Safety: My privilege, my trap, and my right

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1. Safety – my privilege

The atmosphere was rather festive as my daughters and I made banners for the women’s march. They’re not new to political activism, having been raised in a home where political dialogue is as common as mashed potatoes, but this was the first time all four of us were going to a march together and the first time we were all making our own banners. One chose a Star Wars reference and another chose Hamilton – their pop culture of choice. They dressed up and I teased them with “this is the resistance – not a fashion parade.” They retorted with “Feminism has evolved, Mom. Our generation believes we can look cute AND resist at the same time.”

On the way downtown, we picked up Saleha, a Muslim friend who’s lived in Canada for 10 years. She was excited and passionate about the march – her first political action of this kind.

The meeting place quickly filled with thousands of marchers – predominantly white women, some wearing pink pussy hats, some holding signs. As people gathered, one of the organizers announced that an Indigenous elder would be smudging whoever was interested. Saleha was eager for the opportunity, so we got in line. I stood by and watched a beautiful moment unfold – Saleha opening her hijab like a tent to let the smoke touch her face and her ears, while the elder offered gentle guidance. When Saleha turned away, the emotion on her face told me how moving it had been.

Leaning on a rail on the second floor of the meeting space, we watched the speakers and drumming group on stage. A mix of intersectional voices – Indigenous, immigrants, transgender, and women of colour – inspired us to consider ALL human rights, not just those that have been too often centred in marches like these (able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual white women).

Slowly, the crowd made its way onto the street. As soon as we stepped onto the street, I sensed something had changed in Saleha’s demeanour. I turned toward her. “Are you okay?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Suddenly I don’t feel safe anymore.”

“Would you like me to hold your hand?” I asked.

“Yes, I think I need you to,” she responded.

Holding hands, we followed the crowd. Looking around, I tried to find at least one other woman on the street in a hijab, but I could see none. Nor were there many women of colour or Indigenous women. It was mostly women who looked like me – a crowd of white feminists, probably mostly unaware of who was missing. Did all of those other, more marginalized women, avoid the march because they sensed the same feeling of insecurity that was coming up for Saleha?

More than once I turned to her and said “If it feels unsafe to be here, we can step out and leave the crowd.”

“No,” she said. “I want to do this. I’ll stay in it as long as I can.” We kept walking and the stories began to spill. “It’s illegal to protest like this where I come from,” she said. “I once witnessed a friend yanked off the street by the authorities. We didn’t see him again after that.”

“The day after the Paris attacks, I was waiting for a train in Amsterdam when a man shoved his face just inches from mine and started verbally attacking me. Nobody stepped in to stop him.”

On and on it went – the many times she had felt unsafe, just because she was a woman on the street wearing a hijab. The airport security checks when customs officers discovered her last name was the same as one of the 9-11 terrorists, the times she’s dropped her children off at school and teachers or other moms ignored her until they realized she spoke English like them, the drunk man on the street who told her to go back home in front of her children.

“I don’t know why these are all coming up right now,” she said. “Each time something happened, I stuffed it away and told myself I was okay. It was the only way I could carry on – to convince myself I was safe. But I’m not safe. Since coming to Canada, I’ve done everything I can to blend in and to convince people that I’m not a threat. I worked so hard to learn English. And now I will probably cancel my post-grad studies in the U.S. because I’ll be even less safe there.”

More than once, as we walked, she apologized for saying things that might make me, a white woman, feel badly for what people like me had done or said to her. “I don’t want to be somebody who blames white people.”

“Stop,” I said. “You don’t need to apologize. If I am your friend, I need to be able to hear the ways that you feel unsafe around people like me. Even if it makes me uncomfortable, I need to listen. You are not responsible for looking after me in this situation.”

“But I’m not used to this kind of conversation,” she said. “I am much more used to doing whatever it takes to make white women like you feel safe.”

As we walked, I glanced ahead to where my daughters walked, and was suddenly hit with these two realizations:

  1. I and my daughters never once considered that we might be unsafe on the street. My safety to march is just one of the many privileges I take for granted. So is my safety to go grocery shopping, to drop my kids off at school, and to ride the bus without being verbally attacked. Although there are some places I wouldn’t feel safe, especially at night, I have access to enough privilege (ie. my own vehicle, a house in a relatively safe part of town, etc.) that I rarely have to place myself in situations where I am at risk.
  2. Although I consider myself to be as non-threatening as a person could be, my white skin and my place within the dominant culture make me unsafe for some people. In order to stay safe themselves, others often need to contort themselves in order to make me feel safe. White women like me might present a particular risk because we’re the ones that the police would probably respond to most quickly if we were feeling threatened.

