Pandemic: This nebulous landscape

Listen to me read:

Nebulous [ neb-yuh-luhs ] 
adjective

  • hazy, vague, indistinct, or confused
  • cloudy or cloudlike
  • 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.

Nebulous. 

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?

Untethered.

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.

Floating.

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?

Unbound.

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.

Mystical.

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.

Ungrounded.

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?

Incomplete.

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.”

Obscure.

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?

Shapeless. 

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.

Blurred.

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?

Ephemeral.

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.

Fluid.

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.)

Unidentified.

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?

Liminal.

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.”

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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.

When we search for meaning, sometimes there’s a shadow lurking underneath

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” – Viktor E. Frankl

Before my trip to Ethiopia in 2007, my friend and colleague Sam (who lived there and was traveling with us into some of the poorest parts of the country) recommended I read the book Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. “You will see some hard things,” he said, “and you’ll need to find ways of making meaning so that you’ll be able to cope with the way it will break your heart.” 

He was right – we saw hard things. And my heart felt a little tattered. We saw poverty and food insecurity on a level that was hard for me to comprehend from my North American perspective. We also saw countless abandoned army tanks on the sides of the road, and men in remote villages carrying machine guns – evidence of the many years Ethiopia has known conflict. 

But we also saw beauty and resilience, people making art and music, and people praying and dancing and worshipping God. We saw people loving their families and gathering with their neighbours. We saw people helping each other and serving their communities. Everywhere we looked, there were people shaping meaning in the midst of hardship. 

I didn’t have to search for ways to make meaning – I simply had to pay attention to the ways that people were modelling it for me. 

I’ve been thinking back on that time lately, partly because there is, once again, conflict brewing in the part of Ethiopia where we traveled, and partly because, in the middle of a pandemic, I see many people making meaning as a way of coping with this strange collective hardship we’re all in. Once again, I see people praying, singing, dancing, making art and music, connecting with their communities, and serving others. 

Viktor Frankl, in his years in concentration camps during the Holocaust, came to the conclusion that those who best survived and thrived despite the hardships of the camps were those who found ways of making meaning out of the experience. By making meaning, they were able to claim their inner freedom and not be crushed by the inhumanity they faced. 

“Everything you have in life can be taken from you except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. This is what determines the quality of the life we’ve lived — not whether we’ve been rich or poor, famous or unknown, healthy or suffering. What determines our quality of life is how we relate to these realities, what kind of meaning we assign them, what kind of attitude we cling to about them, what state of mind we allow them to trigger.” – Viktor Frankl

I have long been a meaning-maker, partly because I’m a storyteller and communicator who’s spent many years honing the craft of shaping stories in ways that inspire and resonate with people. (During that trip to Ethiopia, for example, I was leading a film crew that was gathering stories about the hopefulness of the food aid and food security projects our non-profit supported.) This practice of storytelling has helped me to be reflective of past events and hardships in my life, and to alchemize them from pain into gift. When I can shape something into a story and offer it to others to inspire them in similar hardships, it lessens the pain and releases the bitterness or regret that might be inherent in that memory. After my mom died, for example, I made meaning out of the grief and that meaning-making became the blog post on holding space that grew my work and expanded my community in a significant way. 

Meaning-making heals me and helps me return, again and again, to hopefulness. It grows my resilience and my courage to face other hardships. It has helped me survive many hardships – like rape, stillbirth, divorce, the death of my parents, and the attempted suicides of my former husband. Instead of being crushed by the weight of those hardships, I shaped them into stories that are now at the heart of my book, The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation and Leadership.   

The older I get, though, and the more I wrestle with the beliefs I hold dear – like the value of meaning-making – the more I am able to hold space for the realization that, even in the most beautiful concept, there lurks the possibility of a shadowy underbelly.

Yes, there is a shadow side to meaning-making. Perhaps multiple shadows, in fact. 

For one thing, meaning-making can be a form of spiritual bypassing. If we rush too quickly to find the meaning in something, if we try to transcend the pain by choosing hopefulness and meaning, then we can rush past the deeper work we might need to do, we can gaslight ourselves into ignoring the harm that’s being done to us, and we can stuff down the hard emotions that need to be felt and released instead of stifled. (I, for example, have ignored abuse and gaslighted myself because I was striving to find meaning in it.)

Beyond simply doing harm to ourselves, spiritual bypassing like that can allow injustice and harm to continue unabated. It’s like a free hall pass for abusers. If, for example, Holocaust survivors were only focused on their own meaning-making and rushed too quickly past the injustice, then those who perpetrated the harm would not have been held accountable, the culture that allowed that harm in the first place wouldn’t have changed, and the same harm would continue to be done in the future.

There’s another shadow to meaning-making, and that’s something I see happening in the midst of this pandemic. 

