Where does your mind go when you’re faced with frustration? Where does it go when all of your plans fall through and everything is outside of your control?
Years ago, I heard a mindfulness teacher say that mindfulness is about “learning to pay attention to your attention.” That’s all fine and good when you’re sitting on a cushion in a quiet room, but what about when you’re out in the chaotic world? What about when you’re in a foreign country, you don’t speak the language, you’re alone, and everything is unfamiliar, unpredictable and falling apart? How do you stay mindful and keep “paying attention to your attention” THEN?!
This past week, the universe provided me with a great opportunity to see just how mindful I could be under those circumstances. I’m in the Lake Atitlan region of Guatemala, a beautiful and somewhat remote area of the country. There are seventeen villages around the volcanic lake (that’s surrounded by mountains), and though there is lots of tourism, the local culture is still very much alive. It’s the kind of place I love to spend time – off the beaten track, but not so far off that it doesn’t feel safe to be a solo female traveller who doesn’t speak the language.
I am working while I travel (I have a book to edit; classes to teach on Zoom; meetings with clients, my publishing team, and my teaching team; blog posts to write; etc.), so I always check to make sure the places I’m staying have wifi. I didn’t think to check whether or not they have HIGH SPEED wifi that’s good enough for Zoom, however. For the first week on the lake, I was taking a break from being online, so it didn’t matter that I had little wifi. I had just enough to stay in touch with my kids (if I walked down the steep hill to the common area of the place I was staying) and that was good enough. Then I moved ten minutes down the lake by boat, from San Marcos la Laguna to San Juan la Laguna, to stay in a quaint and inexpensive hotel, and discovered on the first night, when I tried to FaceTime with my daughter, that the wifi wasn’t good enough.
The next day, I started searching online for “coffee shops with the best wifi in Lake Atitlan” and soon discovered that there was very little high speed wifi in the entire region. I had a webinar scheduled for two days later and hundreds of people had already signed up and were expecting me to be there, so I was on a mission to find something. One cafe in San Pedro looked promising, so I headed there. A seven minute boat ride and a 1.5 km walk (almost entirely up a steep hill) later, I found a sweet little cafe that was quiet enough for a Zoom call. I tested it with another FaceTime call with another daughter and it was okay but not great. I was pretty sure on a Zoom call full of people, it wouldn’t hold up.
I had one more day to find something, so the next day I set out with a plan. I downloaded a speed test app on my phone, made a list of coffee shops that had been recommended on various travel and digital nomad sites and were within a ten minute boat ride, and set out. The first one, in the town where I was staying, was slower than the hotel. The next one, back in San Marcos where I’d stayed the week before, was also slower than the hotel. So was the third one, also in San Marcos. (By that point, I was running out of beverage options that I wanted to drink that wouldn’t pump me full of caffeine.)
Back on a boat, I headed to San Pedro again. This time I tried the trendiest coffee shop that attracted the trendiest tourists, thinking they would cater to more North American and European expectations and probably have good wifi, and sure enough, the wifi was good. It was also very noisy, with a loud thumping drumbeat bouncing off the walls. I knew it would be too distracting for a Zoom call.
It was getting late by this point, and the boats would only run for another half hour, so I headed back to my hotel, resigning myself to Plan B. All of my research had pointed toward a hostel in Panajachel, a half-hour boat ride across the lake, with the only coworking space in the region and the promise of good wifi. I’d already checked online and could book a week in the coworking space and a bed in a dorm. I’ve stayed in hostels on this trip before, but I’ve always booked private rooms. I feel a little too old for a dorm, but I was willing to do it for a few nights so that I could get my work done.
That evening, the electricity was out in the hotel (not something that surprises me when staying in rural areas with less-developed infrastructure). When it finally came back on, the only bulb in my small room burnt out. It was too late to get maintenance to deal with it, so I groped around in the dark. The next morning I woke up early, and the electricity was out again. This time I had to grope around in the bathroom too, and discovered, after it was too late, that I’d run out of toilet paper. By the time I figured out how to deal with that frustration, I was too wide-awake to fall back to sleep, I grabbed a blanket and went to lie in the hammock outside my room, listening to the village wake up and watching the sun start to touch the mountain in my line of sight.
I’d tried to cancel the rest of my nights in the hotel the night before but hadn’t been successful (due to language barriers and technical difficulties). I tried again after breakfast and was told to come back in an hour because the young woman at the desk wasn’t sure how to do it (juggling an archaic paper system with an online booking platform she wasn’t familiar with) without charging me for the nights I wasn’t using.
