It’s been a year. I don’t quite know which adjective to put in front, so I’ll just say that – it’s been a year. A year in which the last of my daughters moved away from home, quickly following her two sisters. A year in which I sold my home, gave away most of my furniture and belongings, put my personal items into storage and intentionally stepped into the liminal space of homelessness. A year in which I set off on my “love and liberation tour”, starting with a few weeks across Canada and then three months in Europe. A year in which I journeyed with a dear friend toward his medically assisted death. A year in which I wrote the final chapters of a book of personal essays in Costa Rica and Spain and then sent it off to the publisher. A year in which I returned to teaching in-person workshops in two European countries after two and a half years of only online work during a global pandemic.
The personal growth and healing that happened this year felt monumental. I let go of some old beliefs, learned to be more and more tender with myself, practiced acceptance in a more profound way, and stretched myself into increased courage.
I’m in a rented apartment back in Winnipeg where my daughters (who live in cities spread out across the country) and I have gathered to close off the year together. My daughters are still all asleep and I’ve put the kettle on for tea as I sit here reflecting on some of the things I’ve learned and relearned this year. Here are some of those things:
Spend time with dying people. Few things in my life have impacted my growth more than time spent with dying people (see my viral blog post about my mom’s death) and this year I had the indescribable gift of walking with my friend Randy along his journey with ALS and toward his death. Our weekly Zoom calls and my two trips to visit him softened me, stretched me, challenged me, and grew me. Sometimes I watched him wrestle with the frustration of what he was losing as his body deteriorated, but mostly I witnessed the grace and acceptance as he chose to spend his final year in joy and connection. On the day that Randy was dying (with medical assistance), I was in Brussels, serendipitously traveling with my friend Brenda who is living with cancer that will likely kill her, and she was able to hold space for me in a special way because she has her own relationship with death. As I become more and more intimate with death, I am learning to be more fully alive.
Accept the fly. In my last visit with Randy, this was one of the final teachings he offered me. ALS had ravaged his body and he had little movement left. He told me about the time he’d been lying in his bed waiting to be moved into the chair where he spent his days, and a fly kept landing on his face. He had no ability to chase the fly away, so he turned it into a spiritual practice. “Can I accept the fly?” he asked himself, and then he practiced simply being present with the fly instead of being irritated by it. I have repeated that question to myself many times since, whenever something or someone is irritating me. “Can I simply accept and co-exist with this person/situation/challenge/inconvenience/etc.?”
Be tender with yourself. The tenderness practice that I started in 2021 has grown into one of the most meaningful things in my life. Being intentionally tender with myself has helped me learn to love and accept myself in ways I didn’t think were possible. It’s helped me cope with anxiety, course correct when I start spiraling into self-doubt and shame, and pause when I’m slipping into the Three P’s – perfectionism, performance measurement, and punishment. You can learn more about it in my free webinar, in the upcoming course Know Yourself, Free Yourself, or in retreat with me in Costa Rica.
“Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” After I listed my house for sale and prepared to embark on my liberation and tenderness tour in the Spring, I got the above line from the Mary Oliver poem, Wild Geese, tattooed on my arm. I wanted a daily reminder to honour what my body most wants and needs, to choose my own body’s version of love, and to let go of the social conditioning that taught me to shame, punish, restrict and ignore my own body while looking after everyone else’s needs before my own.
Let go of things and give them to people who need them more than you do. When we were nearing the end of our packing and purging process, just before transferring ownership of the house to strangers, my daughters and I lined up all the things we didn’t know what to do with along the sidewalk in front of our house, put a “free stuff” sign on it and posted it on Facebook marketplace. In our brief conversations with the many people who came, we heard stories of refugees who’d fled war in their countries, single moms on fixed incomes trying to create home for their kids, and international students setting up apartments for the first time. It felt meaningful to be able to support so many people in creating a sense of home even as I was dismantling the one that had meant so much to me for twenty-four years.
Be honest with yourself. As I transition into this new era, with no dependent daughters living with me, I am asking myself a lot of questions about what I most want and need, what makes me happy, which relationships matter the most, and how I want to live. I am learning to be more and more honest with myself, honouring myself in ways I didn’t know how to in the past. Sometimes this new honesty surprises me and sometimes the choices that come with it don’t make sense to other people, so there is growth and some discomfort involved, but in the end, I believe it’s all worth it. “Tell the truth to yourself,” sing the Avett Brothers, “and the rest will fall in place.”
Wonder, wonder, wander. This is a personal practice I wrote about a couple of years ago and I put it into even more practice in the latter part of this year. First, wonder as a noun… “a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.” Second, wonder as a verb… “desire or be curious to know something.” And third, wander… “walk or move in a leisurely, casual, or aimless way.” (Read more about it here.) I did a lot of wandering in Europe, for hours at a time in several countries, and all the wandering helped me find myself in new and meaningful ways. It also helped my body find its equilibrium.
Stay a little longer in the places where your body feels ease. When I was in Sitges, Spain, a beautiful seaside town that’s one of the most queer-friendly places in Europe, I felt my body relax into the kind of ease I hadn’t felt in quite some time. There’s something about large bodies of water that almost always soothes my nervous system while also making my body feel more alive and vital. Add that to the welcoming, safe feeling of the town, and I noticed a perceptible difference in the unsettled feeling I’d been experiencing since the move out of my house in the summer. Instead of moving on to my next destination, I gave my body the gift of a few more days by the sea.
