourselves, with each other, with the sacred, and with the earth. We are meant for connection, to be in relationships that help us thrive and grow. If we didn’t ever feel longing, we would never seek each other out. We would live in isolation, never building communities, never taking the kinds of risks that result in intimacy, passion and aliveness.
Longing and love go hand in hand. Love grows in the world when we respond to our longing and reach out in connection and community.
My longing pointed me toward intimacy, touch, and deep soul connection.
There are many beautiful connections in my life, and for that I am grateful. But there’s a level of intimacy – both physical and emotional – that’s missing, and that is what my longing asks me to open my heart to.
There are other clues on this treasure map as well – clues that tell me that, in order to find the treasure of intimacy, more excavation will be required. I will need to continue to clear out the emotional clutter – old stories and attachments – that don’t serve me anymore. I will need to continue to heal the wounded parts of me that fear the deep vulnerability that comes with intimacy. I will need to soften the parts of me that keep me guarded and protected.
This past year has included a lot of excavation, a lot of decluttering, and a lot of dismantling of old stories. Now, at the end of it, I feel ready to sit with the empty spaces in my heart – the longing and hunger that comes when the old has been removed and the new has not yet come to fill its place. I feel ready to sit at the centre of the labyrinth – emptied of what I needed to release on the journey inward and ready to receive what has yet to arrive.
With this writing, I am suddenly aware of what my word for 2017 will be. My longing pointed the way to it.
My word for 2017 is intimacy.
What about you? Do you feel a deep longing right now? An ache in your heart that won’t go away? If so, what is it trying to teach you, what connection is it telling you to seek out?
Don’t chase it away and don’t fear it. Let it enter you, let it teach you, and let it point you toward the treasure you have yet to uncover.
If you’re interested in exploring your own longing and want to pick a word for 2017, A Soulful Year may be a useful resource.
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection and my bi-weekly reflections.
My baby died before I got to hold him in my arms. I’d been in the hospital for three weeks, trying to save my third pregnancy, but then one morning I went downstairs for my twice-daily ultrasound and found out he had died while I slept. Then came the horrible and unavoidable realization… I had to give birth to him. For three hours I laboured, knowing that at the end of it, instead of a baby suckling at my breast, I would hold death in my arms. That’s the hardest kind of liminal space I’ve ever been through – excruciating pain on top of excruciating grief.
Yes, it was hard, but it was also one of the most tender, beautiful, grace-filled experiences of my life. It changed me profoundly, and set me on the path I am on now. That was the beginning of my journey to understanding the painful beauty of grief, the value of the liminal space, and the essence of what it means to hold space for another person.
When Matthew was born, the nurses in the hospital handled it beautifully. They dressed him in tiny blue overalls and wrapped him in a yellow blanket, lovingly hand-made by volunteers. They took photos of him for us to take home, made prints of his hands and feet for a special birth/death certificate, and then brought him to my room so that we could spend the evening with him. I asked one of the nurses later how they’d known just the right things to do, and she told me that they used to be frustrated because they didn’t know how to support grieving parents, but then had all been sent to a workshop that gave them some tools that changed the experience for the parents and for them.
That evening, our family and close friends gathered in my hospital room to support us and to hold the baby that they had been waiting to welcome.
Now, nearly sixteen years later, I don’t remember a single thing that was said in that hospital room, but I remember one thing. I remember the presence of the people who mattered. I remember that they came, I remember that they gazed lovingly into the face of my tiny baby, and I remember that they cried with me. I have a mental picture in my mind of the way they loved – not just me, but my lifeless son. That love and that presence was everything. I’m sure it was hard for some of them to come, knowing what they were facing, but they came because it mattered.
This past week, I’ve been in a couple of conversations with people who were concerned that they might do or say the wrong thing in response to someone’s hard story. “What if I offend them? What if they think I’m trying to fix them? What if they think I’m insensitive? What if I’m guilty of emotional colonization?” Some of these people admitted that they sometimes avoid showing up for people in grief or struggle because they simply don’t have a clue how to support them.
