What I’ve realized after many hours of writing about holding space

I miss writing you love letters, dear friends. I used to write a post every week, then it stretched out to every second week, and now, for the last six months, my posts have become rather sporadic. I apologize for that. I’ve been a little busy.

In that time, almost all of my writing energy has been spent on creating the content for my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. So far (with four out of five modules complete), I’ve created 346 pages of content (plus several videos) for the participants of that program. Truthfully, I had no idea I had that much content to offer on the subject, but it just keeps flowing out of me. I could have written even more, but sometimes I hold back because it feels like I’m emptying a dump truck onto the participants.

Though I didn’t realize I was doing it at the time, it seems I’ve spent much of my adult life gathering ideas, thoughts, and stories on this subject, waiting for the time when it all could start to flow onto the page. Whether I was facilitating a government press conference, gathering with non-profit partners in a village in India, sitting under a tree with farmers in Ethiopia, curled up in bed beside my mom on her last days on earth, or hanging out with my daughters in a campground, I was learning what it means to hold space.

Right now I’m sitting in my mom’s old rocking chair (where she rocked me, my siblings and all of our children), and the floor and bedside table all around me are covered in books related to this work. It looks like my bookshelf vomited all over the room. I didn’t realize, until I started gathering them and pouring over them, how many of the books I’ve been collecting have been pointing me toward this work. I’ve been like a crow, gathering shining bits to build my nest – the container that is the work of “holding space”.

It seems I’m creating my Magnum Opus (Latin for “great work”). I eat, sleep, and breathe this work – and I couldn’t be happier. It’s nourishing me and challenging me and growing me and sustaining me. I took it along on vacation when I was in the mountains with my daughters. I packed books in my dry-bag when I paddled through the Boundary Waters and was occasionally seen reading in a hammock strung from the trees. I rented a cabin by the lake and wrote for hours on end, curled up in front of a fire. I spent three days in an AirBNB apartment in Florida (after my speaking engagement was over) writing and writing and writing some more. I’ve written perched in the tree in my backyard, in coffee shops, in the library, in my bed, in my car, in parks, on planes, at the beach, and in campgrounds. A few days ago, when an idea finally crystallized while I was walking in the woods, I stopped on the path and frantically typed it into the notes app on my phone.

This is what I’m learning as I immerse myself further and further into the waters of this work… it’s a much deeper pool than I at first thought it was. 

When I first talked to an agent about a possible book on this subject (not long after the viral blog post), both she and I were skeptical that there was enough content for a book. Since then I’ve been working with another agent, and she and I have come to a very different conclusion. Not only is there enough for a book, but there is enough for multiple books.

Late yesterday, I finished writing Module 4, on Holding Space for Complexity. In it, I talked about power, privilege, trauma, conflict, and liberation. This is the realization that came to me as I neared completion…

The theme at the heart of the concept of holding space is freedom

We hold space so that we all may be free.

We hold space so that we may be free of judgement, free of fear, free of injustice, and free of discrimination, prejudice, and shame.

We hold space to give each other the freedom to do our hard and liberating soul work, to give each other the freedom to heal our trauma, to give each other the freedom to feel deep emotions and express unspoken needs, and to give each other the freedom to transform conflict and re-write stories of abuse. We hold space for both the darkness and the light, the agony and the delight.

This is it, friends… this is the most important thing…

When we hold space, we create the container for liberation.

What I realized, as I wrote the last lesson of the module, was that the work I’m doing is, at its heart, about liberation. I want to give people the tools to do the hard work of liberating themselves and liberating others. I want to support people who are seeking liberation from shame, violence, tyranny, oppression, fear, judgement, and marginalization.

I want to create spaces where we are brave enough to see and name our own chains. I strive to hold space in a way that supports people in throwing off those chains. And I want to go even further and hold fierce and courageous space where we can name the systems that trap us and name the ways in which we may be contributing to other people’s chains.

I want us all to see that liberation is a collective act – that I can’t get free without also freeing you. 

This is the work I commit my life to. This is what I’m willing to lose sleep over. It’s what I’ll make sacrifices for. It’s what I’ll push through barriers for. It’s what I’ll take to soap boxes and stadiums, living rooms and classrooms, board rooms and prisons.

I am here to hold space for freedom.

And you, my friends, are welcome to join me in the work.

* * *

Note: I’ll be opening registration for the next offering of the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program (which starts in January 2018) next month. If you want to be on the list for advance notification, contact me and say: “Put me on the list for advance notification for the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program.”

Also: If you want to learn this work in person, I’m facilitating two retreats in Australia in October – one on Holding Space for Yourself and one on Holding Space for Others. If you sign up for both retreats, you’ll get much of the content I’ve created for the six month online program. 

One more thing… For some other thoughts I’ve had on liberation lately, read my blog post on what you can do about white supremacy.

How to Hold Space for Children

I swore I’d never write a parenting blog. Parenting feels like a lifelong experiment where the variables, subjects, and researchers keep changing so that there’s never any way to prove your hypotheses. Just when you’ve figured out that “Action A applied to Subject B results in Outcome C”, Subject B becomes a preteen and you get a whole different set of results. Suddenly the evening cuddles are rejected and you’re left sitting in the hallway in the cold.