Fly across the country for a friend who matters. My friend Randy lived on the east coast, thousands of kilometres away from me, but when he told me he was dying last year, I made it a priority to visit him (once in the Spring and once in the Fall just before leaving for Europe) and those are trips I will never regret spending money on. Friendships that are worth flying across the country for are immeasurable treasures and I will NEVER take them for granted. One of the things I appreciated most about Randy was the way that he showed his delight in people, showering them with a special kind of love, and I was glad that I could give that love back to my dear friend in his dying year. Invest in friendships and hold onto the people who delight in you. Those are friendships that help you see your own beauty.
Witness the world through the eyes of someone losing their sight. When I was in the Netherlands, I spent a few days with my friend Cath, a visual artist who is losing her eyesight. Cath is a reflective person (and grief therapist) who’s learning to witness the world differently as her eyesight declines and incorporate that into her art. My time with her helped me to be more aware of both the gift and the limitations of living with and navigating the world with a disability. Cath regularly shares images of the textures and colours that she sees on her walks through the city on social media, and it’s changed my perspective on the world and on what it means to live in a disabled body.
Talk to your inner child. Part of my tenderness practice involves witnessing the younger versions of myself that show up when I am triggered, anxious, disconnected, or overwhelmed. I’ve learned to pause to give that younger version of myself a voice, to allow her to express her concerns and needs, and to give her what she didn’t know how to (or wasn’t allowed to) ask for. Sometimes I sit on a park bench with my journal writing conversations with a younger version of myself or writing letters to her. It’s been a healing and empowering practice, integrating all parts of myself into who I am and who I’m becoming.
Talk to your emotions. Another part of my tenderness practice is to have conversations with my emotions. When I feel afraid, for example, I ask my fear what it is trying to tell me. When I am excited, I let that excitement have a voice rather than trying to dampen it with “grown-up” sensibility. (You can read more about this in The House that Tenderness Built.) I’m learning to feel more safe with any emotion when it arises and to course correct when my trauma wants to send me into dissociation.
Ask for what you need. This goes along with the above practices about being more honest with myself and witnessing my inner child. I’m learning (and relearning) how to honour my own needs and to ask other people to help fill them when necessary (without becoming too attached to an expectation that they do so). It’s brought up some discomfort and has forced me to confront some of the social conditioning I have about what it means to be a “good woman” who minimizes herself in service to others, AND it’s also helped me to have healthier boundaries and to be more tender with myself. Just last week, when the first AirBnB I’d rented for my daughters and I was a sad and dirty place, I practiced asking for what I needed by requesting a refund and finding a better place.
Stop trying to change people. This is one of those life-long learning things that didn’t just land in 2022, but seemed to gain more clarity this year. Perhaps it had something to do with my daughters all setting off into lives of their own while I supported each of them in making choices that were best for them. This year, I practiced internalizing a mantra I’ve heard my friend Michael say many times: “Nobody and nothing has to change.” When I let go of the expectations that other people would show up in the way I wanted them to show up and leaned further into an acceptance of just who they were, I became more resilient in the face of their inability to meet my needs AND I learned to turn elsewhere to have the needs met that they weren’t able to meet.
Let go of beliefs that don’t serve you. Again, this is lifelong stuff that gained increased clarity in 2022. I spent quite a bit of time this year interrogating my belief systems and asking myself which of my beliefs were genuinely mine and which ones belonged to my parents, my culture, my lineage, my trauma, etc. (There will be lots more about this in the book I’ll be publishing in the coming year. It’s also an important part of Know Yourself, Free Yourself, a course I’ll be offering again in March – registration opening soon.) Some of the beliefs seemed worth hanging onto, some seemed like they were holding me back in my evolution into the next part of my life, and some I continue to wrestle with. This is all part of the “liberation” that I’m referencing when I say I’m on my “liberation and tenderness tour”, and it will be part of the upcoming retreat in Costa Rica. (Join us at the end of January – there are still spots available.)
Learn to love your own company. As I’ve grown older, I’ve grown increasingly comfortable with solitude. In fact, I crave it whenever I’ve been with people for too long. I spent much of my time in Europe (especially the last month, after the teaching portion was finished) in solitude and I genuinely loved it. Many people assume that traveling solo is second best when you can’t find anyone to travel with you, but I love it just as much as I love traveling with friends or family. (I’m happy to have a mix of both.) I like making choices that are solely focused on my own comfort and delight. I like exploring places by myself. I like being alone with my thoughts for hours and hours. Most importantly, I like ME.
Go on a quest to find the version of you that wants to evolve next. This year when my daughters left, I stepped into an intentional liminal space that felt like a vision quest. I let go of familiarity, let go of home, let go of routine, and let go of my comfort zone. I wandered into unknown places to meet myself in a new way, I asked important questions of myself, I followed my curiosity, I sat with discomfort, and I played with new ideas and possibilities. I called it my “liberation and tenderness tour” because I was liberating myself of old baggage and old stories and learning to be increasingly tender with myself. It has already been life-changing and it’s not over yet (I leave for Costa Rica next week). I would highly recommend some version of this for anyone who’s going through an important transition, especially for those whose children are moving into their adult lives.
Thank you for journeying with me in 2022 in whatever way you have, even if you’ve just discovered my writings recently. I hope that what I have offered will inspire you to live with more courage, intention, liberation, tenderness, and ease as we step across the threshold into 2023.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending time in the company of a group of twenty-somethings. At the Winnipeg Folk Festival, for four evenings in a row, my daughters and their friends gathered on our tarp for the mainstage shows and I (together with my sister) got to play the role of benevolent elder, offering them food, blankets, and kindness.
It was delightful. My daughters’ friends are all interesting people whom I’ve grown fond of and being with them was easy and fun.