Unless it has healthy roots, the meaning that a person makes of a situation, that helps that person cope with it, might cause them to make bad decisions and might also be harmful to other people. Especially if that meaning is rooted in delusion or half-truths, it can put people directly at risk.

All of us are trying to make meaning of the pandemic. When there is disruption, we make meaning of that disruption in ways that help us maintain what feels important to us – our identity, our relationships, our stability, and our sanity. We search for answers from the media, from the experts, from our politicians, from our communities – whatever voices we trust to help us land on the meaning that makes the most sense.

For many, a random pandemic that can’t be traced to a particular source, that spreads across the globe in unpredictable patterns, and that causes a wide range of symptoms (or lack of symptoms) without a lot of rhyme or reason, feels far too nebulous and complex and scary. It’s hard to defend yourself against it, it’s so complicated that even the world’s best scientists are still struggling to understand it, and there’s nobody to blame for it. It just doesn’t make sense. We want things to make sense.

Especially for those with high anxiety and resistance to chaos because of the trauma of the past, it’s easier to make sense and order out of something (and therefore know how to respond to it) when you can pinpoint an enemy, when there are clear facts that you can cling to, when there’s a clear plan of attack, and when there’s an authoritarian leader who can be trusted to vanquish the enemy.

In a vacuum such as this, when there are so many unknowns and there seems to be so little meaning in all of the hardships we face, we see sometimes desperate and sometimes nefarious attempts at meaning-making bubbling to the surface. Perhaps this is the Universe giving us an opportunity to stop flying so many places so we reduce greenhouse gases. Perhaps there is an evil mastermind who created the virus as a way to frighten and control people and then inject them with tracking devices when they rush to get vaccines. Perhaps it’s tied to 5G technology. Perhaps this is a moment where a cultural reset is being called for. Perhaps there’s an evil cabal of wealthy elites who are feeding off of the blood of frightened children. Perhaps this is God’s punishment for a sinful world. Perhaps governments are colluding to take control of us by making us wear masks. Perhaps the scientists are all in cahoots and the whole pandemic is a hoax. Perhaps there is a hero or lightworker who will emerge to rescue us from this place of darkness.

On a Daily Show video clip, a Trump supporter claimed that the pandemic was created by the Democrats, so that people would be forced to stay home and use mail-in ballots, and that’s how the election was rigged. 

I might not align myself with his particular meaning-making, but I can’t deny that he, too, is a meaning-maker. 

Yes, meaning-making might help us cope and give us hope, and it might help us stay more calm in the face of the uncontrollable things that scare us, but it might also cause us to disconnect from reality, succumb to propaganda and manipulation, and make decisions that cause harm. When we are vulnerable and scared and disconnected from the things that give life meaning, we are more easily manipulated into attaching ourselves to beliefs and communities that give us comfort but ultimately cause harm. For those people who show up at anti-mask rallies, for example, who put other people in their communities at risk, meaning-making is more than just a shadow, it can cause direct harm. 

So what do we do with all of this, then? How do we embrace meaning-making in a way that supports us, but turn away from the kind of meaning-making that causes harm? How do we recognize when meaning-making has become a form of spiritual bypassing or a coping strategy rooted in propaganda, delusion or conspiracy theories?

For one thing, it’s important to avoid rushing too quickly into meaning-making. When we rush too quickly, it’s likely because we’re avoiding the discomfort of feeling lost and not having control over the outcome. That was evident early on in the pandemic, when there was a flurry of people searching for the facts and putting out false information because of the vacuum that existed. There were a lot of people suddenly hosting gatherings and courses that felt like desperate attempts to find meaning in the disruption the pandemic caused.

For another thing, we need to surround ourselves with people who love us and aren’t afraid to challenge us when our meaning-making happens to quickly and/or slips into delusion or harmful coping strategy. We need to develop circles of trust where we can wrestle with hard questions and hold space for discomfort, so that we don’t feel as desperate to find answers.

And for a third thing, we need to develop the practices that will help ground us and resource us when we’re in the midst of the liminal space. Mindfulness practices, body practices, spiritual practices, creativity practices – all of these can be helpful in allowing the anxiety that comes with not knowing to pass through and not control us. My favourite practice right now is my #messycovidartpractice where I layer paint on a large canvas and make a mess of it with my hands. (You can find some of it on my Instagram feed.)

Most of the time, I find that meaning-making is most valuable for the time AFTER the disruption and not necessarily in the middle of it. That’s why, for example, it took me two years for me to write the blog post about holding space at my mom’s death bed. I couldn’t have written that in the midst of the deepest grief – I needed some spaciousness and time to reflect on what meaning the experience at her deathbed had left me with. 