2. Safety – my cage

My friend Desiree is fierce and bold. She says things on her Facebook stream that I don’t have the courage to say and she doesn’t apologize if people take offence to them. Rather than coddling people, she expects them to take responsibility for their own emotional response.

We are quite different in our communication styles and I’ve often wondered about the many factors that contribute to that difference. I chalk up my more conciliatory, sometimes timid communication style to my pacifist, Mennonite, Canadian roots, but lately I’ve considered that it may be more than that. We may have been intentionally conditioned differently by the patriarchy.

For nearly seven years now, Desiree and I have been having periodic conversations about the ways in which we’ve learned to respond to the world differently. As a Black woman living in the southern U.S., her lived experience is quite different from mine. We’re passionate about many of the same things, but we came to these issues from different directions.

After the women’s march, Desiree and I talked about what the march represented, what happened during the march, whose voices were heard, etc. One of our most profound conversations was about the images on social media that portrayed police officers wearing pink pussy hats at the marches.

“When white women show up to protest,” Desiree said, “police wear pink pussy hats. But when people of colour show up to protest, they wear riot gear.”

We went back and forth about what that meant. Did the police just assume that, because the Women’s March was predominantly white women, there would be no danger involved? Was it a purely race-related difference?

And then, something new emerged in our conversation – the possibility that the police were serving as agents of the patriarchy, keeping white women in line by appeasing them and convincing them they were there to protect THEM from outside forces rather than protecting OTHERS from them. When they show up with riot gear, they’re protecting the community from the protestors. When they put on pussy hats, they’re signalling that they’re protecting the protestors.

And that, we theorized, is one of the reasons that there is fragility among white women (and why someone like me might adopt a more timid, conciliatory communication style) – because we have been conditioned by the hierarchy to believe that our fragility keeps us safe. As long as we are fragile, the patriarchy protects us. When we are no longer fragile, the patriarchy withdraws its protection and we are at risk.

The patriarchy benefits from the fragility of white women.

Women of colour, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of being fragile. They are taught to survive at whatever cost, usually by their own means and without the help of those in authority. They don’t grow up assuming that the police will protect them if they are fragile. They grow up with images of the police protecting the community from them, not the other way around.

This is how the patriarchy keeps us both in line – by keeping us separate and at odds. It’s the same way that apartheid worked in South Africa. The white establishment created fractions between the local tribes, giving some more access to education, jobs, etc. When they were fighting amongst themselves, they did not present a threat to those in power. If you look around at the places where women are gathering to develop political actions such as the Women’s March, you’ll see the same kind of dissension. Groups with differing access to privilege, power, and protection have a hard time hearing each other’s concerns.

(I would add that those police officers in pussy hats and riot gear are also being controlled and wounded by the patriarchy, though they probably don’t recognize it. It’s a flawed system that is doing damage to us all.)

Two more realizations:

  1. Fragility in white women is real AND it’s tool of the patriarchy in order to keep us silent and weak. If I don’t challenge it in myself, I stay trapped and nothing changes.
  2. If I place too high a value on my own safety, I won’t risk stepping into conversations that make me uncomfortable and I won’t be able to build better relationships with women of colour and other groups that have been oppressed by the patriarchy.

3. Safety – my right

A few days ago, I was part of a text conversation of another kind. My friend Jo shared that she had been verbally abused in a conversation on social media. She’d been invited into a conversation about whether or not patriarchy is real, and though she intuitively felt unsafe as the only women surrounded by opinionated men, trying to explain something that they had all benefited from, she took the risk because she cared about the person who invited her. She stated her discomfort, but that discomfort was used as a weapon against her to make her feel shame for wanting a “safe space”.

Jo’s story reminded me of the times when I too have felt unsafe, trying to explain sexism or discrimination to those who had more power than me. Several years ago, I wrote a letter addressing some sexist behaviour on the board of an organization I was part of and I sent it to the three men I thought needed to be aware of it. My letter was ignored by one, dismissed by another, and responded to only with a back-handed comment by the third. I was left feeling small and ashamed for “over-reacting” and unsafe to raise any such concerns again in the future.