Watching them, I caught a glimpse of the person I was, back in my early twenties, when I first started attending the Folk Festival. There was nostalgia, grief, and tenderness in that realization.
I wanted to go back in time and give that young Heather a hug. If she’d listen to me – a ghost from her future – I would assure her that, despite her feelings of self-doubt and the many times she’d worry about finding a place to belong, and despite some of the hard stuff she was going to face in the years ahead, she would turn out alright. I might even let her know that someday, in the far distant future, she’d bring three beautiful daughters along with her to the Folk Festival, and they would bring their beautiful friends and she would feel the warmth of all of those years in tender moments on the tarp. (I probably wouldn’t tell her about those two years when the pandemic would take the Folk Festival away – she wouldn’t need that kind of burden weighing on her.)
There are a few other things I wish that twenty-something version of me knew and that I want those twenty-somethings who sat on the tarp with me to know. Here’s what I’d tell them…
It’s okay to hurt your parents’ feelings sometimes in order to be true to yourself. Let me tell you something now, from my advanced years, that not many parents will tell you… Despite your expectations that grownups be, well… Grown Up, most of us still have a lot of hang-ups and a lot of insecurities and a lot of wounds, and sometimes we project that stuff onto our kids (mostly because people expected us to become grownups without teaching us how to heal that stuff). It hurts, when you’re the kid, because you just really want to be loved and accepted for who you are and your parents should give that to you more than anyone, but sometimes parents aren’t very good at giving unconditional love. Sometimes we see our own flaws and parenting failures mirrored back to us through our kids, and sometimes that triggers our self-loathing and then the shame and punishment we heap onto ourselves also gets heaped onto our kids. And sometimes we expect too much (or the wrong things) from our kids because we haven’t met our own expectations and don’t want to see them similarly letting themselves down. I’m sorry this is true, but it is. You aren’t responsible for your parents’ healing or self-love, you are only responsible for your own, so do your best to love yourself and be true to yourself despite what you’ve inherited from your parents and despite the ways in which they sometimes fail to behave like the parents you want them to be. (Also… you might be one of those flawed parents yourself one day too, so you’re going to need to learn some self-compassion and some healing practices along the way. See also #5.)
You will be lonely sometimes, and that doesn’t mean you’re unworthy of love. You will have times when you can’t find a sense of belonging anywhere and you will go through moments when you’ll be fairly certain that everyone in the world is having fun with other people and you’re the only one left out. That’s normal. It happens to ALL of us (yes, even us not-very-grown-up grownups). And it’s just the lonely, wounded, self-protective part of your brain lying to you and trying to convince you that you’re not worthy of love. You ARE worthy of love, and a lot of the people who are posting shiny versions of their lives on social media are doing it so that nobody sees just how lonely they are. You know what two of the best defenses for loneliness are? 1.) Not comparing yourself to other people, and 2.) Learning to enjoy your own company as much as you can. Go out to movies by yourself, take yourself on play dates, travel alone… do all of the fun things that you’ve been waiting for other people to invite you to do. You might discover that those things are just as much fun alone as they are with other people (some things are even MORE fun), and you might even find other lonely people at those places who are fun to hang out with. (Note: Other people might feel threatened by your ability to have fun alone, and they might tease you because of their own insecurity, but don’t let their opinions become your guide.)
You will make new friends and you will lose old ones. It’s going to suck, sometimes, when relationships change, but sometimes it’s for the best. Sometimes there are friendships that hold you back, and sometimes you’ll realize that you can only grow if you let go of the people who don’t have your best interests at heart. And sometimes you’ll just drift apart because your lives are heading in different directions and it’s not because anyone did anything wrong. Learn to let go without resentment or fear and be grateful for the time you had with a person even if the friendship didn’t last. And always do your best to seek out people who lift you up instead of tearing you down.
You don’t have to be normal. Sometimes it will feel like you have to cut off pieces of yourself to fit in, and one day you might wake up and realize that you’ve lost yourself because of all of the pieces you’ve edited out. Please don’t lose yourself, even if you feel like that “self” is too weird or too complicated or too queer or too neurodivergent to be loved. You will find the most contentment and freedom in your life when you have the courage to be yourself. And while you’re busy learning to be yourself, look for other people who are courageous enough to be themselves too. They’ll be the right kind of people to spend time with because they won’t expect you to adjust who you are in order to suit them.
You also don’t have to be exceptional. It’s okay to have an ordinary life and it’s okay to make mistakes and it’s okay to not really have a clue what you want to do with the rest of your life. (Side note: One of the dumbest things grownups ask kids is “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As if there’s only ONE thing you’re going to be! And as if you should know that One Thing when you’re still a kid! And as if your life will only be defined by a career! Yeesh. Don’t get me started. Know this – you can let that shit go.) Let me tell you a little secret… my favourite kind of people are those who aren’t afraid to let their flaws be seen, who aren’t afraid to say “I don’t know”, and who reject the pressure of perfectionism and exceptionalism. One of the most important things you’re going to need to learn is how to forgive yourself and how to love yourself with all of your fumbles and failures. Start now – forgive yourself for the most recent mistake you made and then say to yourself “Hey you – I love you. You’re human. And imperfect. And you’re pretty cool just the way you are.”
Self-care is good, but you know what’s even better? Collective care. There are few things better than people learning to look after each other – people asking for what they need and offering what they can so that nobody gets left out. Look for people who want to look after you and who let you look after them. Look for people who tend to notice who’s being left out – and also try to be one of those people. Look for people who’ve got a sense of justice about who’s being marginalized and go stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those people (and the ones who are marginalized). There’s a lot of individualism in our culture, and far too much measuring of one person’s value against another person’s, and you might find yourself buying into the hype that you should be independently successful and that you shouldn’t need other people, but you DO need other people. And other people need you too. Be honest about where the gaps are and let other people fill them.