And sometimes, there IS no meaning. Sometimes things are simply random and hard and confusing and chaotic. Sometimes the meaning is simply in the resilience we grow in surviving it.

And sometimes meaning-making is like finding shapes in the clouds – it gives us some momentary pleasure, but it doesn’t change the fact that a cloud is simply a cloud and its shape will change soon after you identify it.

While we’re still in the middle of the liminal space, the best we can do is find the people and practices that help us not to give in to despair, that help us stay present and find things to laugh about, and that help us trust that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel even if we can’t see it yet.  

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For more on how to hold space for yourself in the midst of disruption, check out my book, The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership.

 

Watching the train derail when you can’t get out of the way

photo credit: JP Valery, Unsplash

The workday was finished and I had just picked up my two daughters – one a toddler and one an infant at the time – from daycare and we were on our way home in the family minivan. I was tired and knew that I still had to find enough energy to make supper, feed the girls, and give them the attention they needed after a day away from me. 

There was a train crossing the road, so I stopped at the railway crossing, the second vehicle away from the tracks. Suddenly, a screeching sound caught my attention and I turned to see that the last three cars of the train, still about 50 metres from the road I was on, had come off the tracks and were crashing down to the ground on my side of the tracks. I had only an instant to process what was going on and what was about to happen. The wayward cars were being dragged along by the still-moving train and were in danger of swinging outward to exactly the spot where I sat.

I jammed the van into reverse, but then looked back to see a long line of cars behind me – unless they moved, I had nowhere to go. The railway cars were heading my direction and I was frozen in place, waiting to see if my daughters and I would be crushed by a careening railcar.

Fortunately, the derailed rail cars stayed close enough to the track that none of the vehicles on the road were hit. With my heart pounding, I, and all of the others on the road, turned away from the wreck and found our way onto other roads that would take us home. 

Yesterday morning I was waiting for another train at a crossing not far from where the train derailed and I had a flashback to that moment, over twenty years ago, when I didn’t know whether I’d be able to keep my daughters alive. 

When the tears started to fill my eyes with the memory, I realized it wasn’t just the train I was thinking about. “This is exactly how LIFE feels right now!” I thought. “We are ALL sitting on the road, watching a derailed train barrel down the tracks and all we can do is sit and watch it come toward us wondering whether we’ll be in the path of destruction.”

That derailed train is so many things right now. It’s the pandemic that none of us can control and nobody knows when/if it will touch our families or circles of beloveds. It’s the jobs being lost and the businesses that may not survive the repeated shutdowns. It’s the bank accounts careening toward empty as a result. It’s the changing climate. It’s the racial injustice and the pain and trauma of BIPOC people and the rising tension because there seems to be no sign of the systemic racism and related deaths coming to an end. It’s the coming U.S. election which is causing so much fear not only because a misogynist bully might win again and continue to wreak havoc, but because there is a very real threat of serious disruption and possible violence as a result of the election outcome. It’s a Supreme Court in the U.S. that is now dangerously tipped against the rights of LGBTQ+ people and the reproductive rights of women. 

Many of us, in fact, are at an intersection where multiple derailed trains are coming at us at once and we don’t know which one will wreak the most havoc. For a person of colour in the U.S., for example, or a person with a disability at greater risk because of the pandemic, there are converging trains coming down the track at once.

I don’t write this to be a doomsday prophet or town crier shouting about the end of the world. (I can already imagine the emails I might get from those who want me to post more “positive thoughts” so I don’t “attract” those runaway trains.) I write it to acknowledge that we are in a strange and complex liminal space and none of us has any control over the outcome and in some moments the only thing we can see on the horizon is sure disaster. This is where we are. This is the complexity of the liminal space the world is in right now, and if you are afraid or angry or overwhelmed, you are not alone. And you are not “doing it wrong”. You are human, with real human emotions. And I will never, ever shame you or gaslight you or offer you any spiritual bypassing cliches that would suggest you shouldn’t be having these feelings right now. I’ve been on the road watching that derailed train come toward me and my children – I know how it feels to be powerless in that moment. 

That moment isn’t the end of the story, though. I survived it. And my daughters did too. And trains don’t stay forever off the rails. And moments of terror pass. And even if there is destruction, those of us left behind figure out how to pick up the pieces, and we carry on. And we get stronger. And we discover our own courage and resilience and we turn toward each other and we share the stories and admit our fears so that we can help each other survive. 

And then one day, more than twenty years later, we sit at another train track, where a train passes us smoothly and we remember that we survived. And we are grateful to still be alive and to be able to continue to parent those little girls who are now adults. And we might cry a little, because it feels like another train is coming at us from another direction, but we remember that we have the capacity to survive and that trains pass. Even the derailed ones. 

Here’s what I want to say to you if you’re sitting there, feeling helpless, as the derailed train is coming toward you and your beloveds.