I know, from listening to my friends who are Indigenous and people of colour, that they feel similarly when white people ask them to explain racism, or when they need to challenge racism in their workplace. It is unfair to expect the people who’ve been oppressed to explain to those who’ve benefited from the oppression. It puts them in a dangerous position where they are often targeted with more abuse for “over-reacting”, “being too sensitive”, etc. Some people even lose their jobs for daring to challenge the system.

Though I have to recognize safety as my privilege and my trap, I also believe that it is a human right. Those who dismiss my safety as irrelevant or who tell me I’m over-reacting and need to calm down are attempting to gaslight me – making me think that I’m crazy or weak for needing safety. That’s how oppressors win.

As I mentioned in my last post, trauma further complicates this issue. Unhealed trauma convinces us that we are unsafe even when we aren’t. And much of that trauma is hard to pinpoint because we may have inherited it or it may have been caused before we were old enough to know what was going on. The fear that comes up when a trauma memory is triggered is as real as the fear we felt when the trauma happened.

Two more realizations:

  1. Next to air, water, and food, safety is our most basic need. We will do almost anything to find safety, including contorting ourselves in the presence of those who make us feel unsafe. Those who’ve been oppressed are usually masterful at contortion, and if they’re not, they are at greater risk.
  2. When we have experienced trauma, our need for safety is easily triggered and our bodies respond with fight, flight, or freeze. Often we don’t recognize that we are being triggered and then it’s easy to feel shame for over-reacting. Those with more power usually don’t recognize (or choose to ignore) that they are triggering our fear and our shame because their lived experience is very different.

Note: All three of the friends mentioned in this post gave permission for their stories to be shared.

*****

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Trauma and Trump

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I first noticed it while watching the first presidential debate. When Trump spent the whole time interrupting Hillary Clinton, belittling her, and standing behind her in an intimidating way while she spoke, I was so shaken up that I could barely stand it. This wasn’t just the usual political jostling for space – it was something more. My daughters were surprised when I kept yelling at the TV and by the end of it, I had to go for a long walk to release my outrage rather than take it out on the people I loved.

It was worse when the infamous bus video came out and we heard him unapologetically talking about grabbing women by the pussy. That one took me more than just a long walk to release.

I noticed it again last week during his press conference, when he was gas-lighting reporters by refusing to take their questions, calling their news outlets “fake news”, and treating them like they were stupid for listening to any of the leaked information about Russian interference. This time, though, I knew it was coming so I could witness my reaction more objectively, almost like a scientist watching a subject respond to stimuli.

It took me a while to figure out what was going on. I am, after all, a Canadian who won’t have to live under this administration. Why did I have such strong emotional AND physical reactions to him? Why couldn’t I simply ignore him or dismiss him as full of hot air but not my problem?

I realized that I was being triggered. Like so many other women who have shared similar responses, Trump’s misogyny, gas-lighting, bragging about sexual conduct, intimidation, etc. was triggering my past trauma.

Like every woman, I have been interrupted time and time again by men who think their voice is somehow endued with more wisdom. I have been raped by a man who climbed through my bedroom window and let his lack of control over his own sexual desire shatter my youthful innocence. I have been the victim of gas-lighting by more than one person who couldn’t bear to listen to my concerns and dismissed them as irrelevant, convincing me that I must simply be overreacting. I have been repeatedly grabbed by the pussy by a man who thought he had the right to do so and who ignored my effort to explain why it didn’t feel good.

I have worked hard to find healing for all of these things, but trauma doesn’t go away easily. It hovers under the surface, pretending it’s healed, pretending it’s a thing of the past. But then when it’s triggered by a stimulus that brings back the body memory of the trauma, it erupts in fear and rage and physical pain and all manner of complex emotional and physical reactions. It’s not rational – it just is.

Trauma responses are primal responses – meant to protect us from whatever threatens our safety. They are also deeply rooted in our bodies and cannot be regulated with only a brain response. I couldn’t think my way through my reaction to Trump – I had to seek to understand it on a much deeper level. That’s why some of the “just think positive thoughts” self-help mantras can be so damaging – because they attempt to gloss over the way that trauma, grief, fear, etc., gets rooted in our bodies and has to be healed by a much more holistic approach than simply positive thoughts.

In recent months, especially since Trump won the election, I have been hearing similar responses from many, many people not only in the U.S., but all over the world. It feels like his election has unleashed an epidemic of trauma. We’re vibrating in fear and rage that is deeply rooted in us and we don’t know how to respond. Many dismiss us as over-reacting (because surely our trauma isn’t as bad as people who’ve lived in war zones, for example, so it’s not legitimate), but that feels like a whole other layer of gas-lighting that diminishes our experience and heightens our response.