There are lots of “wrong” things to do in the face of grief – fixing, judging, projecting, or deflecting. Holding someone else’s pain is not easy work.
In her raw and beautiful new book, Love Warrior, Glennon Melton Doyle talks about how hard it was to share the story of her husband’s infidelity and their resulting marriage breakdown. There are six kinds of people who responded.
- The Shover is the one who “listens with nervousness and then hurriedly explains that ‘everything happens for a reason,’ or ‘it’s darkest before the dawn,’ or ‘God has a plan for you.’”
- The Comparer is the person “nods while ‘listening’, as if my pain confirms something she already knows. When I finish she clucks her tongue, shakes her head, and respond with her own story.”
- The Fixer “is certain that my situation is a question and she knows the answer. All I need is her resources and wisdom and I’ll be able to fix everything.”
- The Reporter “seems far too curious about the details of the shattering… She is not receiving my story, she is collecting it. I learn later that she passes on the breaking news almost immediately, usually with a worry or prayer disclaimer.”
- The Victims are the people who “write to say they’ve hear my news secondhand and they are hurt I haven’t told them personally. They thought we were closer than that.
- And finally, there are “the God Reps. They believe they know what God wants for me and they ‘feel led’ by God to ‘share.’”
These are all people who may mean well, but are afraid to hold space. They are afraid to be in a position where they might not know the answer and will have to be uncomfortable for awhile. Wrapped up in their response is not their concern for the other person but their concern for their own ego, their own comfort, and their own pride.
It’s easy to look at a list like that and think “Well, no matter what I do, I’ll probably do the wrong thing so I might as well not try.” But that’s a cop-out. If the person living through the hard story is worth anything to you, then you have to at least show up and try.
From my many experiences being the recipient of support when I walked through hard stories, this is my simple suggestion for what to do:
Be fully present.
Don’t worry so much about what you’ll say. Yes, you might say the wrong thing, but if the friendship is solid enough, the person will forgive you for your blunder. If you don’t even show up, on the other hand, that forgiveness will be harder to come by.
So show up. Be there in whatever way you can and in whatever way the relationship merits – a phone call, a visit, a text message.
Just be there, even if you falter, stumble, or make mistakes. And when you’re there, be FULLY present. Pay attention to what the person is sharing with you and what they may be asking of you. Don’t just listen well enough so that you can formulate your response, listen well enough that you risk being altered by the story. Dare to enter into the grit of the story with them. Ask the kind of questions that show interest and compassion rather than judgement or a desire to fix. Risk making yourself uncomfortable. Take a chance that the story will take you so far out of your comfort zone that you won’t have a clue how to respond.
And when you are fully present, your intuition will begin to whisper in your ear about the right things to do or say. You’ll hear the longing in your friend’s voice, for example, and you’ll find a way to show up for that longing. In the nuances of their story, and in the whisperings they’ll be able to utter because they see in you someone they can trust, you’ll recognize the little gifts that they’ll be able to receive.
It is only when you dare to be uncomfortable that you can hold liminal space for another person.
This is not easy work and it’s not simple. It’s gritty and a little dangerous. It asks a lot of us and it takes us into hard places. But it’s worth it and it’s really, really important.
There’s a term for the kind of thing that people do when they’re trying to fix you, rush you to a resolution, or pressure you to have positive thoughts rather than fully experiencing the grief. It’s called “spiritual bypassing”, a term coined by John Welwood. “I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks,” he says. “When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. And then we tend to use absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits. I see this as an “occupational hazard” of the spiritual path, in that spirituality does involve a vision of going beyond our current karmic situation.”
When we’re too uncomfortable to hold space for another person’s pain, we push them into this kind of spiritual bypassing, not because we believe it’s best for them, but because anything else is too uncomfortable for us. But spiritual bypassing only stuffs the wound further down so that it pops up later in addiction, rage, unhealthy behaviour, and physical or mental illness.
Instead of pushing people to bypass the pain, we have to slow down, dare to be uncomfortable, and allow the person to find their own path through.