1. Recognize the trauma response. Your body has within it the capacity to respond to moments of threat and stress in what it senses are the right ways to protect you. When the pressure is intense, your amygdala kicks into gear and takes over your brain functioning and nervous system, raising your adrenaline so that you are ready for the flight, flight, freeze, or tend-and-befriend. This quick reactivity serves an important purpose, but it also comes with a cost. For one thing, it makes it very difficult for you to engage the other parts of your brain that are more rational and calm. For another thing, when the trauma from your past is still present in your body, you’ll have a tendency to respond the same way even when the threat isn’t immediate, or isn’t as dangerous as your body senses it to be. That means that, in times of high intensity, especially when multiple trains seem to have become derailed at the same time, you might regularly find yourself with a flooded nervous system and a diminished capacity for calm and rational thought. And sometimes you might even find yourself suffering from adrenal fatigue when your nervous system has been functioning at high alert for too long. Give yourself a break if you’re not able to accomplish much right now or if you seem to be over-reactive to every stimulus. Speak gently to yourself the way you would to a frightened child. Practice soothing yourself with tactile items, gentle touch, or time in nature. Consider seeing a therapist or seek out the medical and/or psychological support you need. 

2. Remember the impermanence of every state. It gives me great comfort to recognize that no emotion ever stays forever. It lets me feel even the intense emotions with a little more ease and presence because I know that they will pass. Fear, grief, overwhelm, anger – none of them are sustainable in the long term and so they will all fade away eventually and you will find yourself in other emotional states that are less exhausting. Yes, they may cycle through you again and again, especially in times of stress or tragedy, but you can practice holding them with more mindfulness and awareness, watching them come, holding space for them for a moment, and then watching them leave. Your emotional state does not own you and you can allow whatever shows up to pass through you without becoming overly attached to it. 

3. Find outlets that help you release the emotions and the impacts of the trauma. If you need to scream, scream (perhaps in a place where you won’t alarm the neighbours). If you need to cry, cry. If your body feels shaky, let it shake. If you need to laugh until you cry, then do that. If you need to punch something, make sure it’s a pillow and not the face of someone you love. If you need to break something, find your least favourite mug and throw it against a cement wall. Emotions that threaten to overwhelm you need a healthy outlet so that you don’t hurt anyone (including yourself) with them. And trauma that is not physically released from your body has a greater chance of staying locked inside. Sometimes wild dance movements help. Sometimes swinging a hammer or using power tools helps. Sometimes making messy art helps. Sometimes just watching a sad movie and letting your tears flow helps. Emotions that get stuck inside of us will find less healthy ways of showing up later. 

4. Find stillness. As I mentioned above, intense emotional states aren’t sustainable, and worry and fretting are among those that we need to let go of when they’re ready to pass. It’s hard to let go of that kind of frenetic energy, though, if we stay in the frenetic space that feeds the worry. Step away from your computer for awhile. Stay off social media one day a week or turn it off at 7 p.m. Don’t check the news first thing when you wake up. Limit the number of conversations you engage in online, especially if there are some that cause you anxiety and discomfort. Unfollow people whose feeds are full of doom and gloom. Pick a comfortable chair in your home that is the no-electronics zone and leave your phone in another room every time you curl up in that chair. Or designate your backyard a no-tech area. Find the places that give you some measure of peace and visit them regularly. 

5. Lean into love. Even though we can’t spend as much time in the same physical spaces as the people we love, this is a time when we need connection and community more than ever. This is a time when we need to rely on each other and find the spaces where we can be authentic and vulnerable with people we trust. Lean into that. Reach out to your friends and host Zoom dates. Go for walks in the park together. Send a small gift to someone who’s special to you. Find a way to offer love and that love will come back to you in some way or another. Notice who’s in the most direct line of the oncoming train (i.e. who will be the first to be impacted by the disaster?) and find a way to support them or advocate for them. And if you need mental health support, call a help line or ask around to find a therapist or support group. You are not in this alone. Collectively, we have more capacity to weather derailed trains than we do alone.

6. Know that you are resilient. This too shall pass. You have survived hard things in the past and you will survive hard things in the future. And each hard thing you survive gives you additional resources to help you survive the next one. Trust that you have the strength and resilience to weather this storm. Trust that your emotional muscles will grow under the strain of this new weight. Trust that even those who lose limbs learn to dance again.

Perhaps next year, when we find our way through the rubble of the derailed trains, and we can touch each other again, we’ll lean on each other, we’ll hold up the most wounded, and we’ll do the dance of the wobbly yet resilient.  

If you want to learn more about how to hold space for yourself and/or others, check out my new book, The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership.