I’m also hearing another voice – the voice of People of Colour and other marginalized groups saying to white women like me “What took you so long to wake up? We’ve been saying for years that the system is rigged against us. Why did it take Trump getting elected for you to see what’s going on? And why are you being so fragile when we’ve seen much worse?”

The answer to that is complex and multi-layered, and some of it has to do with our privilege and access to power. Some of it also has to do with the fact that it took us longer to be triggered. While People of Colour have been seeing things in the media for a long, long time (probably all of their lives) that has triggered their trauma, we’ve been able to ignore it longer because it didn’t apply to us.

It’s like an abusive family where some are suffering the abuse more than others. The child who’s not getting hit can say “It’s not happening to me, so that means it’s not happening.” She says it out of self-preservation – because the only way she knows how to survive is to live in denial. But then one day she gets whacked across the head by the abuser and suddenly she has to rewrite the narrative of her family. Suddenly she too is unsafe.

The problem is that it’s difficult to forgive someone who ignores your pain until she feels the pain herself. And it’s difficult to feel empathy for the tears and rage of someone who spent much of her life in denial and dismissal of yours. And it’s also difficult to trust and be in relationship with people with trauma when you too have been traumatized. So we end up with situations like the Women’s March on Washington, where they’ve had to work through various levels of conflict trying to find a common voice that gives space for all of the marginalized groups that want to be heard. And this is only scratching the surface – these groups will need to do some deep healing work to learn to speak of their trauma and betrayal and fragility and find ways to heal it and learn to trust each other to hold space for it all in order to move forward with a united voice. 

There are other complicating factors as well. Some of our trauma didn’t start with us. Some of it was passed down through the generations, and when we are being triggered by a stimulus we don’t understand, it might actually be related to a trauma experienced by a grandmother or great-grandfather. There is scientific research that has found evidence that we can pass trauma down through our DNA. They’ve found descendants of holocaust survivors who have the genetics of trauma, even though they haven’t personally experienced the trauma themselves. There is also research that says it can be passed through our lineage in ways that aren’t related to DNA.

So, in trying to work together toward a common voice, we also witness the effects of generational trauma. People of Colour who are the descendants of slaves and Indigenous people whose ancestors were the victims of genocide, for example, are carrying centuries of trauma with them. Their ancestors are crying out to be heard through their descendants.

I am the descendants of settlers and colonizers who have not (as far as I know) been subjected to slavery, but I am also aware that my Mennonite ancestors were tortured for their faith and run out of more than one country because of their stance on non-resistance. I suspect some of that trauma was passed down through my DNA and then got all mixed up with my settler guilt to create a stew of complex personal narratives and healing work.

And then there are the witch burnings. Women are carrying this in our DNA as well. At one time, any woman who would have dared to speak about the Feminine Divine or even who was courageous enough to own her own business was called a witch and burned at the stake. We carry with us that body memory as well, and when we consider marching or raising our voices or making a scene in any way, we might be triggered by the ancient voices in us, passed down through the generations, that say “it’s not safe. We were burned for this.”

The other complicating factor is that “hurt people hurt people”. Those who’ve suffered trauma and have not addressed or healed it in themselves are more likely to inflict it on others. Gabor Maté, a world-renowned expert on trauma, surmises, in fact, that Donald Trump’s behaviour is evidence that he was a victim of trauma. “What we perceive as the adult personality often reflects compensations a helpless child unwittingly adopted in order to survive. Such adaptations can become wired into the brain, persisting into adulthood. Underneath all psychiatric categories Trump manifests childhood trauma.”

Maté also says “The flaws of our leaders perfectly mirror the emotional underdevelopment of the society that elevates them to power.” That suggests that we have a whole lot of people walking around with unhealed trauma and those people are capable of causing a great deal of harm as a result. That’s a frightening thought.

Today, Trump is being inaugurated, and I fear that we have only begun to see the wide-ranging effects of the trauma being triggered by his actions and by those he’s placing in positions of leadership. I fear that trauma specialists will be overwhelmed with the people coming to them for support. I also suspect that physical health will suffer – that emergency rooms will see more and more mysterious illnesses that people haven’t connected to their trauma. And we may see an increase in violence, with traumatized people not knowing how to manage their unexpected response to stimuli. I hope that I’m wrong on all counts.