An hour later, I could finally check out, but only if I paid for one more night. Because I’d tried to check out the day before, I shouldn’t have had to pay for the extra night (according to the policy on the booking site I’d used), but I gave up trying to convince the young woman (and the older woman who appeared to be a supervisor but didn’t speak English) of that and just paid the bill.
Soon, I was back on a boat. Though there are often tourists on these boats, moving from one town to the next, the boats serve as the local transportation service, so it’s just as likely that there will be no other foreigners. This was one of those times. I was surrounded by mostly young men and nobody spoke English. I knew enough to communicate which town I was going to, but not enough to ask questions when the boat docked at another town and sat there for a long time, with no indication that it was going to carry on to Panajachel. Eventually it did.
Finally, I got to the hostel. It was too early to check in, but they let me store my luggage and I was given access to the coworking space. With only a couple of hours left until the webinar, I set up my computer and tried to get online. Nope. No wifi. I tried the coworking wifi and the hostel wifi, and both gave me only the spinning-wheel-of-death. I checked back in at the desk and the young man there assured me it was working and said to turn the wifi button on and off again on my devices, and to “forget this network” and sign on again… but nothing worked. I also couldn’t get onto the eSIM that I’d bought for emergency purposes. (Later I asked a couple of other people working at the desk and they told me the wifi was down and appeared to be down in the entire neighbourhood.)
At this point, I didn’t know what to do, but I’ve got a stubborn streak in me that doesn’t let me give up easily, so I headed down the street to find a restaurant or coffee shop. I stopped at the first restaurant that said it had wifi, ordered a salad, and got online to let my team know about my ongoing challenges and to say we might have to postpone the webinar. “I’ll try one more coffee shop down the street,” I said, and after my salad was done, I carried on.
I nearly burst out laughing when I got to the coffee shop and discovered that they had neither wifi nor plugs (to charge the devices that were, by now, nearly dead because of the lack of electricity the night before). I headed back down the street and stood outside the restaurant while I texted my team and said “I have no more options. We’ll have to cancel. Also – my phone’s about to die and I can’t stand here outside the restaurant indefinitely, so I’ll probably drop out of contact soon.”
Back at the hostel, I finally got onto the wifi, but only briefly and then it dropped off again. And then, for the rest of the day, it continued to function in weird ways. For awhile, I could get on with my phone but not my computer, then with my computer and not my phone, and whenever I went offline I couldn’t get back on. The weirdest was when my texts were going through to two of my daughters but not the third.
By now, there was a raging pool party going on, with lots of beer pong and loud, thumping dance music. I was more than twice the average age of the group (with nobody else in my age range), not in the mood for a party with young strangers, and could find no quiet space at the hostel. I moved my belongings into the dorm (which was close to the pool and therefore very loud), and headed out for a walk. If I couldn’t work or rest, I might as well enjoy the town. I bought a plastic cup full of sliced mangos and wandered toward the waterfront. It was peaceful there, the locals were out enjoying a Sunday afternoon stroll with their families, small children were giggling by the water, my mango tasted delicious, and I felt my breathing slow and my heart swell with gratitude.
Nothing had worked the way I’d wanted it to, I felt disconnected from the world and couldn’t chat with anyone I loved, I had no language to speak with anyone on the street, I felt out of place at the hostel where I was staying and regretted leaving the quiet hotel across the lake with the hammock overlooking the water, and yet, overwhelmingly, it was joy that I felt at the end of the day. Joy, gratitude, and connection with the people whose language I couldn’t speak but who understood a shared smile.
This brings me back to the place where I started this post – with mindfulness and “paying attention to my attention”. While all of these things were going wrong, I made a special point to try to stay present in the moment, to witness my thoughts as they were happening and release those that weren’t helpful, to still be in awe of my beautiful surroundings, and to remember the commitment I wrote about in my last blog post – to orient myself toward joy.
Where did my mind want to go in the midst of all of these frustrations? Here are some of the thoughts I witnessed popping into my head: I am unsafe here. I have made a mistake coming to this area. This is all my fault. Why did I have this ridiculous idea that I could work remotely while travelling? Why am I not satisfied with staying home like other people? I should be in a place where I have more control over things. Why do I create so many challenges for myself? Why can’t I find anyone to talk to? I must be unlikeable. People must think I’m foolish for choosing to live this way. All the people who signed up for the webinar will be disappointed with me and are probably judging me. My team will be frustrated with me. This kind of travel is for people younger than I am. I’m letting people down. No, wait – other people are letting ME down. There must be someone else I can blame. Perhaps I can blame the people at the hotel or hostel. Or maybe it’s the wifi providers’ fault. This boat system is ridiculous and disorganized. Those people are looking at me funny – perhaps they want to steal my bags. Why do they have to play such loud music at this hostel? Kids these days!