And then there’s the issue of all of the baggage (self-doubt, fear, trauma, mental illness, etc.) that Researcher D brings to the experiment and suddenly you realize that Action A is never happening in a vacuum and you can’t isolate any of the variables to prove any of the results you thought you were seeing. Researcher D might in fact be sitting in that cold hallway feeling triggered because of their trauma memories of childhood rejection, which means that the cuddles were never just about Subject B.

No, I didn’t want to ever put myself in a position where I was pretending to know something about parenting because I was pretty sure at some point my children would prove my hypotheses wrong and I would have to eat my words. Or sit in the hallway picking up the pieces of my failed attempts.

But… people keep asking me for suggestions on how to hold space for their children, and I’d see the lost looks in their eyes and… well, I don’t want to give them advice, but I want to give them love. And I want to let them know they’re not alone. And I want to at least throw a lifeline in case they’re drowning.

So… what follows is not so much advice as it is a list of things that I find are helpful to consider when holding space for your children. I have three very different daughters, and I have to hold space quite differently for each of them, so these are generalizations rather than specifics. I’m still working on the experiment, so don’t attach any “expert” title to what is offered here. And if my children call to complain that what I say below is not always how I act, let them know that I love them and I’ll keep trying.

  1. Remember that your children are sovereign beings. Your children are not little versions of you. They are not even extensions of you. They are individual, sovereign beings, with personalities that are all their own. Yes, it is your privilege and responsibility to guide them and help them grow into responsible adults, but it is not your job to shape them into what YOU want them to become. Walk alongside them and delight in them as they discover who they are. When they reveal something about themselves that makes you genuinely uncomfortable because it’s so different from you or what you’re used to (eg. they want to move to an organic farm in the middle of nowhere and you’ve always loved your life in the suburbs), meet that revelation with curiosity and openness rather than judgement.
  2. Don’t take it personally. As your child is discovering who they are, they have to figure out who they’re not, and one of the things they’ll discover is that they are NOT their parents. That means that they’re going to need to push back against you sometimes and resist you and argue with you and probably even make fun of what you wear. It’s all part of their development. And it’s not about you. That doesn’t mean you have to tolerate disrespect, but when you discipline them, try to do it out of love for them rather than because you’re reacting to your feelings being hurt. (Yes, I said “try”, because every parent knows how hard it is to not be reactive when our feelings are genuinely hurt.)
  3. Don’t fix everything for them. They’re going to make mistakes. Let them. And then let them figure out how to recover from those mistakes. Resilience, recovery, and adaptability are some of the most valuable skills they’ll need in adulthood and if you don’t let them learn them in childhood, they’ll be much harder to develop later on. And when you’re tempted to fix everything for them, pay attention to what is behind your desire to be the fixer. Is it your ego that doesn’t want your children to look bad because it will make you look bad? Is it your nature to be overly associated with them and you take on too much of their pain as your own? You can stop them when they’re about to make really BIG mistakes (like driving home drunk), but if their mistakes won’t threaten anyone’s lives or cause your house to burn down, step back and allow them to happen.
  4. Don’t overpraise them. I know… you really, really want to encourage them and build their self-esteem and let them know what wonderful little people they are. But you’re not doing them any favours if you heap on the praise too liberally. Children get addicted to the praise and think their worth comes from it and then they can’t figure out how to find their own self-worth within themselves when nobody is telling them how great they are. And overly-praised children may not learn how to receive criticism in a healthy way because they’ve been so protected from it. Sometimes (especially when they get to be teenagers and they perfect the combo eye-roll-lip-sneer), they’ll feel patronized by your praise and push back against it because it doesn’t make them feel better about themselves. Pay attention to when your praise comes from a place of superiority.
  5. Apologize. You’re going to mess up. Every parent does, perhaps even on a daily basis. Sometimes you’ll snap at them because you come home exhausted and they greet you with their everlasting need and you just want a moment to yourself or A LITTLE APPRECIATION PLEASE. Sometimes you’ll use inappropriate humour and you’ll hurt their feelings. You’ll try hard not to do it again, but you’ll still slip up. And then you get the opportunity to model for them what it’s like to be a flawed human and how important it is to take responsibility for and apologize for your mistakes. Your apology lets them know that their feelings have value. They also let them know that it’s okay to screw up sometimes, as long as you take responsibility for it.
  6. Allow them to change. One day your child will love bacon and the next day they’ll swear off meat for the rest of their lives. One day they’ll want to tattoo “Sam is my BFF” on their arm, and then the next day they’ll be deleting Sam from Snapchat and throwing Sam’s birthday gift away. Children change. Every day. It’s hard to keep up. Sometimes you’re going to want to slow down the change, sometimes you’ll be tempted to make fun of them for being so wishy-washy, and sometimes you’ll resent how their changes are affecting your life. Take a deep breath and listen to what they’re telling you without reacting with the first judgemental or frustrated thing that comes out of your mouth. They’re SUPPOSED to change, because growth is what childhood is all about. Let them know they’re still safe with you even in the middle of their biggest transitions.