There’s a good chance that the person doesn’t want your perfect response – they want your PRESENCE. They want to know that they are supported. They want a container in which they can safely break apart. They want to know you won’t abandon them. They want to know that you will listen. They want to know that they are worth enough to you that you’ll give up your own comfort to be in the trenches with them.
Your faltering attempts at being present are better than your perfect absence.
My memory of that evening in the hospital room with my son Matthew is full of redemption and beauty and grace because it was full of people who love me. None of them knew the right things to say in the face of my pain, but they were there. They listened to me share my birthing story, even though there was no resolution, and they looked into the face of my son even though they couldn’t fix him.
Nothing was more important to me than that.
A note about what’s coming…
A new online writing course… If you want to write to heal, to grow, or to change the world, consider joining me for Open Heart, Moving Pen, October 1-21, 2016.
An emerging coaching/facilitation program… As I’ve mentioned before, I’m currently writing a book about what it means to hold space. While writing the first three chapters, I began to dream about what else might grow out of this work and I came up with a beautiful idea that I’m very excited about. I’ll be creating a “liminal space coaching/facilitation program” that will provide training for anyone who wants to deepen their work in holding liminal space. When I started dreaming of this, I realized that I’ve been creating the tools for such a program for several years now – Mandala Discovery, The Spiral Path, Pathfinder, 50 Questions, and Openhearted Writing. Participants of the coaching/facilitation program (which will begin in early 2017) will have access to all of these tools to use in their own work, whether that’s as coaches, facilitators, pastors, spiritual directors, hospice workers, or teachers.
If the coaching/facilitation program interests you, you might want to get a head start in working through one or more of those programs so that you’ve done some of the foundational work first. The more personal work you’ve done in holding space for yourself first, the more effective you’ll be in the work. (Participants in any of those courses will be given a discount on the registration cost of the coaching/facilitation program.)
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In recent weeks, I’ve had a few people whose work is growing and who want to be prepared for more growth ask me what advice I’d give them from my experience of having a blog post go viral. A year and a half ago, my blog post about holding space went viral. So many people visited that my website crashed once and threatened to crash another time. There continue to be viral spikes now and then when someone with a large following discovers and shares it. By now, I would estimate that around 3 million people have seen that post either on my site or on other sites where it’s been shared (especially Uplift Connect). It’s been quoted in books and journals, it’s inspired videos and other articles, and it’s been plagiarized more than once.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that experience and what I learned from it. It really was life-changing and it’s taken my work into a deeper and more focused place. It has opened remarkable doorways for me, brought in lots of new clients and speaking engagements, and allowed me to travel to some interesting places to do interesting work. Now, a year and a half later, I’m working with an agent to grow the ideas that started in that blog post into a full-length book.
Yes, that post has been a great blessing and a dream come true, but it has required great sacrifice of me as well. The fall-out from that post has brought me to the brink of burnout more than once. It has exhausted and overwhelmed me. It has changed relationships and has sent me into therapy. It has placed a burden on my shoulders that I wasn’t always prepared to carry. Sometimes hundreds of emails fill my in-box, each one of them a request for some energetic output on my part.
At first I was going to write a “what I wish I’d known before it happened” kind of post, but truthfully, I don’t know if I would have done much differently. Even in the really hard spots, there were lessons to learn that couldn’t have been learned without some struggle. So instead, I will give you some of my stories and lessons and you can make of them what you will. Some of these are related to business growth and some are related to personal growth – I really can’t separate the two because they are so blended in what I do.
- There are few things more vital than good support. Because my business hadn’t grown enough, I was running a one-woman show before my post went viral, doing everything on a shoestring budget. I didn’t have a good hosting plan for my website and I didn’t have anyone with the technical capacity to support website challenges. I was self-taught and relied on the inexpensive hosting package of a big and impersonal business. That was a nearly fatal flaw. When the traffic increased exponentially, the big and impersonal business kept threatening me with menacing emails about the fact that I didn’t have enough capacity in my hosting package, but weren’t responding to any of my requests for support. When my website crashed, they completely ignored my repeated requests for urgent support for more than 24 hours. Finally, a website super girl stepped forward, stayed up all night, and rescued my site from disaster. It was running again (now hosted by her) by the time I woke up in the morning. I now pay a fair bit more for web hosting, but that’s a monthly bill I pay quite happily for the peace of mind it’s brought me.