Love your body. Love your fat body, your queer body, your black body, your white body, your differently abled body, your chronically ill body, your trans body, your thin body, your clumsy body, your short body, your tall body, your awkward body, your lumpy body, your beautifully imperfect body. Love it with a radical love that accepts it no matter how other people might criticize it or expect it to meet certain criteria of acceptability. Love it despite the way our systems of dominance and control (you know – those pesky things like patriarchy and white supremacy) might try to marginalize and shame it. Love it as an act of resistance and revolution. Love it in a way that makes the older generation uncomfortable. (Note: We, in the older generation, can be kind of squeamish about too much self-love because we’ve been well-trained to punish ourselves and each other for any deviations from the norm. Please do your best to reject this pattern, even when we get pushy about passing it down to you.) And while you’re busy loving yourself that way… remember to love other people that way too. We all need it. (Yes, even us older folks.)
Find people who can help you. You’re going to go through rough patches in your life. There’s just no point in pretending otherwise. Maybe you’ve already gone through rough patches and you know this to be true. Don’t try to navigate that shit alone. I hope that someone in your family will step up to help you, but if they don’t, or if they gaslight you into thinking the rough patches aren’t as rough as you make them out to be, then find other people who won’t judge you for it. Find a therapist, find a friend, find another grownup you can trust – find someone who will listen while you try to work through whatever rough patch you’re in. If you’re going through mental health struggles, find someone who can point you toward the right professional. Don’t be ashamed of needing help, even if that help comes in the form of medication. And try not to listen to that lying part of your brain that tries to tell you the rough patch will last forever. It won’t. You’ll see the light again someday, I promise. Hold on.
Be happy. Don’t become one of those boring grownups who gets too serious about life and loses their sense of fun. Have fun and stay playful. You might be surprised to discover how much play can help you find yourself, bond with your friends, and heal your trauma. Pay attention to the things that make you feel joyful and do more of those things, preferably with your friends. (Unless, of course, those things become addictive and unhealthy and you’re mostly doing them to numb the pain – that’s a whole different thing. See #8.) A wise person once told me that in the same way that we have trauma triggers that send us back to painful moments in our younger lives, we have joy triggers that bring us back to the joyful moments. Find your joy triggers. If you love to make art, then make art. If you love to ride bikes, then ride bikes. If you love to play on swings, then play on swings. Be radical in your pursuit of joy. (That doesn’t mean you should bypass the grief – it just means that a fully lived life includes being in touch with ALL of your emotions.)
Tucked into the corners of the mirror in my bedroom are two photos of me. In the black and white photo, I’m a young child, reaching across the table to dip my finger into a bowl of sugar. In the coloured photo, I’m a twenty-six-year-old, standing next to my sister, with a large backpack on my back and a smaller one on my front.
Mostly, I forget that the photos are there, but sometimes I catch sight of them and then I pause for a moment to remember those younger versions of me. When I’m feeling particularly reflective, as I am today, I wonder about the thoughts, fears and dreams of each of those younger versions of me.
They are both, in their own ways, reaching for sweetness. The young child, with a guilty look on her face, is trying to sneak some of the sugar before the grownups notice, snatch it away, or shame her for it. She’s already grown accustomed to being called chubby, and if she didn’t know by then, it wouldn’t be much longer before she’d find out just how undesirable it was to be fat and how shameful it was to want a little more sweetness in her life.
The young woman is standing on British soil on her first grand adventure. She’d reached for sweetness across the ocean, backpacking across Europe to feed her wanderlust. What you can’t see on the photo, though, is the engagement ring on her finger. She’s coming home from that trip to get married and settle down. It will be years before she crosses an ocean again.
Beneath the sweetness of both photos, there is an undertone of sadness. When you peel back the layers, they tell the story of a young woman who’s learning about the limitations of what she is allowed to reach for. She’s learning how far she can go before she gets pulled back. She’s learning not to want too much. She’s learning about shame and expectations and acceptability and responsibility and… all of what it means to grow up a woman.
In the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once, Evelyn Wang is a Chinese-American woman who runs a struggling laundromat with her husband, Waymond. Through a strange turn of events, she discovers that she’s living in a multiverse and that every choice she’s made throughout her life has created an alternate universe where another version of her continues to live out the consequences of the other option of that choice. (For example, in one, she chose not to marry and is living a successful life as a movie star.) In the Alpha Universe – the original universe – people have discovered the existence of other universes and they have found a way to “verse-jump” between them, to access the skills, memories, and bodies of their parallel universe counterparts. They have come to Evelyn for help.
The multiverse is being threatened by Jobu Tupaki, who turns out to be Evelyn’s daughter Joy, whose mind was splintered in the Alpha Universe when the Alpha version of Evelyn pushed her to extensively verse-jump and inhabit other bodies. Evelyn (the laundromat version) is tasked with stopping Jobu Tupaki in order to save the multiverse. To do so, she must verse-jump and briefly inhabit other versions of the person she could have been if she’d made other choices.
In the end (spoiler alert), she must repair a breech with her daughter and talk her out of a nihilistic, destructive view of life so that she doesn’t destroy the multiverse.
As I stand in front of the mirror, remembering those other versions of me, I can’t help but wonder what life could be like if either of those two younger versions of me had made other choices. What if young-child-me had chosen not to accept the shame imposed by a fatphobic culture and had learned to live a life of radical self-love right from the beginning? What if young-adult-me had admitted to herself just how much she loved to travel and how much she doubted that marriage was the right path, and she’d sent back the ring and extended her stay in Europe?