  7. Let them grow their lives outside of yours. From the day they’re born, a child will be gradually growing away from you. First there will be the time when they want to hold the spoon ALL BY THEMSELVES. Then there will be the time they choose to play with a friend instead of stay home with you. Then there will be the first sleepover at someone else’s house. And on and on until they leave home and forget to call. It’s a life-long practice in letting go. It’s a beautiful and painful thing. Let them go and let them know, from an early age, that they’re allowed to have fun without you, they’re allowed to have conversations that you’re not a part of, and they’re allowed to have space in their lives that their parents don’t enter without permission. It will feel lonely sometimes, and you’re going to want to invade their privacy, but unless you have genuine reason to worry about their safety or health (ie. you suspect they may be doing drugs), allow them the sovereignty and sacredness of their own diaries, their own bedrooms (when they’re old enough to look after them themselves), and their own friendships. Teach them early on that they are allowed to have boundaries and that consent is important.
  8. Shut up and listen. Oh how tempting it is to rush in with our wisdom every time our children say things that we understand better than they do! We know the RIGHT way to deal with a friend who betrays us, the RIGHT way to study for a test, the RIGHT way to talk to an annoying teacher… don’t we? We somehow get the mistaken impression that our job as parents is to teach our children everything we know from our vast storehouse of experience… but more often than not, what they REALLY want from us is listening and acceptance and love. If you’re lucky enough to have a child who tells you when their friend breaks their heart, don’t ruin the moment by rushing in with advice. Shut up and listen. Rather than bulldozing over their feelings with your solutions, let them know that their feelings are valid and that it really DOES suck to be betrayed.
  9. Treat each child the way they want and need to be treated. If you have more than one child, you may be surprised, like I was, just how different each one will turn out to be. My oldest daughter is an introverted marathon runner. My second daughter is extroverted and likes hiking and biking but HATES running. When I had a third I thought she’d come out like one or the other, but she’s another completely different personality with her own complexity. She hates biking, running AND hiking, but she’s a synchronized swimmer and she’s more of an ambivert (combination of introvert and extrovert). All three are prone to some anxiety, but their anxiety shows up in very different ways in response to very different stimuli. Not only are their interests and personalities different, but their needs are different too and I can’t hold space for one in the same way that I hold space for another. Remembering that they are all sovereign beings means that I have to be willing to be in relationship with each of them differently. That can be tough, especially when you’re also trying to be fair and equitable.
  10. Learn with them. Your children are going to bring challenges and adventures and learning opportunities into your life that you never imagined before. Don’t pretend you’ve already got it all figured out – learn with them. Get down to their level and figure out how to build a Lego castle with them and then celebrate your joint success. When they figure out technology much more quickly than you do (because it’s bound to happen), let them teach you what they’ve figured out. And when they discover a new hobby that they become passionate about, be curious about it and let them tell you about it, or sign up for classes with them (unless they want to do it without you – in that case, let them have that as their own hobby). And if, one day, your child tells you they are gay (as has happened to me), support them in discovering who they are and let them know that you are open to learning about this part of their identity. You’ll be surprised how much your world opens up when you invite your children to show you the world through their eyes.
  11. Delight in them. This might be an obvious one, but it seems worth saying anyway. Take delight in your children, in what makes them unique, and even in what makes them challenging. Let them know that you enjoy discovering who they are and watching them discover who they are. Surprise them with your willingness to drive across the city hunting for the perfect weird accessory for a costume they’re designing. Don’t indulge their every whim or be patronizing in your praise, but show support for their uniqueness and even their weirdness. Even if it means getting up at 5 in the morning to bike through the rain to the start of their marathon, just to stand there and watch them start, do it again and again and let them know they’re worth it.
  12. Let them challenge, correct, or disagree with you. When your daughter tells you that what you’re saying sounds very passive-aggressive and she doesn’t appreciate it, you might be tempted to lash back at her with “Don’t talk to me that way – I’M the parent here!” (Trust me on that one – I get called on it regularly.) But if you work to create an environment where everyone is allowed (and encouraged) to ask for what they need and create boundaries where they need them, then you need to be prepared for them to push back. If there is truth in what you’re saying, even if it hurts you, accept it and let them know that you’re listening. If you need to take a moment because you’ve been triggered and all you can feel is the pain, let them know that you need to step away for a moment and will come back to the conversation when you can do so calmly. This will create safety for everyone in the household to express their feelings and challenge those who hurt them.

And now, with some trepidation, I will release this to you, with this caveat: I have screwed up in every single one of the above points and will probably screw up again. And you will too. So let’s promise to forgive ourselves and not judge each other and keep trying and keep apologizing when we slip up. Parenting is the hardest job we’ll ever do and there is no roadmap. Every one of us is just making it up as we go along, so there’s no point in beating ourselves up over something we’ve never been taught to do or never been given an instruction manual for.

A messed up parent who apologizes and keeps on loving is better than no parent at all.

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In case you need more support in holding space for yourself and others, we’ll be talking about it at my upcoming retreats:

1. Nourish: A retreat for your body, mind, and spirit. Together with my friend and yoga teacher Joy, I’ll be co-hosting a holistic retreat in Manitoba, August 18-20. 

3. Holding Space for Yourself, Oct. 12-15 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia. (Early-bird registration ends July 31.)

4. Holding Space for Others, Oct. 18-22 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia. (Early-bird registration ends July 31.)

5. Space for an Open Heart, Oct. 27-29 at Kawai Purapura, Auckland, New Zealand. (Early-bird registration ends August 25.)