- Having a lot of good content and programs already available helped immensely. I’ve been blogging for more than a dozen years and had several reasonably-priced programs available on my site (ie. Mandala Discovery, The Spiral Path, and Lead with Your Wild Heart) which meant that new visitors could engage with my work and invest in it right away. I know I could have done better if I’d had a savvy marketer working with me, but I did alright, given the circumstances. I am grateful that the viral spike happened far enough into my business development that I could support it and it wasn’t just a flash-in-the-pan success. That meant that, in the early days when not many people were showing up, I had to be faithful to the work and believe that it had meaning, continuously creating whether or not people were paying attention.
- The internet has created a market where people feel they are entitled to free content and advice. While I am grateful for the income that this post brought in, it is also true that far more people came looking for free support. This is not a critique of those people (I’ve done the same thing myself on occasion, though I try not to anymore), but it was amazing to me how many people reached out for free advice on everything from parenting to palliative care to marriage to business development. Because I love to engage with people and have built many beautiful relationships online, my first instinct was to respond to every one of the emails I received and often that meant giving out free advice. That is exhausting and unsustainable. I had to learn how to create better boundaries for myself and I had to practice letting people down for the sake of my own health and well-being. Now, a year and a half later, I have finally hired an assistant who is managing that flow and helping me to protect my energy.
- I can’t over-state how important good self-care and healthy boundaries are. I’ve always considered myself to be fairly good at self-care (I take lots of hot baths, go on lots of long walks, step away from my work regularly, journal and make art often, have some really supportive relationships, etc.) but I realized with this experience that the bigger my work and audience gets, the more intentional I need to be about self-care and boundaries. In working with a therapist, for example, I realized that I still have a long way to go in terms of honouring my body and protecting my energy while I make myself available to more and more people. I’ve been working on that this summer.
- People are looking for more depth than we sometimes expect – don’t dumb it down. I work in some pretty deep and sometimes dark places. I talk about grief, shadow, conflict, race relations, vulnerability, etc. That’s not the kind of work that one would normally associate with “going viral”. And yet, I’ve found that my audience shows up when I take the most risks in going to those deep places. My blog post started with the death of my mother and it included a definition of holding space that is fairly intense and doesn’t fit with some of the more New-Agey or Law-of-Attraction type understanding of holding space. And yet, that is clearly what people are hungry for, because they keep coming. Far too many coaches and writers write from a more shallow place (“do these ten steps and you’ll have a rich and happy life”) and they might get rich from it, but I don’t think it’s feeding the real hunger in the world.
- Fame is shallow. It’s the real work that matters. Sure it’s flattering that three million people have seen my post, but I can’t dwell in abstract numbers or I risk getting lost in ego. To me, the real work is in the circles that gather in my workshops, the individuals who sit across from me in my coaching sessions, or the people who engage with me when I speak at conferences. Last week, I held space for a powerful and intense ceremony for two people who are launching a beautiful new movement into the world. Sitting there in the grass, bearing witness as they took a metaphorical journey into the work that calls them was as good as my work gets and it is a great privilege that I get to do it. I don’t ever want to forget that.
- Not every audience is worth spending my energy on. At the beginning, it was flattering to be invited to do radio interviews, etc., but I learned fairly quickly that if my gut was telling me it wasn’t the right audience, I should pay attention. More than one interview fell flat because the interviewer really didn’t understand my work and didn’t know how to ask good questions. I walked away from those interviews feeling drained and frustrated. Since then, I’ve been more selective in what speaking engagements or interviews I’ll agree to. I’ve also become somewhat suspect of online summits where a lot of speakers are doing free webinars, especially when there has been little thought to the diversity of the speakers. I would only agree to one of those if it was just the right invitation and just the right intention around what it’s offering. It’s not true that “all PR is good PR” – sometimes it drains your valuable energy and/or links you to products and organizations that don’t fit with your values and integrity.