What if we show the mess?

photo credit: Andy Holmes, Unsplash

I didn’t rake the leaves off the lawn this Fall. My climate activist daughter regularly sends me articles about how the dead leaves create biodiversity in the backyard, serving as places for insects (including pollinators) to hibernate, and then, in the Spring, bringing more birds and flowers to the yard. As for the leaves I needed to clean off the patio and walkway – I built a backyard composter where they can rot into food for the soil.

The neighbours on both sides of my yard raked their leaves, so there’s a clear line between their property and mine – crunchy leaves on one side, grass on the other. 

As much as I believe in more healthy symbiosis with the natural world, I will admit I struggled with the decision not to rake. Nobody wants to be THAT neighbour – the one whose cluttered yard is talked about in whispered tones because of the way it brings the property values down. Though I don’t need it to be pristine, I wanted it to be at least as orderly as the neighbours’. (Somebody in our neighbourhood once gave their next-door-neighbour $500 to temporarily clean the clutter from the yard while their house was up for sale.)

I recognize how vain this makes me sound – that I would make decisions that could negatively impact the environment based on what the neighbours think. But it’s the truth, isn’t it? Even when we pretend we’re not paying attention to our neighbours, friends, and family, we’re always at least somewhat aware of the ways that we stand out, the ways we’re seen as odd, and the ways we’re judged for not having our lives together. We do it in our neighbourhoods, at our schools and workplaces, and online. We don’t really grow out of our childhood need to fit in.

But change doesn’t happen until someone is willing to be the outlier, and so I’ll leave my leaves and if they ask about it, I’ll tell them about the insects and the birds. And if my leaves blow onto their lawns, I’ll offer to rake them back onto mine.

This decision, while a minor one in the grand scheme of things, is making me think about the many ways that we choose to hide our messes so that the neighbours don’t see them and so that we conform to the (often unspoken) collective norms and expectations of the places where we live and work. Even if our lives are messy behind closed doors, we want to project the appearance of having shiny, happy, orderly lives. 

It’s a cultural thing (especially in wealthier western countries), it’s a neighbourhood thing (especially in the suburbs), and it’s a capitalist thing (especially among those who want others to see that they have the kind of success that is valued within capitalism). In an era of social media, it’s even more prevalent, because we are always peeking into the virtual windows of other people’s curated lives. (Be honest – how often have you moved things out of the frame before you’ve taken a photo to post on social media? The pressure is real, isn’t it?)

On an interview for a parenting podcast, recently, the interviewer asked me to speculate on why, when change is such a constant in our lives, so few of us are truly equipped to handle change in our lives. My answer was some version of this… “Change comes with disruption and messiness. And we have been led to believe, in our culture, that truly successful lives are those without the messiness. When the mess shows up, and we don’t have control over it, we assume we must be doing something wrong.” 

We are always comparing our own lives to the curated versions of other people’s lives. If they don’t show their messes, we assume that they don’t HAVE messes. But they do. We all do. Life is messy. We break things. We spill things. We hurt people. We get hurt. We get overwhelmed and incapable of the simplest tasks. We get triggered back to the less mature versions of ourselves. We get resentful of our kids who NEVER clean up after themselves. We get angry with ourselves because “WHY didn’t we teach our kids better?!” We get depressed. We get anxious. We fumble. We fail. ALL OF US.

What if we showed more of that messiness? What if we divested ourselves of the toxic values systems of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy and we stopped trying to perform to some ridiculous and unreachable standards of perfection? What if we let our bulges spill out over our jeans, left our leaves on the lawn to make happy homes for the critters, left the dirty dishes in the sink when we’re taking photos to share on Instagram, and let people know when it feels like the world is crushing us? What if we agreed to no longer play by the rules that place value on curated lives? What if we invited people into our homes even when we haven’t dusted the furniture in weeks (and then didn’t apologize)? What if we wrote letters to all of the marketers who try to tell us our lives aren’t good enough and we told them we’ll never buy anything from anyone who markets from that kind of manipulative, scarcity mindset?

Maybe then we’d nap more, play more, eat more, and laugh more. Maybe then we’d crawl around on our hands and knees and stare at the pretty bugs gathering under our scattered leaves.  Maybe then we’d lean into new ways of being in relationship, where value is placed on presence and not perfection. Maybe then we’d be less hard on ourselves and we’d smile at ourselves when we look in the mirror. Maybe then we’d wake up and realize how much we’ve been manipulated into the kind of shame and self-judgement that keeps us from being real. 

People often ask me why it’s so hard to hold space for other people when they’re going through the mess of the liminal space, and I usually say “When you can become more comfortable with your own mess, then you can become more comfortable with other people’s messes. When you stop seeing yourself as someone who needs to be fixed, then you’ll stop trying to fix other people. And when you stop believing that you only have value when you’re DOING something productive and meaningful, then you’ll become better practiced at simply BEING with another person.”