What to do when your bowl is full

When I spoke in Florida last month, I recounted a story of a time when I was getting too many requests from people who wanted me to hold space for them when I was personally depleted and had to start saying to people “I’m at capacity – you’ll have to find someone else to hold space for you, or come back once I have replenished myself.”

I didn’t think, at the time, that I’d said anything particularly profound, until we broke for lunch and several people came up to me to say “Thank you for offering me that phrase, ‘I’m at capacity.’ I’m going to use that one in the future.”

A couple of weeks later, I was still getting emails about it, and almost every one mentioned how grateful they are to now have that phrase to use. For whatever reason, in that crowd of people who work with young people dealing with grief and trauma, that was what people most needed to hear.

When I teach about holding space for people, I talk about how holding space is like “being the bowl”, holding people gently and firmly, offering them containment and support, but not putting a lid on the bowl so that they have freedom and autonomy. Sometimes, though, that bowl gets full and we have no more space to offer people. That’s when we need a way to communicate to people…. “I’m at capacity.” 

That phrase can mean many things. It can mean that we have too much grief of our own to hold and we don’t have the strength to offer comfort to others. It can mean that we’re near exhaustion from holding space for too many people and our bowl is starting to show signs of wear and tear. In can mean that we recognize it’s a good time for us to “go dark” and not engage in anything but our own learning and growth for awhile.

When we say “I’m at capacity” we are under no obligation to explain to others what we mean. It often feels like a reflex to give a long explanation or over-apologize, but that’s usually a sign that we don’t feel that we deserve to take time for ourselves or that other people have more value than we do. Just like “no” is a complete answer, “I’m at capacity” is a complete answer.

Imagine if we could all wear some kind of symbol – a lapel pin of a bowl, for example, with the ability to adjust the fullness of the bowl – to let each other know how much capacity we currently have. If I see that your bowl is full, I might ask what I could carry on your behalf. If your bowl is empty, I might ask if you’ve got a moment to listen to a story I just need someone to hold space for.

What we often don’t recognize when we are considering our own capacity is how much energy our emotional labour requires. One of the functions of growing up in an era of industrialization and capitalism is that we value money, productivity, and material goods over less tangible things like emotional labour, so we don’t have any understanding of how to measure the emotional labour that may be exhausting us.

For those dealing with depression, for example, it requires an immense amount of emotional labour just to get out of bed in the morning and smile at your kids over breakfast. You will probably reach capacity far sooner than other people. For those supporting parents with dementia, it can require vast storehouses of emotional labour to show up every day and put up with possible abuse from formerly loving parents. Your capacity beyond that will be limited. For those wrestling with addiction, all of your emotional labour is probably going into resisting the next temptation. For those working in classrooms with children with learning disabilities, you may have reached your emotional labour capacity by 3 p.m. and have nothing left to cook a healthy supper in the evening. For those living in poverty or fighting the oppression of racism, homophobia, or ablism, all of your emotional labour might be spent in simply trying to survive in a world not designed with you in mind.

When someone tells us, in whatever language they choose to use, that they are at capacity, we must simply believe them because we don’t know how much energy it takes to live life in their bodies. And when we need to say “I am at capacity”, we have a right to be believed and not questioned for how weak or selfish we may be. 

This summer, I’ll be using that phrase regularly to let people know when I need to step away. If for example, you sent me an email and I haven’t yet gotten back to me, it’s not because I haven’t read it or don’t want to engage with you, it’s because it sometimes takes a lot of emotional labour to get through all of the beautiful and openhearted emails people send me. (Thank you! I always read them!) If you want to hire me as a coach but noticed that my door is closed for the summer, that’s because “I’m at capacity” creating the content and holding space for my coach/facilitator program. If you notice that my response time is slower on social media, it may be because “I’m at capacity” and have gone off on vacation with my daughters.

Try it for yourself. The next time someone asks for something you know will require too much energy or emotional labour on your part, simply say “I’m at capacity.” It’s not unkind to say so – it’s simply a way to care for your own storehouse of energy.

P.S. If your container is full, perhaps you need a retreat to help you hold it all? Consider coming to Nourish in August.

When you find it (on finding home in an auditorium in Florida)

“It’s a long and rugged road
and we don’t now where it’s headed
But we know it’s going to get us where we’re going
And when we find what we’re looking for
we’ll drop these bags and search no more
‘Cuz it’s going to feel like heaven when we’re home
It’s going to feel like heaven when we’re home.”
– From the song Heaven When We’re Home, by the Wailin’ Jennys

Last week, I found home in Florida, and, like the song says, it felt like heaven.

No, I’m not planning to move there any time soon (I’m not sure this Canadian girl could handle the humidity), but I found home nonetheless.

That home was in front of 175 people teaching a workshop on Holding Space through Grief and Trauma (see above photo). I taught the whole workshop, from 9 to 3:30, without any notes (other than my Powerpoint slides) – because this is my home. This is my work. This is the lifeblood that runs through my veins. The next day I taught two half-day workshops on The Circle Way and it was the same.

I know this material and these stories so well, have spoken and written about them so many times, that notes are no longer necessary. I can stand in front of 175 strangers and feel energized and a little nervous but still perfectly at home.