- There are great risks involved in taking your work to a deeper place. There’s a Bible verse that says “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” That rings true for me in this work. I feel that I have been given a great gift and great responsibility in doing this work, but it is also requiring much of me and I can’t take that lightly. In order for me to be doing this work with integrity, I have to be willing to peer into my shadow and address my own shame and discomfort. Some of the emails I get, for example, are negative and attacking. Sometimes I need to ignore them and stand in my strength, but sometimes I need to accept what is truthful in them. And always I need to be resilient enough to return to the work and remember that it’s not about me.
- It is, ironically, harder to build real relationships when lots of people know who you are. This was rather unexpected for me, but I’ve noticed that people respond to me differently once they know that I had a blog post that went viral. When I’m at conferences or other public gatherings where people know my work, they assume I’m the expert or teacher and they approach me that way, assuming I know something that they don’t know. Some have read a fair bit of my work already, so I am automatically at a disadvantage, not knowing anything about them. It’s new territory to navigate, and it hasn’t kept me from some beautiful experiences of deep connection, but it definitely shifts the initial connection in a relationship. Sometimes this is okay (it allows me to maintain some boundaries), but sometimes it leaves me feeling a little lonely when everyone else is connecting on more equal playing field. I remember a similar thing happening when I first stepped into management – I was no longer privy to much of the office chit-chat that helped build relationships among staff.
- Only do this work if you’re prepared to have your life shaken up. One of the most significant results of this deeper personal work that cracked open for me when I started writing about holding space was that my 22 year marriage unraveled only months after my post first went viral. That wasn’t accidental timing. The post, and my resulting work, caused me to see that I wasn’t living in integrity. While I was busy teaching people to hold space, I was in a marriage where neither I nor my husband knew how to hold space for each other. We were pretending we did, but we really didn’t, even after years of trying. The viral blog post made that even more apparent, when I started looking for deeper emotional support than he knew how to give. I knew that, in order for this work to grow, I had to be honest with myself and step away and also release him to what would support him better.
- The outcome is not my responsibility. This has been my mantra since the early days of my business when I was stressing out about whether anyone would read my blog or pay for my offerings. After the discouragement of canceled workshops (due to low registrations) and ignored blog posts, I had to remind myself that I am called to this work and will continue to do it whether three people show up or three million. I am responsible for showing up and doing this work with integrity and commitment, but I am not responsible for the numbers or what people take from it. When I get caught up in numbers or people’s responses, it messes with my ego, my work suffers and my voice gets weak. When I stay in the work and write and teach what I’m most passionate about, the right people show up and I get to do beautiful, meaningful work.
- Nothing is worth more than my own family and health. This work is gratifying and humbling and I breathe a prayer of thanksgiving every day that I get to do it. But no matter how many people visit my blog or come to my workshops, I would walk away from it all if that sacrifice were ever required of me for the sake of my daughters or myself. There are only so many balls that a person can juggle, and I know which ones are glass. I love this work, but I am not a slave to it.
If this resonates with you, please share it with anyone whose work may be growing. I often wondered, while I was in the middle of it, where to turn for help and support from someone who’d been there before me. I found some of that support along the way and I want to offer it to others. If you’re growing your work and need coaching to help you stay grounded, check out my coaching page. If you’re just beginning to dream of what your work is in the world, you may benefit from Pathfinder: A Creative Journal for Finding Your Way or The Spiral Path: A Woman’s Journey to Herself.
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(Trigger warning) When I was just a little older than my oldest daughter, a man climbed through my bedroom window and violently took what didn’t belong to him – my virginity. I fought back, but he was stronger than I was and he held my own scissors over my head.
One of my memories from that hellish week was the shock on my dad’s face when he admitted that he – a lifelong pacifist – was suddenly aware that he was capable of murder.
Yesterday, I learned that the followers of a pro-rape misogynist pick-up artist are planning to meet this weekend in a mall near my home – a mall that my daughters frequent. Rage suddenly consumed me and I knew that I, like my father, could kill a man for hurting one of my girls.