There is a LOT of value in being the kind of friend who is unphased by the mess, who can sit with someone and deeply listen, seeing through to their heart without being distracted by the things that are out of order. There is a LOT of value in being silent when someone simply needs a listening ear and not advice. There is a LOT of value in your presence and your acceptance and your love. And yet… so often we overlook that value and only focus on the value of that which feels more active, productive, and “useful”.

Another question I’ve been asked a few times on interviews recently, and which seems related, is “What about cancel culture? Can we truly have deep and meaningful conversations, and wade into conflict (especially online), when we’re all afraid of saying the wrong thing and being canceled?” Here are my thoughts on cancel culture… It wouldn’t exist if we didn’t live in a culture rooted in capitalism and patriarchy that has placed so much value on perfectionism, ease, order, and power. If we hadn’t developed this skewed belief system that, with the right work ethics, the right thoughts, the right courses, the right purchases, and the right intentions, we can all have perfect, easy lives, we wouldn’t be at risk of being ‘canceled’. 

If we all showed our messes more regularly, then we wouldn’t have these ridiculous and unattainable standards of perfection that lead to inevitable failure. If we were open and honest about our fumbling and failure, took responsibility for the harm we’ve done, made amends, and didn’t have so much fear of having our messes exposed, then we would no longer be at risk of being torn off the hollow pedestals that were never meant to hold our weight in the first place. 

Take J.K. Rowling, for example – I believe that if she had truly listened, early on when she was first challenged about trans rights, and that she’d been willing to fumble in her attempts to understand what she was being challenged with (and make necessary repairs), then I don’t think there would have been so many people ready to tear her down. We tear down those who don’t live up to our expectations of perfection – expectations that have been skewed by our celebrity-worshiping, humanity devaluing culture. We also tear down those who don’t take responsibility for messing up.

We are not meant to be perfect people. None of us are – not even the celebrities our culture elevates to ridiculous heights. We’ve been manipulated into striving for that perfection, believing it’s attainable, idolizing it when we see glimpses of it in others, and spending more and more of our time and money trying to at least create the illusion that we are close to it.

It’s all a lie. It’s a messed-up fairytale that you’ve been taught since childhood so that you’ll spend more of your money on useless things and abdicate your power to those you believe have greater value than you do.

It’s time to divest of those belief systems and the cultural systems that prop them up. It’s time to live more honest and messy lives. It’s time to stop trying to fix ourselves and other people. It’s time to stop spending our money on things that don’t truly bring us joy. It’s time to stop changing our bodies to meet some ridiculous standards of beauty.

It’s time to let our leaves rot so that they can nourish new life.  

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If you’d like to learn more about how to live with the messiness of life and hold space for yourself and others in the midst of it, there is still time to sign up for the Holding Space Foundation Program that starts next week.

The trauma memories my shoulder holds (and the alchemy of rewriting the narrative)

photo credit: vladimir kozhevnikov, unsplash

listen to me read this post…

A few weeks ago, my shoulder started to ache. My right shoulder has become a bit of a barometer for my emotional state. Specifically, it tends to ache when there are trauma memories being triggered by a particular season or event.

Three years ago, I broke this shoulder on a day when my body was trying to process a couple of traumatic events at once. On the afternoon of that day, I’d had a hard conversation with a couple of dear friends with whom some conflict had arisen. I came off a Zoom call feeling tense and anxious, knowing that the conflict hadn’t been fully resolved. Then, only minutes after the call, my former husband, who’d dropped in to pick up my daughter for a quick errand, brought up some abusive behaviour he’d been guilty of during our marriage and – out of the blue – he wanted absolution for it. I wasn’t ready to process the weight of what he suddenly dropped in my lap, or the casualness with which he brought it up, and my body tensed up even more as my fight/flight/freeze reactivity kicked in. 

After that, while trying not to reveal the chaos spinning around in my brain, I took my daughters out for a promised restaurant meal. Though I tried to put on a brave front, my body simply couldn’t fully relax. When I got home, I did the only thing I could think to do in the state I was in – I ran the bathtub full of hot water and added Epson salt. Then – because I was fairly certain I’d need to cry in the bathtub – I locked the door and climbed in.

Unfortunately, one of my daughters was going out that evening and needed her makeup from the bathroom. Somewhat resentfully, I stood up and reached for the bathroom door. Suddenly, because the doorknob was really too far to safely reach from the bathtub, my feet slipped out from under me and I slammed to the floor, twisting my outstretched arm in a manner it wasn’t meant to twist. It was broken, in a way and place that’s tricky to heal, and I had to live with pain for about a year after that.