Some people call it a divine assignment, some people call it a calling, some call it your life’s purpose. In some Indigenous cultures, it’s referred to as your “original medicine” – the unique gift that you and only you can offer toward the healing of the world.

Whatever you call it, when you find it, you feel like you have finally come home.

Here’s what I know about finding it:

  1. Home is a lot more beautiful when you’ve taken a journey away from it. I spent many years doing work that didn’t feel like home, but that was all part of the quest that helped me find it. The more work I did that didn’t feel like “my work” the more clear I became about what I was looking for. A few days ago, I heard a chef on The Chef’s Table say that he’s known he’d be a chef since he was 14 years old. I’m intrigued by that kind of clarity, but that’s not the journey that was meant for me. There’s no way I could have imagined the work I do now when I was 14 – I had to take the long journey to get here.
  2. The quest for home will take you through “alien lands”. I couldn’t say it better than Parker Palmer does: “Most of us arrive at a sense of self and vocation only after a long journey through alien lands. But this journey bears no resemblance to the trouble-free ‘travel packages’ sold by the tourism industry. It is more akin to the ancient tradition of pilgrimage – “a transformative journey to a sacred centre” full of hardships, darkness, and peril.” There are many out there who are selling very tempting “trouble-free travel packages”, but what you’ll get from them is an empty shell of what you’re really meant to find in your life. Take the “road less traveled”. It’s risky, but it’s real.
  3. The path through the “darkness and peril” builds your resilience and helps you to eventually see the light. It was when I learned to surrender to the darkness and begin to see the purpose and meaning of it that I finally started to find the clarity I was seeking. I can only teach about topics like grief and trauma and the liminal space because I learned to navigate those worlds myself, and I could only learn to navigate them when I stopped resisting them. Wherever you are now, there is meaning in it and there are lessons to be learned from even the hardest moments.
  4. It all matters. Even those long years of doing work that didn’t feel connected to me mattered. I honed my communication skills writing speeches for politicians and government officials. I learned storytelling traveling to developing countries and telling the stories of the non-profit organization I worked for. I learned how to create enough content for a full day workshop when I was teaching courses in Writing for Public Relations at the university. It may not have been the content I wanted to speak or write about, but those were the skills I needed for what I now do.
  5. A true purpose includes generosity and responsibility toward others. If you live a self-absorbed life, you will be forever searching for the meaning of it. Look beyond yourself to find your purpose. “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how”. ― Viktor E. Frankl
  6. Many will never understand your quest or your purpose. Last week, crossing the border into the U.S., I was held up for an hour (and nearly refused entry), trying to explain my work to a confused border agent who couldn’t find an appropriate category in his big binder full of visa information. I get the same kind of confusion from lawyers, accountants, friends, family, etc. I used to think I just needed the right “elevator speech”, but no matter what I tried, there were always people who gave me confused looks. I gave up on the elevator speech and simply learned to accept that the work I’ve been called to doesn’t fit well with cocktail party small talk or border crossings.
  7. The right people will get it. It doesn’t take long to figure out whether a seat mate on the airplane, a participant at a workshop, or another parent on the soccer field is on a similar quest as I am on. If I speak words like “holding space” or “The Circle Way” and their eyes light up, I know we’ll be able to have a meaningful conversation. In Florida, those 175 people, who mostly support children in grief and trauma, stayed with me through every word. When that happens, it doesn’t really matter how many confused looks there were until that point.
  8. It will take a lot out of you and it will give a lot back. Whenever I finish doing work that really matters – like that workshop in Florida – I am both exhausted and invigorated. Though it flows with ease when I am doing the right work, it is far from easy. It’s true that I didn’t need notes up there, but that’s because I was sharing from such a deep and intimate place of my own stories of grief and trauma that notes are unnecessary. My heart was being poured out in front of 175 people. I do it out of pure love, but I know that this kind of work must be followed by a few days of rest and solitude.
  9. Desire is a guide even when you try to deny it. I had a lot of baggage around my desire to stand in front of a crowd of people speaking of things that were important to me. “It must be my pride that yearns for the spotlight,” I convinced myself. I needed to be more humble than that. I should be happy being in the background. But as much as I tried to deny it, it’s where I felt called to be and now, because I learned to silence those voices that told me I was wrong to want it, I can stand there and feel at home. “To have a desire in life literally means to keep your star in sight, to follow a glimmer, a beacon, a disappearing will-o’-the-wisp over the horizon into some place you cannot yet fully imagine. A deeply held desire is a star that is particularly your own, it might disappear for awhile, but when the skies clear we catch sight of it again and recognize the glimmer.” – David Whyte
  10. When you find it, it’s even better than you imagined it would be. I have had lots of discouraging days along this journey, lots of times when I thought I was deluding myself, and lots of times when I started looking for other work because it was all taking far too long. But now? I can hardly believe how lucky I am. I have moments of pure joy that are unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Who knew that speaking on topics like grief and trauma could be so invigorating? Just as I surrendered to and learned from the darkness and the grief, I am surrendering to and learning from the light and the joy.

After the workshops were finished, I stayed in Florida a few extra days to spend some focused time creating the content for my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, and once again, in my little Airbnb room close to the ocean, writing in solitude, I was home. Because my calling is not to stand in front of a room of hundreds – my calling is to teach, in whatever form it takes, this work that feeds my soul and invites me to feed other souls.