Just after reading that article, I read another one by Melissa Harris-Perry in which she shares a story of a man threatening her in the lobby of a hotel. She froze, remembering her own rape and slipping into “the trance of survivor submission”. The only thing that jerked her back out of it and allowed her to fight back was the sudden awareness of her nearby students. Her students saved her, she said. She fought back because of them.
The combination of the two articles left me shaking and in tears. I was glad it was dark in the van as I left to pick up my daughter up at the pool. She didn’t know that my eyes were red – she only knew that she had finally succeeded in getting all the way through her synchronized swimming routine without faltering and she needed me to celebrate with her. And then, when a story came on the radio about Harry Potter, her passion for the half-blood magician filled the van and she chatted the rest of the way home. One of the things she told me was that Draco Malfoy was not a monster like everyone made him out to be, he was just misunderstood.
My daughters, like Melissa Harris-Perry’s students, save me again and again.
Later that evening, I was thinking about the many conversations I have had with a dear friend whose son, though he made some mistakes in his lack of understanding of girls, is not a monster. And yet now, because those girls painted him into a monster, he awaits the court’s decision about the seriousness of those mistakes.
And I realized that those young men who plan to meet in the mall to talk about how to pick up girls, are not monsters, they are somebody’s sons. And they make mistakes in their fumbling attempts to find affection. Perhaps they are the Draco Malfoys of their schools.
And suddenly, I don’t want to bring my rage to the mall, but rather my mother-love (and maybe milk and cookies). And I want to sit down with those young men, look them in the eyes, and say “how have you been so wronged by the world that you can only imagine getting what you want by taking someone else’s power away?” And then I want to offer them some tough love and tell them my story of how it feels to have a man treat you like that.
Sometimes it is rage that changes the course of the future, but more often, in my experience, it is love.
“How do I know if I’ve gone deep enough?”
That was a question that came up during the Soulful Year virtual planning session on Saturday. It was asked in relation to an exercise that invites you to reflect on the grief, grace, gratitude and growth of the last year and then to release it so that you are ready to receive the year ahead. (You can find the exercise here.) The person asking it wanted to make sure she’d done a good enough job of processing what had happened in the past so that it wouldn’t get in the way of the future.
“Instead of asking ‘have I gone deep enough?’” I said, “ask yourself ‘have I gone as deep as I’m prepared to go right now?’”
“There will always be another layer,” I continued, “and perhaps when you’re working on another exercise this afternoon, something else will come up for you that you’ll want to add to this mandala. That’s okay. You can always go back. Just go as deep as you can right now and trust that, if there are more layers to uncover, those will come up at the right time.”
Here’s a story to illustrate the point…
Last weekend, I was decluttering and re-organizing my laundry/storage/pantry room in the basement. It’s one of those catch-all places for everything that doesn’t fit in the rest of the house, so it holds a lot of clutter. I hadn’t thoroughly cleaned it in a long time, so there were storage bins in it that still held clothes that haven’t fit my daughters since the early part of the century.
By the end of a weekend of hard work, it was still pretty full, but everything fit on the shelves or under the stairs. I was satisfied that I’d gotten rid of everything I could. At the very least, there were no clothes left that don’t fit someone in the family.
A few days later, I was sitting at my computer trying to prepare material for an upcoming course and becoming increasingly frustrated with how stuck I was. Nothing was flowing and no new ideas were showing up. In exasperation, I pushed away from my computer and paced around the house.
Almost by accident, I found myself back in the laundry room staring at the shelves. I yanked a Christmas wreath off the shelf and realized I hadn’t hung it in ten years and probably never will again. I was tired of it. It spoke of another era when I loved to play with pine cones and hot glue. I stuffed it in a garbage bag. Then I started pulling storage bins from under the stairs. One of them was full of dried flowers. Another held a half-finished knitting project and bags of moccasin-making supplies. A third held a handful of other half-finished craft projects and the leftover supplies from a dozen finished projects that I might want to do again someday.
I’d hung onto them because “you never know when I might want to make another pair of moccasins or a dried flower arrangement”.
The truth is, though, I won’t ever make another pair of moccasins or dried flower arrangement. That’s just not my style. I get really interested in an art form, pour my heart into it, and then abandon it when something else catches my attention. In all of my nearly 50 years on the planet, I have never gone back.