Where would I be now, if I hadn’t been trying so hard to live in a way that was acceptable to my family/community/religion of origin? What if I’d had – right from the start – the kind of safety and belonging I needed to know it was okay to make different choices?
What we only see a glimpse of in Everything Everywhere All at Once is the long-term impact of laundromat-Evelyn discovering the alternative outcomes of the choices she made throughout her life. I want the sequel, the rest of the story. Does she simply accept the status quo, accept that she’s doing the best that she can, or does she recognize the possibility for making new choices that free her from some of the restraints of the old ones? What adjustments does she make in order to live a more liberated future? How does she learn to love herself into her own wholeness?
That begs the question outside of the multiverse… Is there a moment when a person can wake up and see the past, present, and future through less clouded lenses? Is there a moment when you have both the vision and the strength to hold the possibility that your life could still turn out differently? A moment that doesn’t bury you under the weight of regret over the intervening years since those original choices were made? A moment (or, more likely, a series of moments) when you can choose a path toward a life more free of the burdens of other people’s expectations and rules, and the weight of the cultural systems that have shaped you?
I believe there is. Like Richard Rohr in the book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, I believe that most of us reach a threshold in midlife when something happens – a fall, a tragedy, a failure, a relationship breakdown – when we can choose to cling to the life we’ve worked so hard to construct (a life that lives up to the standards we thought were acceptable and that offered us safety and belonging), or we can lean into something more ambiguous, more openhearted, and more authentic. It’s a liminal space moment, when we can choose to fall into the abyss – to release the past, deconstruct the rules and expectations we were working so hard to follow, and dare to become more fully ourselves.
Like a giant game of Jenga, we construct our lives out of the pieces we’ve mostly inherited or constructed based on what we’ve been taught – belief systems, values, rules, cultural practices, relationship patterns, identity, career path, gender expression, and so on. Then, somewhere in the middle, a few pieces get knocked out of our foundation, or we choose to remove them, or we see that they are made of nothing but vapour. Then suddenly what we’ve constructed begins to tumble. Suddenly we see that what we’ve built is precariously balanced and not as sturdy as we’d imagined it to be.
We can choose to accept the deconstruction of the tower, sit in the messiness for awhile, and then find the courage and strength to carry on. Or we can desperately cling to what was and keep plugging the holes and propping up the tower.
Easter weekend always brings back memories of a particular moment when I knew my Jenga tower was about to crash. In 2011, on Easter weekend, we got confirmation that Mom had cancer that would likely kill her. At a family Easter gathering, just after we’d learned about the cancer, my former husband and I got into a big fight. On the way home, while I tried to keep the conversation restrained so our sleeping daughters in the back of the van wouldn’t hear, I told him I was ready to end the marriage and would only give it another chance if he would take the initiative to find us a marriage therapist. Then, on Sunday morning in church, after years of trying to hang onto the shards of my faith, I finally admitted to myself that I no longer knew how to find meaning in the version of the Easter story I’d always heard in church.
Two years earlier, I’d quit my job to start self-employment, but didn’t yet have a stable income. A few years before that, my dad died. That meant that the four foundational pieces on which my Jenga tower was built – marriage, faith, career, and parents – were all at risk simultaneously, some by my choice and some by forces outside my control.
I woke up on the Monday after Easter with an all-consuming sense of dread, terrified that my whole life was about to be destroyed and that my daughters would be taken down with me. For the next few years, I tried desperately to plug the holes and prop up the tower. I kept going to church and I kept trying to save my marriage. Five years later, though, everything was gone – mom had died, my marriage ended, and I stopped going to church. There was nothing but a pile of Jenga pieces on the floor at my feet.
In a game of Jenga, the toppling of the tower marks the end of the game. Life is not like that, though. Instead of marking the end of the story, deconstruction offers an invitation to write a whole new narrative. It’s the moment when you learn that you can let go of the pieces of the tower that don’t belong to you, and you can begin to build something much more sturdy, beautiful, and true. It’s the moment when you realize that the tower was probably also a cage.
My life was not destroyed the way my anxiety told me it would be. It was wobbly for awhile, and I woke up many mornings with that familiar sense of dread, but then I discovered that my deconstruction was liberating me from my tower/cage. It allowed me to tell the truth and to free myself of the parts of my life that didn’t feel true. I discovered I could build the kind of work that gave my life purpose and joy. I could grow relationships with much deeper and more authentic roots. I could search for the version of faith that felt most alive for me. I could say yes to what I loved and no to what limited me. I could find healing for the wounds left behind by the cage and I could grow in ways I never dreamed possible.
Today, when I look at those two photos of younger-me, with the reflection of current-me in the mirror between them, I invite them back into my life and I tell them that, from now on, I will do my best to be true to them. I will build a life that their dreams can be proud of. I will not let them be shamed for the ways in which they reached for sweetness. I will not let them be tethered to other people’s fears or limitations. I will continue to dismantle any of the pieces of the tower/cage that might still bind them.
Unlike laundromat-Evelyn, I can’t step into a parallel universe to discover the alternative outcomes of the choices made by either of the younger versions of me. But I can make choices on their behalf that honour and liberate them, choices less bound by whatever kept them caged.
There’s a pedestrian tunnel I pass through regularly, in all seasons. In summer, I often cycle through, and in winter, I pass through on foot. The tunnel provides a safe passage under a busy freeway. It’s a connecting point between my sister’s house and mine, and it’s also along the best cycling route from my house to downtown.