“I’m not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead – ahead of myself as well as you.” – George Bernard Shaw

I hope that you find it too – the place that calls you, the work that whispers to you in your quietest moments. I hope that your own long journey is worth it and that you relish the joy that and healing that can come when you find home.

* * * *

If you need some inspiration, here are a few books that inspired me along the way:
– Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation – by Parker Palmer
– Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity – by David Whyte
– Flow: The Psychology of Ultimate Experience – by Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi
– Man’s Search for Meaning – by Viktor E. Frankl
– Body of Work: Finding the Thread that Ties Your Story Together, by Pam Slim
– Making a Living Without a Job: Winning Ways for Creating Work you Love – by Barbara Winter

* * * *

One of my upcoming retreats might also help you find it: 

1. Openhearted Writing Circle, June 11 – a day retreat in Winnipeg, Manitoba. There is still space available.
2. Nourish: A retreat for your body, mind, and spirit. Together with my friend and yoga teacher Joy, I’ll be co-hosting a holistic retreat in Manitoba, August 18-20. 
3. Holding Space for Yourself, Oct. 12-15 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia
4. Holding Space for Others, Oct. 18-22 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia
5. Space for an Open Heart, Oct. 27-29 at Kawai Purapura, Auckland, New Zealand

Unclear vision and a fragile thread

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

~ William Stafford ~

In order to ensure that Theseus would find his way back out of the labyrinth (which he entered in order to slay the minotaur and free his people), Ariadne gave him a ball of thread that he could unravel on the way in and follow on the way out.

Much of my life feels like a version of Theseus’ journey and Stafford’s poem. I’ve been following a thread that’s hard for others to see, but that keeps me from getting lost even when tragedies happen and people get hurt. Stumbling through a dark labyrinth, I often can’t see more than five feet in front of me, but I can feel the light touch of the thread in my hand that invites me forward.

A conversation with a client yesterday reminded me of this thread and how it has sustained me over the years. She was lamenting the fact that, unlike others who seem so focused on their goals, she could never see a clear vision for her life or her work. She had lots of interests and passion, but couldn’t seem to shape those into a business plan or “elevator speech” that would help her make sense of her work to other people. On top of that, grief had rearranged her recently, so she barely recognized herself some days.

The conversation reminded of the time, five years ago, when I was in a similar place. Back in 2012, when I was still struggling to make this business viable, my mom was dying and my marriage was crumbling. I was afraid, angry, and lost. Any vision I thought I’d had for my unfolding future seemed like nothing more than a mirage that had vanished from the horizon. I’d started looking for part time work, afraid I was failing at self-employment because I hadn’t mastered those things the business experts tell you to do, like envisioning my target audience, having clear goals, or writing solid business plans.

Up until that time, I’d often made vision boards, like many good life coaches do, collecting and collaging visual images that represent my unfolding vision. But that process, like so many others, had failed me. No matter how many vision boards I made, my work still felt unfocused and my future was still a mirage. The pending death of my mom and my marriage only compounded the situation.

Frustrated and angry, and feeling betrayed by the practices I’d adopted and coached other people to use, I turned to destruction. I started tearing up maps. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Tearing up old maps can feel surprisingly cathartic when there’s no roadmap for the journey you’re traveling along. I tore and I placed and I glued. I shredded roads and lined them up with wasteland. I tore up countries and provinces. I cut lakes in half. I destroyed international borders. I had no idea what was emerging, but it felt good to destroy.

What emerged from that was the most helpful collage I’ve ever made – my lack-of-vision board. (The above image.) It was messy and beautiful, with glimpses of the thread I keep hanging onto even when I couldn’t see my way out of the labyrinth.

I’ve never made another vision board since. The lack-of-vision board works better for me – helping me sit in the messiness and practice mindfulness even when I feel lost. The vision board always felt a little forced – like I was trying to bash down the walls of the labyrinth so that I could see where the path was going to take me. Instead, my practice is to hold the thread lightly in my hand and trust that one foot in front of another is the only way to follow the path.

Now, when I look back at the development of my work, I can see that moments like this, when I tore up the map and made meaning out of the mess, were the pivotal moments when my real work was emerging. I was learning to surrender to the liminal space. I was letting go of the vision I thought I should have and letting go of the way I thought I should do my work (in other words, the ways that seemed conventionally acceptable). Instead, I was learning to trust the path as it emerged from the shadows in front of me.

When I coach people now, it looks different from what it did in those early days. I’ve let go of many of the conventions of what coaching is supposed to be and I’ve learned that those liminal spaces are where the really important work happens. 

Many in the personal development field want to rush you through those places and into more productivity, light and positive thoughts, but my work is different from that. It’s about holding space for people while they learn to sit with the questions and work through their discomfort with the liminal space.

I couldn’t always tell you what the thread was, back in those moments when I felt lost and confused, but now, when I look back at the places I’ve been, I can see that the thread was there and it helped me get to where I am now. The thread finally became clear when, after my mom died, I wrote the blog post about holding space that went viral and changed my work forever.

All of that time when I was walking through loss and grief and liminal space, I was doing the hard learning that brought me to where I am now.Surrendering to the experience is what allowed me to develop the body of work that is now emerging in my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. Though none of it felt focused at the time, and, as Stafford says, “people wondered about what I was pursuing,” in retrospect I can see that it all threaded together and made a remarkable amount of sense.