The boxes are still there because I’ve been carrying around a story about myself that that is a weakness. I was convinced that some day I’d fix that part of me and become a better person who finishes every project and doesn’t lose interest in things that bore her. Suddenly, standing there staring at those boxes full of craft supplies and shame, I was ready to release that old story.
Here’s a new story… I like to explore. I like to try new things. I am a scanner who loses interest in what I’ve tried in the past because it no longer challenges me and I crave something new.
Giving up on craft projects because they bore me does not make me a bad person.
Finding delight in new ideas every six months does not mean that I’m fickle or wishy-washy.
It’s just who I am. And I don’t need to have a basement full of reminders of why I should be ashamed of that face, because I am NO LONGER ashamed of that fact.
I packed it all up and gave it all away. And suddenly I felt something physical shift in my body – like something had been blocking my airwaves and suddenly I could breathe again. And, as if I’d planned it, Jann Arden’s song started playing from the music player on the washing machine… “So I’m punching out walls and tearing down paper, cutting my bangs, yeah sooner than later, I’m selling my soul right back to Jesus, taking up hope and giving up weakness, untangling the strings… I’m free, yeah. I’m free.”
Here’s an important part of this story… Just like I didn’t need to be ashamed about those unfinished projects or old stories, I also don’t need to be ashamed of the fact that it took me so long to release them. I wasn’t ready until now. I went only as deep as I was prepared to go at the time, and then, when something coaxed me to take another look, I went deeper.
Go only as deep as you’re prepared to go right now. There will be time for going deeper at another time.
I’ve been inspired by a few of the participants in my Mandala Discovery program who signed up for the program a few years ago and have worked their way through the exercises three or four times since. Each time they do them, they gain something new and take their learning to a new depth. What showed up in the third or fourth pass couldn’t have showed up the first time through. They weren’t ready for it then.
Not long ago I had a conversation with a residential school survivor who testified at the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. “I told them about the physical abuse,” she said, “but I wasn’t ready to talk about the sexual abuse. Those stories will have to wait for another time when I’m ready to share them. They still feel too raw.” I was struck by her wisdom, trusting herself to know what felt safe to share and what needed more time in the tender places of her own heart.
This wisdom is true for personal growth, it’s true for interpersonal conflict, and it’s true for community-building. Whether you’re dealing with your own issues or wrestling through things with others, it’s important to pay attention to what level of depth feels right in each particular moment. Sometimes it doesn’t feel safe to go any deeper, sometimes it’s just not the right timing or you don’t have time for the deep dive, or sometimes you haven’t found the right container that can hold the complexity of the depth you need to dive to.
Recently I was having a conversation with a colleague and we were talking about some upcoming training we want to offer in The Circle Way. We were contemplating whether to offer a two-day session or a deeper dive in five days. One of the questions we were asking ourselves was what depth we felt the potential participants might be ready to go and what depth of conversation they might be ready to hold. The Circle Way is one of those practices and containers that can offer value at a rudimentary level or can hold really complex stories, emotions, conflict, etc. at a much deeper level. Again, it depends of the level you’re prepared to go or the length of time you have for the dive.
It all comes back to the spiral. Again and again, whether it’s in our own personal growth or the growth of our communities, we spiral through the layers of what we need to learn, going deeper and deeper until we reach the core. Just like a path straight up a mountain would rob us of our oxygen, a straight path to the depths of our learning would strangle us.
If you’re ready to go deeper, to find the next level of the spiral, then find the right container that can handle the dive. A “container” can be offered by a trusted friend, a therapist, a coach, or a sharing circle – whatever person or group of people holds space for you and makes you feel safe enough for the dive. Or it can start with a set of tools and creative exercises like Mandala Discovery or The Spiral Path (in both cases you have access to a community of people who are working through the program at the same time).
Consider the container like the oxygen mask and wetsuit of a deep-sea diver – the deeper you go, the stronger your equipment needs to be.
When you’re ready, take the spiral path to your own growth. It will lead you through the layers at the speed that you’re ready to uncover them.