That’s just scratching the surface of what popped into my mind, especially in those moments when my nervous system was the most activated. But all of those thoughts evaporated quickly when I noticed and intentionally released them. I’m happy to report that I never got stuck in any loops of rumination, blame, or self-flagellation. I held onto my intention to stay present and mindful throughout, and that’s what allowed me to end the day quite peacefully once the webinar was postponed. After wandering around with my cup of mango, I came back to the hostel, found an empty lounge chair, sat down with my e-reader, and watched the young party-goers enjoy each other’s company. Much like I used to enjoy watching my daughters with their friends, when they’d gather in our backyard when we still had a house in Winnipeg, I found pleasure in watching these young people, so full of life and joy and yet so clearly holding their own insecurities and need for belonging.
There have been many, many times in my life when I wouldn’t have been able to end the day as well as I did. There have been many times when I would have tumbled into victim mode or self-blaming mode and gotten stuck there. There have been many times when I would have curled up in my bed, resentful that there was a stranger sleeping in the bed next to me, and cried myself to sleep. None of those things happened though – I slept peacefully even though there was a young Danish man just a few feet away.
Here are some of the things that helped:
Practising mindfulness. Although I’m not the kind of mindfulness practitioner who’s spent many hours on the cushion, I try to bring mindfulness into my life in every way that I can. “Notice, label, get curious, release” is what my practice looks like. I notice the feeling, thought or sensation, try to label it as best I can, get curious about its origin or what it’s attached to, and then release it. I’ve found that my learning around things like trauma and Internal Family Systems has been immensely helpful in my mindfulness practice because it gives me more clarity about where my thoughts or feelings are coming from and helps me become less attached to them.
Opening to joy. When my mind starts to fixate on all of the things going wrong, it takes a special effort to open myself to joy… and yet it is possible. There are little joyful moments available even in the most frustrating days. When I was feeling the most exasperated, on the way back from the restaurant to the hostel with a nearly-dead phone and no connection, a man on the street started raving about the mango ice cream he was eating and INSISTED I needed to go try some myself. He was so joyful about his ice cream that it was infectious and I started to laugh with him right there in the middle of the street. I promised I would look for the little shop by the boat dock and try some of that amazing ice cream (a promise I intend to keep before I leave this village).
Being in awe. I was sitting in the boat, surrounded by young Guatemalan men, and we were going nowhere. I needed to get to the hostel in time to prepare for the webinar, but had no control over the fact that we were just sitting there, bobbing up and down in the boat. My mind started to hook into anxiety and impatience, and then I turned my head and looked at a boat not far from where we were sitting. On the side of the boat was the most mesmerising light pattern, reflected from the rippling water. My breath slowed and my anxiety eased as I sat watching, drawn into the magic of the dancing lights. I don’t know how much more time passed before the boat started to move, but I didn’t care anymore. I was in awe and nothing else mattered. The world was a beautiful place and would continue to be a beautiful place even if I didn’t make it to the webinar.
Assuming no blame. This is a tough one, but one of the most important. When things go wrong, my mind wants to find some place to attach blame – either with other people or with myself. There is some comfort in knowing that someone is responsible and can be the target of my rage and frustration. (In the book, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, the author talks about how some of us are internalizers who blame primarily ourselves, and others are externalizers who look for others to blame. I tend toward internalisation.) But blame keeps us trapped in a victim narrative and that’s not a pleasant place to live, nor does it serve our growth or healing. There is much more ease and joy when we can let go of blame and assume that everyone is doing the best they can under the circumstances. When I stood in front of the young woman at the hotel, wanting to blame her for the expense of an extra night in the hotel, I released that thought and instead saw her humanity and the effort she was making to do her job well. I thanked her for her effort and paid the bill. As I left, she called out to me that she could arrange for a boat to pick me up closer so that I didn’t have to take a tuktuk back to the main dock. I thanked her for the extra kindness and we both smiled.