Not long ago, I listened to an interview with someone who’d written a piece for the New York Times on the “empty religions of Instagram”. She was critiquing some self-help social media influencers, and she mentioned that some of them “worship their wounds”. On their Instagram feeds, she said, they make themselves accessible by being wounded people, but then they stay with the wound because it makes them feel special and loved and it gets them more followers.
Because I’ve written a book that includes quite a few of my own vulnerable stories, and because much of my work has its roots in those stories (i.e. the original blog post that catapulted this work into the world was about my mom dying), the words of the writer felt somewhat confronting.
Was I, too, guilty of “worshipping my wounds”? Was I monetizing my woundedness and then staying with the woundedness because it’s become part of my brand and it draws people in?
Whew. That’s a really big question. It stopped me in my tracks and caused me to withdraw even further from the public-facing spaces. I spent hours wrestling with it in my journal and had several good conversations with friends. I dug deep, trying to be as honest with myself as I could.
Somewhat ironically, at the same time, I was teaching my course, Write for Love and Liberation, where I was telling people how liberating and healing it can be to write about your wounds and share your stories. I told them how much more liberated I felt when I was honest about past trauma and abuse and how much that honesty and vulnerability had helped me find community and deepen relationships.
My mind wrestled with the cognitive dissonance of those two things and I didn’t know if they could both be true at the same time.
On the one hand, oversharing and crafting your identity out of a narrative of woundedness and trauma can keep you stuck in your wounds. A relationship or community built out of shared woundedness can give everyone in that relationship or community an excuse to stay wounded. It can also hold people back from healing and growth because people need safety and belonging and are afraid of being abandoned by people who don’t want them to change. (Some of us come from families, for example, that don’t encourage growth because that causes a threat to the family system.)
Plus, a leader who uses her wounds to gather people around her can turn those wounds into performance and connecting points for relationships. She is much more likely to grow unhealthy attachments, to project those wounds onto other people, and to start a cult rather than a healthy growing community. A leader who stays wounded is likely to create trauma bonds with people to ensure that they don’t outgrow her and move on because they’ve healed and no longer need the attachment to her. (Consider the many recent stories of abuse in spiritual communities – those are leaders whose own woundedness tries to trap people and hold them back.)
On the other hand, sharing the stories of our trauma and woundedness can be healing and transformational and those stories can offer beautiful connecting points on which to build community. Some of my biggest personal breakthroughs have come when I’ve read or listened to the stories of people who’ve dared to share their struggles and pain. Over the years, I have heard from many, many people who are grateful that I’ve been so honest in the sharing of my hard stories, because it helps them see themselves more clearly. Shared vulnerability connects us and makes us feel less alone. It can also give us hope that there is a way through the pain into a new story.
So… what is a person to do when they’ve built work that’s rooted in their personal stories, and many of those stories include wounds and trauma that help people find connecting points?
I think the key to that question is in the word that is deliberately part of both my book title and my writing course title… liberation. I think that the writing and sharing of our stories, the gathering of our communities, and the ways in which we show up online, should all be centered around the pursuit of liberation – for ourselves and for each other.
Liberation comes when we can see the wound; name the wound; speak honestly about the wound; erect healthy boundaries with anyone who caused, contributed to, or dismissed the wound; heal the wound; make meaning of the wound; and then free ourselves from the wound and move on.
Liberation comes when we share stories not only of the wounds themselves, but of what it takes to heal the wounds, triumph over the wounds, and stand up to the people or systems that cause the wounds.
Liberation comes when we tell the stories of how we developed healthy boundaries, stopped accepting abuse, and stopped giving ourselves away to people who don’t know how to honour and hold space for us.
Liberation comes when we don’t hold each other back, when we release unhealthy attachments, and when we refuse to participate in codependent relationships that rely on our woundedness.
Liberation comes when we make a conscious choice to detach ourselves from our wounds and we form new identities not built solely on those wounds.
After a considerable amount of reflection on this topic, I have come to a renewed commitment in my work and my life… I will continue to share honestly and vulnerably and will continue to let people see the wounds and trauma that have been part of my past (when I can do so out of a spirit of generosity) BUT… I will not stay in that place, nor will I stay in relationships that keep me in that place. I will do my best to continue healing whatever reveals itself in me and I will support other people in their healing. I will trust my own need for boundaries and give myself necessary time away from other people’s wounds and healing work. I will distance myself from situations or relationships that trigger my old woundedness. I will actively pursue peace, love, joy, and liberation. I will seek out relationships and communities that value growth (mine and other people’s) and that don’t need to keep anyone wounded to justify their own lack of growth. I will be gentle with those with trauma and wounds, but I won’t settle for wound-worshipping in the spaces I hold.
I am committed to my own liberation. AND I believe, as Lilla Watson says, that “my liberation is tied up with yours”. I am committed to liberated relationships, where we honour each other’s sovereignty AND we lean into community, where we hold space for each other’s trauma AND we seek healing and growth.
of or resembling a nebula or nebulae in deep space; nebular
When the lockdown is over, I will go back to the float spa. When I climb into that white pod, turn off the lights and music, and lie down to float in the warm saltwater, I will drift away into a nebulous field where there are no edges, no beginning and no end, no division between water, air and body. I will be, once again, an astronaut who’s climbed out of the spaceship and is floating in zero gravity. Sometimes, as I float into semi-consciousness, I wonder if the umbilical cord that tethers astronaut to ship is still holding me or if I’m floating in the ether alone, without it. Surprisingly, it’s never an anxious thought, just a curiosity. The floating feels good and safe and free.