Preparing this program has felt like stepping out of the labyrinth into a clear sunny day.

I had to go through all of that to see that what I was meant to develop was not the same kind of coaching or facilitation work that has become common in the personal development world. It is something different, something deeper – something that doesn’t run from complexity, grief, or discomfort but learns to make meaning of it instead.

This work is counter-cultural and doesn’t always make sense in a culture that values linear progress and simple answers, but it’s clear that it responds to a hunger people hardly know they have. When people finally give themselves permission to feel lost, and they no longer feel so alone in the lostness, there’s a new light in their eyes that wasn’t there before.

I am looking forward to working with the participants of the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, because I know that they will bring much wisdom and curiosity to the work. Those who join me will be people who, like me, have walked through pain and grief and despair and have found the source of their own resilience. They will be people who’ve learned to sit with the questions without rushing to find answers. They will be meaning-makers and mystics who embrace the mystery and complexity of life. They will be those who understand what it’s like to stumble through the labyrinth, trusting that the fragile thread in their hand will guide them through the darkness.

This is not a linear path we’re on and there are no easy answers, but when you follow the thread, you can find your way through. Join me?

* * * * *

The Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program is a new online training program, built in a modular way that offers something for everyone who holds space. Register now for the first session which begins May 29th.

If you are looking for coaching for your own liminal space, sign up now as I will only be receiving new clients for the next 2 weeks. After that, the doors will be closed for several months while I work on the new training program.

Forgiveness and the death of my son

Matthew's clothes

Handmade clothes my son’s body was dressed in after he was born.

If it hadn’t been for doctors’ errors, I would have a sixteen-year-old son.

Halfway through my third pregnancy, I could sense that something was wrong. My body didn’t feel right. “I feel like I have to re-adjust my hips every time I stand up to avoid the baby dropping from between my legs,” I said to my doctor when I called her. “Something feels too loose down there.”

She sent me to the hospital where an intern taped monitors to my stomach and I lay waiting for the prognosis. “Everything looks normal,” said the intern. “The baby is moving well and the heartbeat is strong. I’ve consulted with your doctor and we’ve decided that there is not enough of an indication of a problem to do an internal exam. At this point in the pregnancy, the risks of that kind of invasiveness don’t seem worth it.”

That was the first mistake. They should have checked my cervix.

A week later, I booked some time off work and visited another hospital for a routine, mid-pregnancy ultrasound. The moment the technician turned the screen away from me, I knew something was wrong. The sudden subdued tone in her voice confirmed my suspicion. An hour later, after an awkward call with my doctor, leaning over the receptionist’s desk and trying not to cry, I was on my way back to the hospital where they would now address the problem that had been missed the week before.

My cervix was open. The signals that my body had sent me were accurate – I WAS too loose down there. I was already four centimetres dilated – four months too soon.

After a variety of doctors visited and asked me the same series of questions over and over again, I finally found myself at a third hospital where I was placed into the hands of the only specialist in the city who had the skill to deal with my problem. That evening, Dr. M. spent nearly two hours explaining the situation to my husband and me.

I had an incompetent cervix. Though it had held firmly through my first two pregnancies, like a rubber band that has lost its elasticity, it no longer had the strength to hold itself closed for the nine months it was required to hold a baby in place. Nobody had an explanation – apparently it just happens sometimes. Because it had been open for awhile, the amniotic sac was bulging out of the gap, which is why I’d been feeling the discomfort a week earlier.

The next morning, after a fitful night that included a panic attack after I listened to the frantic sounds of another mother down the hall giving birth to a dead baby, I was wheeled into the surgical theatre where I was to undergo a cerclage. Like the drawstring of a purse, the doctor would stitch a strong thread through my cervix and then pull it closed, simultaneously pushing the amniotic sac back behind the barrier.

After I was prepped for surgery, Dr. M. entered the room with a young intern. It was a teaching hospital, so I was getting used to students following the teacher around. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Instead of Dr. M., it was the young intern who picked up the needle and stepped between my legs.

Dr. M. read the concern on my face. “Often it’s actually better to have the more experienced doctor watching and guiding rather than doing the stitching,” he reassured me. “It will be okay. She’ll do a fine job.”

That was the second mistake. Minutes later, the faces of both the intern and Dr. M. told me something had gone horribly wrong. “Pull it out,” said Dr. M. “We have to abandon surgery.”

The amniotic sac had been pierced by the needle she was using for the cerclage. My water was now broken. My baby was no longer protected. I would probably go into labour soon and deliver a baby too tiny to survive.

To the surprise of all of the doctors, I didn’t go into labour right away. In fact, hours stretched into days, and the baby seemed to be thriving despite the lack of amniotic fluid or protection from the outside world. Dr. M. watched vigilantly, doing two ultrasounds a day to make sure all of the baby’s organs were functioning properly.

After the failed surgery, I had another fitful night in which I wrestled with the demons that wanted to convince  me to point the blame at the doctors. “It’s their fault,” they shrieked in my ear as I fought through the anxiety. “If they had checked you a week ago, or if Dr. M. had done the surgery, you wouldn’t be in this situation, expecting your baby to die at any moment.”