And that’s how trauma and my aching shoulder became so closely intertwined. It was trauma that put my body into a tense state, which I’m certain resulted in the fall. And now it’s trauma that brings the ache back. When it aches, I’m learning to pay attention to what my body might be needing.

At first, I wasn’t sure why it started aching a few weeks ago. I was feeling relaxed and happy after taking some much-needed time for self-care and family-care during the month of August, and I was excited about my upcoming book launch. Trauma was far from my mind.

But then the memories started to flood back. First, it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of my former husband’s first suicide attempt (which I wrote about in a recent blog post on the Centre for Holding Space website). Then, just a few days later, it was the twentieth anniversary of the day my son Matthew died and was born (in that order). 

Just two days later was my book launch. While I was processing all of those memories, I also had to prepare to share my book with the world and do several media interviews about the book.

I chose that book launch date a long time ago, not remembering, at the time, that it would be happening in one of the most difficult weeks of the year for me. Now, when it was about to happen, I was beginning to regret not paying more careful attention to the calendar.

And yet… even as I was struggling to keep my head up when my body wanted to shut down… I started to consider that perhaps this was the PERFECT week to launch a book about holding space. What better time to talk about trauma and grief and overwhelm and boundaries and relationships than in the middle of a week that represents SO MUCH of my learning in those areas?

In fact, those two narratives – the death of my son and the suicide attempts of my former husband – are two of the primary narratives in the book because they shaped me in ways that few other events ever could. They taught me how to survive disruption and chaos. They taught me what it’s like to go through the depths of liminal space. They taught me how to strengthen my boundaries and how to be more clear about my own needs and limitations. They taught me about spiritual bypassing, and about all of the ways that we tend to hijack space instead of hold it. They also taught me about the importance of community.

This book would not exist without those two narratives. It would not exist without the trauma that still holds a place in my body. It would not exist if I hadn’t learned what those two events taught me about resilience and grace and strength and mindfulness.

As I prepared for my book launch, I realized that possibly one of the subconscious reasons why I’d picked that date was because I wanted to write a new memory for my body to hold when next September rolls around. No, my body might never let go of the memory of those traumas, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t hold joy and pride and gratitude simultaneously. 

This is one of the greatest survival skills I have learned from the traumas I’ve experienced: After the trauma settles and you have the space to work on healing it, make meaning of the trauma so that you can practice holding it differently. Tell the story of it, again and again, as much as you are able, so that the story takes a new shape in your life and it becomes less and less destructive. Turn it into paintings and dances and songs and blog posts. Mold it into shapes with clay or play doh. Play with it and move with it and teach your body that it can hold it with more lightness and ease. Talk about it in sharing circles and coffee dates with friends. Release it out into the world so that it doesn’t take the shape of shame or resentment in your life.

Your trauma is not the end of the story. In fact, it can be a new beginning. You have the capacity, like an alchemist, to turn it from pain into triumph. You have the capacity to transform it into a gift that you can offer other people who, some day in the future, might experience a similar trauma. You have the capacity to make it into music.

For me, this book marks a milestone in the relationship with my trauma. Like a potter with my hands in the clay, I have worked with those stories again and again, kneading and re-shaping them until they were ready to be offered to the world as gifts. No, that doesn’t mean that my body will forget or that I can stamp “healed” on all of my past wounds, but it means that I can hold it all more lightly than I ever could before, and I can trust that the meaning I’ve found in it all will make its way to those who need it.

This is the beauty and complexity and messiness of being human. We are molded by our trauma, but then we get to turn around and mold that trauma into meaning and gift so that it doesn’t control or imprison us. 

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Want to learn to reshape your trauma and to hold space for yourself and others in a deeper way? Join us in a few weeks when we begin the next session of the Holding Space Foundation Program.

photo credit: Vladimir Kozhevnikov, Unsplash

Contraction and expansion: Sometimes you have to get smaller before you get bigger

the art of holding space

So… I’m launching a book. From my bedroom. Sigh.

I had high hopes for what this season of my life would be. Back in late 2019, when I settled on September 29th as the date my book would be launched into the world, I was imagining myself heading out on an extensive trip, connecting with my friends and readers around the world. I wanted to fly to Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands to spend time with the many people I’ve met there in the last few years, people who helped me shape the ideas in the book. I even contemplated getting a camper van and setting out for a long road trip, crisscrossing North America. 

Back then I thought the timing was PERFECT – my youngest daughter would have graduated from high school, likely one or two of my daughters would have moved out, and I would be much less needed on the homefront. I could go away for more extended periods than I have in the past.

But, alas. COVID-19 hit. And here I am, at home, spending endless hours on Zoom instead of hugging the people I want to hug and passing my book from my hand to theirs.