My life became less and less tethered this year. I am beginning to float more. My youngest daughter graduated from high school. My oldest graduated from university. All three are perched on the edge of the nest, ready to fly off into broader spaces. They are loosening their tethers to the mothership. They make plans, they speak of new lives in new cities, for when the pandemic no longer holds them here. And in the meantime, my relationship with them shapeshifts into something new.
What happens, I wonder, to the mothership when the astronauts no longer need the tether? When they have found other people, other places in which to anchor? Does the mothership take flight too? Does she become young again, and drift off into unexplored territory, waving at her children as she passes? Or does she simply become one with the void?
My body of work is finding ways to become less tethered to me as well. A new business partner is tending to many of the threads that keep the work grounded. She waves me along as I float further and further away from the ground, into new spaces, new ideas. “Go. Explore,” she says, as I put on my spacesuit and open the spaceship door. My teaching work, too, holds me down less and less. New teachers come in behind me, they hold the space I once held, and they infuse it with new energy and new wisdom. My voice, while still needed, is now part of a chorus and no longer a solo act. I have new freedom to float into uncharted territory.
My book, too, has untethered itself from me. Like cells splitting to grow into organisms, the words that once belonged to me and were only on my screen replicated themselves thousands of times, in digital and print form, and landed in homes and hearts and classrooms and libraries all over the world. Those replicated versions pass from hand to hand without me, untethered to me, living lives of their own. They hold a memory of me, the stories of me, but grow into other things, plant seeds for new ideas, without me. Some even in languages I don’t speak. “Go. Explore,” they say, as I climb out of the spaceship door.
I wonder about this virus. Tiny. Invisible. Floating through the air from body to body. Untethered and free to roam. No umbilical cord holding it in place. If we could anthropomorphize it, give it a mind, a voice, and a purpose, what would it tell us? “I want to kill you.” Or “I want to wake you up.” Or “I want to thrive.” Probably, simply, “I’m just doing what I’m meant to do – find ways to live.”
Would it teach us how to live? Teach us how to thrive? Teach us how to be present and mindful and connected and interdependent? Would it teach us how to protect each other, to be less selfish, to work together toward a common purpose? Or would it scoff at us for the many ways we refuse to change, and the many ways we give it easy access to bodies in which to grow and pathways in which to travel?
I find myself drawn to the darkness this winter. I go for long walks on snow-covered paths, long after the sun has set, after all of the neighbours have headed indoors. I walk quiet streets and venture further and further into shadowy parks and unlit paths through the woods. The darkness feeds me, nourishes me, wakens me, grounds me.
The deer are shadowy ghosts on the frozen river, and one night a nebulous shape moves toward me through the darkness on a quiet street. Is it a dog? A large cat? I don’t see clearly until our eyes meet. It is a coyote, darting from shadow to shadow at the edge of the road, claiming the neighbourhood when the people are gone. I stand, still and breathless, and watch the trickster until he disappears into the grey at the edge of my sight. This feels like gift sent from the mothership. A thin place, where the veil between heaven and earth dissolves. But only for a moment.
At the beginning of this pandemic, I was in the Netherlands. Many late nights on ancestry.com had given me the names of the towns where my ancestors lived centuries ago. Back before the torture began and they had to flee to Germany, to Russia and then to Canada, always just a breath ahead of their oppressors. Back before they became pariahs, before the establishment declared them to be dangerous for their beliefs and the genocidal agenda began.
I stood there, on those narrow cobblestone streets in little Dutch towns, and I sensed them there with me, behind me, holding me, reminding me. Their DNA, still alive in me. Their stories, their trauma, waking up in my body after a long slumber. I wondered what it was like to be a refugee, an exile, an outcast. I wondered what it was like to lose your homeland, to become untethered from the place that once nurtured you. I wondered, and yet somehow I also knew.
When I returned home from my ancestors’ homeland, I dug for pieces of me in old boxes in my basement. Threads connecting me to my past. There, buried in the boxes, on journal pages and letters home to her mother, was the traumatized twenty-two-year-old, lonely and unprotected on her bed as the rapist climbed through the window and violated her body. I cried for her as she poured herself out onto those pages, trying to heal, trying to find wholeness, trying not to be crushed under the weight of what had been done to her. I cried for her shame, her innocence, and the poison she took into her body and tried to disgorge onto the page. I cried for the way she had never been told that her body was worthy, that sex wasn’t meant to hurt, that men didn’t get to take things from her that she didn’t want to give. I ached for the way she’d become untethered, unmoored, ungrounded.
Is she still me? Am I still her? Where are the edges between her and I? Where is the line between her trauma and my healing? Or is it all nebulous, without shape, without edges, without beginning or end? When does one give way to the other? Is there a moment when trauma loosens its hold and begins to seep out of a body that wants to heal?
I like starry nights, but my favourites, right now, are the cloudy nights when the snow-covered city is held in a pinkish-grey dome. I can walk forever on those nights, navigating the nebulous landscape, venturing into parks and woodlands that hold too much darkness on starry nights. On the unlit trails between the cathedral spires of leaf-less trees, I can’t see clearly enough to know where the path ends and the deep snow begins. I lean into trust and memory and plant one foot in front of the other, hoping my foot won’t sink deeply into untrodden snow. And sometimes, when it’s snowing and I return the way I arrived, my half-hour-old footprints are already obliterated. Was I ever there, or was it just an illusion? Do I hold enough substance to even make a mark?
I am mostly alone on my night-time pilgrimages, but one night I meet a couple carrying flashlights that lend glaring light to the ten feet in front of them but make the void beyond them even darker. I want to ask those people why they spoil the gentle darkness with the light, but I stay silent. I don’t want to spoil the gentle stillness with my voice. Instead, I carry on past them, deeper into the woods, and my eyes readjust to the darkness. Once again, I recognize the nebulous shapes around me as my sturdy and reliable friends, the trees. And sometimes a deer.