What do we do about it? A trauma therapist would tell us to remove the stimulus from our lives first so that we can heal, but we can’t hide from it when the person triggering us is possibly the most influential leader in the world. So we must do our best to heal ourselves, to equip ourselves with coping skills, and to become trauma-informed so that we can support each other through this.

If you want to become more trauma-informed, here are some resources that I have found useful:

  1. Trauma: The Injury Where the Blood Doesn’t Flow. In this podcast (that is part of an entire series of podcasts on trauma) is an interview with Eduardo Duran who works with Native and Indigenous cultures in the healing of trauma. He shares how Indigenous spirituality is woven into the generational healing work that he does. I found it to be really eye-opening about how spirituality needs to be a part of the conversation.
  2. TRE – Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises. Based in the belief that trauma becomes rooted in our bodies, Dr. David Berceli developed a series of exercises that assist the body in releasing deep muscular patterns of stress, tension and trauma. My friends Petra and Leckey are specialists in TRE if you’re looking for someone to help you.
  3. When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection, by Dr. Gabor Mate. Dr. Mate has done extensive research in the mind-body connection where stress and trauma are concerned. He links many forms of physical illness (ie. arthritis, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, multiple sclerosis) to the ways in which our bodies have been trying to protect us from emotional harm.
  4. It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle, by Mark Wolynn. This is a fascinating and eye-opening book about the ways that we inherit trauma. One of the stories that stuck with me most was about a young man who had been a successful student and athlete and suddenly he couldn’t sleep at night and was suffering from terrifying cold in the middle of the night. After some work with Wolynn, he discovered that an uncle he hadn’t even known had frozen to death in a hunting camp at the exact age this young man was at the time when the cold and sleeplessness started.
  5. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, by Peter A. Levine. Like Gabor Mate, Levine is a leading voice in the field of trauma. He draws on his research and observation of the naturalistic animal world to explain the nature and transformation of trauma in the body, brain, and psyche.
  6. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel Van Der Kolk. This is the third book on a similar subject (ie. the body and trauma) in this list, so it might seem redundant, but I find that each of these offers something slightly different that adds to body of wisdom. Van Der Kolk uses recent scientific advances to show how trauma literally reshapes both body and brain, compromising sufferers’ capacities for pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust.
  7. Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment: A Developmental Strategy to Liberate Everyone, by Leticia Nieto with Margo F. Boyer. This isn’t specifically about trauma, but it’s a useful resource about working with marginalized populations.
  8. Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. While I don’t recall Frankl actually using the language of trauma, this profound book about his experience in surviving concentration camp talks about how our quest for meaning creates resilience. I believe it will be an important book to return to in the next four years.
  9. The Shadow King: The Invisible Force That Holds Women Back, by Sidra Stone. Again, not specifically about trauma, but a really useful read about how the Inner Patriarch (which, I believe, is rooted in trauma) has held women back and how we can reclaim our power.
  10. The Burning Times: A documentary about the witch hunts in Europe. The film questions whether the widespread violence against women and the neglect of our environment today can be traced back to those times.

Note: I realize that my resource list is rather limited and includes mostly the voices of men (especially for those resources directly related to trauma). I would like to expand this list with more voices of women and marginalized people working in the field of trauma. If you know of any, please offer them in the comments.

*****

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On grief, longing, and intimacy

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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.

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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.

When you’re afraid you’ll say the wrong thing

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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. 

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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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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.

Going down to the bone

I am going down to the bone. A deep cleanse, a stripping away – like a diamond cutter chipping away the grit to reveal the sparkle.

img_6268This week, there was a large dumpster parked in front of my house. In went the old couches whose springs no longer held their shape. Then the detritus collected in our garage over the eighteen years we’ve lived here. Broken broom handles, kept just in case there might be a use for them some day. Bent tools, old bicycle tires, empty cardboard boxes. Next came the branches I’d trimmed from the shrubs and trees in the Spring, a broken bench, a rusted table from the backyard, and old playground toys long abandoned by grown children.

Finally, I stripped the floors in two-thirds of the house and dragged those out onto the growing heap in the dumpster. Each room took a little more effort than the last and each increased effort caused a little more wear and tear on my body. First I pulled out the stained carpet in the living room and hallway, the padding underneath, and the strips of upside-down nails at the edge that held it in place. Then the warped cork floor came out of the bathroom.

img_6273The kitchen, with its subfloor and multiple layers of linoleum increased the challenge, but I was up for it. After watching DIY Youtube videos, I set the circular saw at the right depth, put on safety goggles, and cut it into pieces. Then came the prying, the jockeying of appliances, and the endless nail removal.