Practising tenderness. I cannot overstate how much my tenderness practice has changed the way I treat myself. Whenever my thoughts turn toward self-flagellation, I remember to extend tenderness to myself and to soothe the part of me that’s feeling threatened in that moment. I listen to the voices of my inner wounded child, who wants to belong, wants to feel safe, and wants someone to protect her, and I assure her that she is in good hands and I will look out for her. When my emotions start to overwhelm me, I hold space for what comes and extend an extra dose of tenderness to my body (often with a hand on my heart, soothing touch on my face, or a little crossed-arms self-hug). When I can, like I’ve done several times since having to postpone the webinar, I sit with my journal and tenderly allow myself to pour everything onto the page. Often I end my journal time with a message from Tenderness showing up on the page.
You can learn more about these practices (and much more) in my upcoming course, Know Yourself Free Yourself, which starts the week of March 13th. I hope you’ll join me, and the global community of people who are also seeking to live more free and joyful lives.
I was walking through the jungle this morning, as I do nearly every morning when I stay at my friend Mary’s farm in Costa Rica, and I was noticing the beauty and variety of what has dropped onto the jungle floor. A couple of weeks ago, I photographed the endless variety of patterns in jungle leaves and, this morning, I turned my attention to what has fallen to the ground.
It was beautiful to witness the leaves, branches, fallen trees, and flower petals in various stages of decay. Some leaves were still green, some had turned various shades of orange, red, and yellow, and some were shades of brown. Those that had been on the ground the longest had deteriorated in shape and colour and were about to become one with the forest floor.
All that has fallen will serve as nourishment for the trees that continue to thrive and for those that have not yet sprouted. On some of the rotting branches and tree trunks, there were already the shoots of new plants sprouting from the decay.
Nature invites us to witness the cycles of life, and to recognize that death is built into the design. We don’t have growth without death. We don’t have new shoots without the rot of old leaves and branches to root themselves in.
Within many of our cultures, though, there is a great fear of death and a resistance to recognizing its inevitability. Our beauty industry sells us “anti-aging” products so that we can live in denial that our bodies are becoming wrinkled and worn, like some of the leaves on the forest floor. We turn away from conversations about death because we’d rather pretend it’s not going to happen to us. We sterilize the dying process and, if the body is visible at all, it is only when it’s been preserved so that it looks like the person hasn’t died that it’s acceptable.
Recently, I had the honour of walking alongside my friend Randy on his journey toward death. ALS was taking away his bodily functions and, in the end, he chose to leave his earthly body through medically assisted dying. In the year that I walked alongside him, I learned so much that I hope to someday write a book that contains the wisdom of that year. Randy was at peace with his dying and didn’t shy away from talking about it. Like the dying things on the forest floor, what Randy left behind will continue to nourish what can grow in me (and in others who were touched by his life) in the future.
This fear of death is not only a personal fear, it’s a collective fear, and we have embedded that fear into the systems we’ve developed and help to perpetuate. Within capitalism, for example, there is embedded a great denial that the system will ever need to die in order to serve as compost for the next system. We close our eyes to the destruction of a system that has completed its purpose and we pretend that it can continue to thrive and grow, because that seems safer for us to imagine. The death of capitalism seems too chaotic for us to consider, so we tolerate the harm it causes out of the fear of what is unknown.
As we all know, though, the kind of growth required to support our capitalist system is wreaking havoc on our planet and destroying many lives. It’s become a monster, swallowing up living beings in its hunger for perpetual growth.
I wonder what it would be like for us to lean into the wisdom that living systems need to die in order for new life to begin. I wonder how it would change us if we treated our systems like the trees in the forest, accepting death and decay as part of the process. I wonder what might grow if we stopped hanging onto the destructive, growth-hungry monsters that threaten to destroy us even as we feed them.
Perhaps, like Randy, we could even accept some form of “medically assisted dying” when we recognize that the purpose has been served, there has been joy in the lifetime of the system, and it’s time to let go. I don’t know what the future holds once we have allowed capitalism to die. Like everyone else, I am afraid of the chaos of the deconstruction process, and so I notice my own resistance rising up even as I write this.
Here’s what I do know, though… we are creative, resilient beings, living in a creative, regenerative world. We are not separate from that world. We are not set apart, better than, or worse than. We are in nature and nature is in us.
I also know that we have gained gifts from capitalism (just as I gained gifts from Randy) that will nourish us even as the system decays. It was not designed as an evil system, but as a system that sustained humans for many years. It was simply doing the job it was designed for.
AND I know that we need to resource ourselves so that we have the courage, strength and creativity needed for this great transition we’re entering. That’s why I’m committed to teaching people to hold space for discomfort, and why I have created the course Know Yourself, Free Yourself; self-exploration as a path to liberation and love (which starts in early March). I believe that embracing tenderness and liberation will help us find the resources we need in order to live through what could be a chaotic time.