People ask me if I’m not scared, out there alone in the dark. I say “My safety was taken away from me at home, in my own bed. Out there in the woods is not where my demons live.”
I am in a new relationship now. No, not new… evolved. Shapeshifted. Once a friendship, now… more. Intimacy. Care. Intention. Listening. Exploration. Holding. Touching… but only for fleeting moments. We are hundreds of miles apart, and there is a pandemic in the gap between us, so we cancel plans to spend time together, and instead we grow a relationship in the nebulous digital spaces where there is no third dimension. Only flat video images and words on a screen. We long for more shape, less nebulousness, but the pandemic stands as a sentry at the gate, guarding the gap between us. We each stay tethered to our own cities.
What is the shape of love when bodies can’t collide? How do you become tethered when there is no touch and miles of space between you? What does this make us? What do we call ourselves?
In my basement is a large canvas. At the beginning of the pandemic, when fear and confusion and overwhelm and grief were the ingredients of the soup we were all swimming in, I threw paint at the void of that canvas and then dove in with my hands, smearing the paint around in swirls and nebulous shapes. Waves of emotion came through me as I painted, layer upon layer of paint applied only with my hands. Catharsis. Release. Deconstruction.
In the months since, that canvas calls me back, again and again. I layer on more and more paint, always obliterating whatever took shape the last time I stood in front of it. Each time I visit it, it evolves into something different than it was before. The canvas receives it all – my anger, my disappointment, my sadness, my joy, my fear, my love – and it blends it all together in swirls of colour. I am reminded that there are only blurred lines between my emotions and no single feeling speaks of only one truth.
My identity is reshaping itself in this nebulous time. Author. Business partner. I add those, like layers of paint on the canvas, to the evolving shape of who I am, who I was, and who I am becoming. I wonder if my ancestors knew, when I stood on their land at the beginning of this year, the shape of who I’d be, centuries after they died. I wonder how their identity is still alive in me, how I am tethered to them, how they witness me, if they do, from the beyond, on the other side of the thin place.
I wonder what stories DNA would tell, if we could give them voices too, like the virus. Would they sing ancestral songs of triumph and resilience? Would they chant laments in memory of the pain? Would they whisper to us, as they shape us into who we are, the secrets of the hard-won wisdom woven into them by those they shaped before us?
My son once floated in the nebulous space in my womb, tethered to the mothership, nourished through my umbilical cord. I wonder what he thought while he floated. Did he feel safe, like I do in the float tank? Did he dream of the day the cord would loosen and allow him to begin to explore the world? Or did he want to stay in there where he was safe, for as long as he could, with me?
But then, before his body had grown enough to support his journey outside of me, the membrane that held that space for him was violently torn by a doctor trying to protect him, and he was left exposed. The fluid that he’d floated in drained from my body, like a leak in the float tank. He tried to survive, and for weeks he did, but then one night, a tiny bacteria (harmless in me but dangerous in him), as tiny as the virus that is now killing thousands, entered his once-protected space and snuffed out his unborn life.
I wonder where he is now. Is he with the ancestors, on the other side of the thin place, watching, witnessing, floating? And is he telling them about the shape of me, from the inside where he once lived? I wonder what secrets his DNA whispered into my body before he floated away.
And now, perhaps something else uncovered in the shape of who I am… neurodivergent? My daughters, both diagnosed with ADHD, point toward me and say “you too, mom.” They see the patterns I don’t yet see, they point to the ways my brain works like theirs, they witness the places I fumble, forget, and get distracted. And they also see the ways I triumph, adapt and fight to thrive. They guide me into seeing myself anew. Who am I if I have ADHD? And what does it change in me if I fit into this unknown and yet familiar shape?
And there is one more layer of paint emerging in this nebulous year. Or perhaps an old layer, once submerged, now being revealed. My new relationship… it’s with a woman. She sits on the other side of my video screen, tethered to her city, separated by miles and a pandemic. Who does this make me now? Lesbian? Bi-sexual? Queer? Shapeshifter? Who was I then and who am I now? Or am I simply floating in the ether, searching for a new tether that offers the safety and belonging I wasn’t sure I’d know? Does it matter what I call myself? Or her? Do I need my identity tethered to a word? (Perhaps I do, if only to acknowledge the courage and resilience of those who came before and cleared the way so that I could float here now, in a safer place.)
I am finding that I want to play with words the way I play with paint on the canvas. I want to swirl them around with my hands, squish them with my fingers, blur them together, and make nebulous shapes in the chaos. After long months of arranging words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters, chapters into a book – and all of it into meaning, I want to remove the boxes. Remove the form. Remove even the meaning. Let the words float.
And what am I left with then, if the words flow like the paint from my hands onto blank pages? What do I hold, if there is no shape, if there are no answers, if there is no meaning, if it is all nebulous?
And perhaps this is what the pandemic offers. This nebulous space in which to float. This way of being that is less tethered to doing and completing and resolving. These long, solitary walks in shadowy places that change the shape of who we are, that blur the edges of who we encounter, that give us new identity and new connection to the spaces we’re in. This liminal landscape that allows us to transform, to shapeshift, to blur the edges, to become something new, to reclaim something old, to be reminded of who we already are.
Perhaps this is what the virus would say, if it could. “Just be.”
If you find that you, too, are being reshaped in these nebulous times, you might want to join my exploration by signing up for 52 Weeks of Holding Space.