The entrance, with parquet wood glued solidly to the floor, is challenging me most and it’s the only room that remained uncompleted when they picked up the full dumpster yesterday.

Why have I done this all alone? Multiple reasons, I suppose. Cost is probably the first factor, but there are more. I wanted to prove to myself that I could – that I was strong enough and capable enough and stubborn enough and fierce enough. And I knew that it would be cathartic – to work out through my body some of the stuff that gets stuck in my mind. I was right on both counts – today, though my body aches, I feel strong and fierce and a little more healthy.

img_6266And there were other reasons – deeper reasons… Like the fact that I had some shame about the state of my house and didn’t want anyone to see the stains on the carpet, the layers of grit under the carpet, or the dried bits of food stuck to the floor under the fridge. Or the fact that I felt like this was my work to do – to cleanse this space of the brokenness of the past so that my daughters and I have a new foundation under our feet for the next part of our lives.

Eighteen years ago this month, we moved into this house with two toddlers. Since then, the floors have taken a lot of wear and tear – spilled milk, spilled wine, spilled tears, spilled blood, spilled lives. We sprayed and scrubbed and sprayed and scrubbed again, but carpets can only take so much, and eventually the stains were so deep it was hard to know the original colour of the carpet.

We didn’t change the carpet, though, because we had hopes for bigger changes. Fourteen years ago, we drew up plans to add a big new kitchen onto the side of the house. There was no point in replacing floors, we told ourselves – we might as well do it all at once. So we put it off until we had the money.

But then we started making choices that pushed the renovation plans further and further into the future. First, Marcel quit his job to go to university and be a stay-at-home dad. Then I took a pay-cut to work in non-profit instead of government. And then I took an even bigger leap (and pay-cut) and became self-employed. The money was just never abundant enough to justify a big expense like a new kitchen.

Instead, we lived with ugly floors and a cramped kitchen. Sadly, though, that changed the way we felt about our house. We put in less and less effort to keep it clean and we invited fewer and fewer people over because the house never looked the way we wanted it to look.

But the floors weren’t the real problem. Perhaps, in fact, they were simply a reflection of the deeper problem. There were stains in our marriage too, and no matter how many times we tried to scrub them out, they kept popping back up again, revealing themselves to us when the light shone through at the right angle. The stains were harder and harder to ignore, and we finally knew that, just like the floors, we had to tear apart our marriage to see whether the foundation beneath it was strong enough to warrant salvaging.

We tried to renovate – visited multiple counsellors over the course of a few years – but finally it was time to make a hard decision. The marriage was too broken to fix. It was better to release ourselves from it so that we each could find our way to growth and healing. Last October, he moved out, and I started decluttering and painting. The flooring, though, had to wait until we’d signed a separation agreement and the house belonged to me.

Now, as I wait for a contractor to install the new flooring (my DIY abilities only take me so far – it’s good to know when to call in the professionals), we walk on bare wooden floors in empty rooms. Our voices echo against the walls in all of this hard space.

It’s all been stripped to the bone – myself, my house, and my marriage. 

Unlike the marriage, the foundation of the house is still sturdy and strong. Only a few places need attention – where it squeaks, new screws will be applied. Soon it will be built upon to create a safe and comfortable home for the family that lives here now – my daughters and me. We’ll begin to fill it with laughter again, and when there are couches with sturdy springs, we’ll welcome friends to sit with us and hear our stories. And when we spill, we’ll mop up the spills and carry on.

We had to let go of dreams along the way – the new kitchen never materialized and the family isn’t the shape we thought it would always be – but we are sturdy enough to survive and resilient enough to adjust and grow new dreams. Despite the dismantling of the marriage, our family still has a solid enough foundation to hold us.

My own foundation is strong too. In fact, it feels stronger than ever. All of this chipping away is bringing me closer and closer to my essence, to the diamond under the grit. I’ve cleared out what didn’t serve me anymore, I’ve put some new screws in place to fix whatever squeaked, and I’ve called in professionals when that seemed wise. I feel fresh and alive and ready to hold space for whatever wants to unfold next in my life.

The liminal space has been hard and painful and I still ache from the effort it’s taken. Some of the tearing away revealed grit and shadow I didn’t want anyone to see, not even myself. But in the end, there is grace and the light is shining through and it is all worth it.

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What I want to tell you about having work that goes viral

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.

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.

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