It’s time for us all to imagine and co-create better ways of living together. I don’t know what those designs look like yet, but I know that we have the resources we need when we lean into our collective wisdom and courage. And I believe that there are clues on the jungle floor.
Today, I’m back in the messy part of the story. I’m slightly agitated, slightly grumpy, and slightly guarded. I’m doing my best to interact with people in a way that is as kind as I can muster. I’m pulling back into my introverted tendencies and I’m trying not to be pissed off that some things are not going the way I’d hoped.
No, nothing has entirely fallen apart. I’m just moving through some of those emotions that tend to come up after a week of intense work, hosting a retreat with lots of complexity, and having to be extroverted for a longer period than is normal for me. Plus my eight-year-old computer may have met its “planned obsolescence” death point and I wasn’t planning to replace it while on this trip (but need a laptop to do my work). Hence the grumpiness and annoyance.
Since the retreat drew to a close a few days ago, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be an unfinished story. Today, as I deal with these emotions and this messiness, I am reminded that I am smack-dab in the middle of an unfinished story.
As an author, educator, and retreat facilitator, I sometimes feel the pressure to be living a more complete story – to have things more figured out and less messy, to be living with more serenity and less grumpiness. I sense that people want me to serve as a model for them of what it means to be spiritually grounded, enlightened and “complete” so that they can hope to be that way some day themselves.
The trouble is that, though I have done a lot of healing and growth work, there is still much to do and I am messily human. Each bit of healing and liberation work I do seems to peel back another layer that I hadn’t been prepared to witness before. I go deeper and deeper, and yet there seems to be no bottom to the depths I need to excavate.
At the retreat last week, I used the story of The Girl in the Velcro Dress to help us explore the layers of things that we carry around, layers that need to be explored, healed, released, and/or deconstructed. During each session, I shared a short part of the story related to whatever content we were discussing. As a visual aid for the story, I held up a dress I’d cut out of Velcro that was covered in pieces representing the weight of expectations, trauma, conditioning, oppression, etc. that the girl was carrying (see image). After the third session, I started peeling pieces off the dress during each session, inviting participants to similarly liberate themselves from whatever burdens they bore.
At the beginning of the last session, I held up the Velcro dress that still had a few pieces stuck to it and said “You may think I’m going to end the story now by removing these last few pieces. That’s not going to happen, though. I don’t believe that in real life, we wrap up stories the way that fairy tales are wrapped up. In real life, we stay messy and incomplete. Instead of setting unrealistic expectations, we learn to accept the messiness and let go of any expectations of perfection. No, the girl kept working on the pieces on the dress and I expect she’ll be doing that until she dies. But now she has some tools and resources and she knows how to be tender with herself in the process.”
What’s most important in this work of liberation and tenderness is not that we liberate ourselves of EVERYTHING we carry on our metaphorical Velcro clothing, but that we liberate ourselves as much as we can from the unhealthy rules and expectations of the systems (family systems, belief systems, cultural systems, hierarchical systems, etc.) that placed those burdens on us in the first place. (Recognizing, of course, that while we live in an imperfect world where unhealthy systems like capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy continue on, there will always be new attempts to put things on our Velcro clothing.)
Some of those “rules” are things like perfectionism, performance measurement, and purity – all rooted in systems (especially capitalism) that delude us into thinking we should strive for perfection, that we should punish ourselves for falling short, and that we should hold stories with happy endings as our highest ideal (just as we did when we were children watching Disney movies).
So… no, I’m not a finished story. I still get grumpy, withdrawn and/or irritated (especially after doing big work) and sometimes I take that out on people I care about. Sometimes my old trauma gets triggered and I make mistakes I regret afterwards.
HOWEVER… I have learned to be more tender with my imperfections. I have learned to hold space for myself when those imperfections send me into self-criticism and I have figured out how to surround myself with people who hold space for me with tenderness and without judgment in those times. I have learned how to set healthy boundaries so that I can look after my needs after big work without letting too many people down. And I have learned to soothe the reactivity in me when I fear my fumbling and my boundaries will result in my safety and belonging being jeopardized.
Perhaps most importantly, I continue (in my fumbling way) to liberate myself from the expectation of perfection, and liberate myself from carrying around other people’s judgement.
And now, after writing this on my phone because my laptop isn’t working, I’m going to have a nap. Because, as Tricia Hersey (of The Nap Ministry) teaches, rest is resistance from the grind culture that capitalism left attached to my Velcro dress.
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.