But there was another voice – a quieter voice – underneath the anger and fear. This voice said “You have a choice to make. Blame the doctors and let the bitterness control you, or let it go and choose a more peaceful way through this.” By morning, I had made a choice. I would let it go. Bitterness wouldn’t do me or my baby any good. I wanted to choose life.

The next day, Dr. M. came to see me and at the end of our visit, he paused for a moment. “The intern would like to come see you. She feels horrible about what happened and would like a chance to apologize. Will you see her?”

I took a deep breath. Was I ready to see her?

“Yes,” I said. “I’ll see her.”

A few hours later, she walked into the room. Her eyes filled with tears as she blurted out an awkward apology.

“I know you were doing your best,” I said, “and you made a mistake. I don’t hold that against you. Don’t let this ruin your career as a doctor. Learn from it and keep doing better.”

For much of the next three weeks in the hospital, I felt surprisingly peaceful. I started a gratitude journal and I had many long, luxurious conversations with the friends and family that came to visit. I joked with people who commented on my peaceful appearance that my hospital stay felt a little like being in an ashram – a retreat space away from my busy life that gave me time to reflect on the meaning of my life.

At the end of those three weeks, though, my peaceful state met the crashing waves of despair. I went downstairs for my morning ultrasound visit and discovered that my baby had died during the night. A few hours later, I had to go through the excruciating pain of labour and delivery, knowing the outcome was a dead baby. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done.

As I prepared to go home from the hospital, my breasts filling with milk my son would never drink, I checked in with myself about the choice I’d made three weeks earlier. Now that my baby was dead, could I still forgive the doctors for their mistakes? The stakes were higher – could I make the choice again? Yes, I decided that I could. Choosing not to let go would be to choose bitterness and hatred. I wanted to choose peace and forgiveness. I made that choice again and again in the coming months as the waves of grief came.

IMG_8303This week, I’ve been reading Wilma Derksen’s new book, The Way of Letting Go, about her thirty-two year journey to forgiveness after her thirteen-year-old daughter’s murder. The term forgive, she says, derives from ‘to give’ or ‘to grant,’ as in ‘to give up.’ Forgiveness is the process of letting go. It “isn’t a miracle drug to mend all broken relationships but a process that demands patience, creativity, and faith.”

I’ve known about Wilma since the story of her daughter Candace’s disappearance erupted in the media, five months after I graduated from high school (in 1984). Seven weeks after the disappearance, Candace’s body was found in a shed just a few blocks from her home.

A few years ago, I heard Wilma give a TEDx talk about forgiveness. What stood out about that talk was that, during the trial of the man accused of murdering Candace, Wilma realized that she could not hold both love and justice in her heart in equal measure. Though she longed for justice for Candace’s sake, for the sake of the family that was still with her, she chose love.

After hearing her speak, I reached out to Wilma and we have since become friends. Last year, while she was working on the book, she invited me to lunch to explore the idea of me being a guest speaker at a class she was teaching about forgiveness. Over lunch, she told me about how she had, after more than thirty years of processing her own forgiveness over the murder of her daughter, come to a somewhat different conclusion about forgiveness than what we’d both been taught in our religious upbringing. As she says in the book, it’s a long journey of letting go and making the choice, again and again, to choose love and life, just as I’d done in the hospital. It’s not about denying that you feel anger and hatred or that you want justice, but it’s a conscious choice not to let those things control you. 

Toward the end of our lunch date, I decided to share something with Wilma that I’d hesitated to bring up earlier in the conversation – that my marriage had recently ended. I was reluctant to talk about it for two reasons: 1. I didn’t want it to dominate the conversation, especially when the focus was on her course and her work, and 2. since she was an “expert” on forgiveness and I knew her to be a religious person, I was afraid of what she might think of me for having failed at marriage. (I still carried some old shame about the sin of divorce.)

Wilma’s response caught me by surprise. Not only was she compassionate and non-judgemental, but she offered a simple reframing of a story I shared that helped me see even more clearly why the ending of my marriage had become necessary. She held space for me in the beautiful way that only someone who has walked through pain and has learned not to judge herself for her reaction to it can do.

I realized, in that moment, that I had placed Wilma on an impossible pedestal. For more than thirty years, I’d seen the media’s version of this somewhat saintly Christian woman who had some kind of super-human capacity to forgive the most egregious crime against her and her family. But the truth was much more complicated and nuanced (and, in my mind, appealing) than that. She was, just as I was, a very human woman who’d been nearly drowned in intense pain, anger, and fear, and yet she kept swimming back up to the surface in search of the light. 

Forgiveness, for her, was not a pie-in-the-sky utopian ideal that meant she could live in peace and harmony with all who’d wronged her. Instead, it was a daily – sometimes hourly – decision to let go of fear, grief, ego, happy endings, guilt, blame, rage, closure, and self-pity.

I didn’t get to raise my son Matthew, but because, like Wilma, I chose forgiveness instead of bitterness, his short life transformed mine and his legacy is present in all of the work I now do. That three week period in the hospital with him was not only a retreat, it was a reconfiguring, sending my life in a whole new direction that lead me to where I am now.

At the end of the book, Wilma admits that her concept and experience of forgiveness are still changing and evolving. I’m with her on that. Life will keep giving us more chances to learn.

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