Not only am I stuck at home, but all three of my daughters are here too. This year, all four of us will be working or studying from home (even though one is going to university halfway across the country). Our house isn’t very big! We’re having to get creative about finding spaces for everyone to work. (If you follow me on social media, you might have seen the desks I built for them.) We’re hoping we still like each other in a year. 

I’ve been feeling some grief about the loss of my book tour. At first, the grief simply felt like inertia – I just couldn’t motivate myself to plan a book launch on Zoom when I’ve already spent more time on Zoom this year than most people will do in a lifetime. And then I recognized it for what it was – grief. 

I had to process that grief, and one of the ways I did that was to get out my power tools, buy some wood, and build things. 

Something occurred to me while I was building… Sometimes you have to get smaller before you get bigger. Sometimes you have to contract before you expand.

I was reminded of the time, almost exactly eight years ago, just before my mom died. It was August and I’d flown to Ontario to co-host a fairly large gathering. I was excited about the opportunity and it felt like it was the beginning of bigger and bigger work for me. I was ready for my work to grow and my circles to expand. Then, like now, the timing felt perfect for expansion.

But then, while I was in Ontario preparing for the event, I got a call from Mom. She’d seen her oncologist. The cancer was back and was too far progressed for any more treatment. The best she could hope for would be six months to a year of life. 

At that gathering, it was suddenly clear that, though I was ready for expansion, what would be needed instead would be contraction. Instead of hosting bigger circles, I would need to spend the next few months in a very small circle – sitting with my mom in her last days of life. 

That’s exactly how it turned out. For the next three months, my work nearly ground to a halt. I was still teaching a class at university, but other than that, my business was barely growing. Instead, I spent much more time than usual with mom. Yes, there was a part of me that was resentful over that fact, but I was also glad I had the flexibility to pivot and turn my focus toward her. I will never regret the time I spent with her and with my siblings, especially in those final days of her life. 

It took some time, after that, to regroup and to refocus on the expansion I’d been hoping for earlier. For the next two years, I plodded along, growing slowly and learning what I needed to learn from grief (it’s always been one of my greatest teachers). And then, two years after Mom died, I wrote the blog post about holding space at her deathbed, and…. BAM… suddenly the expansion I’d let go of two years earlier came barreling toward me faster than I could have dreamed it would. Suddenly my inbox was exploding and my work was growing exponentially. Over the next couple of years, I built the original program that has evolved into the Holding Space Foundation Program (a program that has sold out all five times it’s been offered). Plus I got to teach in Australia (three times), New Zealand (twice), the Netherlands (three times), Costa Rica, and all over North America. It was more than I’d hoped for back when I was in Ontario ready to co-host that gathering.

And the lesson in that is… sometimes you have to get smaller before you get bigger. Sometimes you have to contract before you expand. Sometimes – despite your readiness to rush into the next big thing – the work has its own timing and it asks you to slow down, to wait, to spend time in reflection, to learn a few more critical things, and to accept a pace that you’ll only have the capacity to understand in retrospect and not in that moment.

I don’t know why this is happening again – that I’m now needing to contract back into my own home, into a small circle with my three daughters. I don’t really need to know the meaning of it (or even if there IS a meaning in it). I simply need to do the next right thing, the thing that’s in front of me to do. For now, that will include more Zoom calls. It will also include more conversations with my daughters before they leave the nest (like the ones that helped birth the course on How to Hold Space for Difficult Conversations in Your Family) and more quiet time for writing and reflection. There will be time for learning new things that likely couldn’t be learned if I were traveling for days on end.

Perhaps there will be expansion in the future. Perhaps, though my personal life feels contracted, the book will have its own expansion, traveling all over the globe and sitting with people as a sort of surrogate for me. And maybe that’s good enough for now. Maybe, in fact, it will give people time to read the book and let it gestate before we come together again.

I am open to what will come. I am open to discovering what magic is possible through the power of the internet. I am open to waiting until COVID-19 no longer keeps us contracted and we’ll all get to experience a return to in-person circles and real hugs again. Imagine what that will be like!

I have passed through the grief that was with me for the last few weeks and now I am beginning to dream again. I am dreaming about what a virtual book tour will look like. Perhaps I can still sit (virtually) in some of the circles I’d hoped would be possible, and maybe even in MORE countries than I’d first imagined. Perhaps I can pop into book club gatherings in South Africa or Singapore or Iran. Perhaps I can visit schools or speak at conferences in Brazil or Bangladesh. Who knows what’s possible?!

I wonder, dear reader, if you’ll begin to dream with me? Would you like to invite me to wherever you are, to sit with whoever you’ve gathered, to talk about what’s on the pages of my book? Please reach out with an invitation and we’ll see what’s possible from the contracted space of my own home. And then, maybe next year, I’ll travel the miles to give you that in-person hug.

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P.S. Want to join me for the virtual book launch? Sign up here. Also… order the book here.

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