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.
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.
This 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.
My three daughters are all very different in how they view the world, how they communicate and how they process emotions. One of the most challenging things I’ve had to learn as their mom is that I have to listen to them differently.
One is introverted and takes a long time to process things, so even when I sense that something might be bothering her, I often have to wait a couple of weeks before I’ll hear about it. One is more extroverted and tends to think and experience the world the most like I do, so I often make the mistake of assuming I know things about her before I’ve taken the time to genuinely listen. A third is very private about her emotions and uses humour as one of her ways of processing the world, so I have to listen extra carefully for the subtle things she’s saying underneath the witticism.
I don’t always get it right. In fact, a lot of times I don’t. There are a surprising number of things that get in the way of good listening. Sometimes there are too many distractions, sometimes I’m tired, sometimes they’ve hurt my feelings and I’m resentful, and sometimes I just want them to be more like me so I don’t have to work so hard to figure them out.
Listening takes a lot of practice. Even though we develop our ability to hear while still in utero (unless we’re hearing impaired), genuine empathic listening is a skill that takes much longer to develop. And even when we’ve worked hard to develop it, we often mess it up.
Not only does listening take a lot of practice, it takes a lot of vigilance and intentionality to stay in it. Sometimes in a coaching session, for example, I’ll be in deep listening mode and suddenly something will distract me or trigger me and I’ll have to work really hard to stay present for the person in front of me. I can’t always identify what it was that pulled me away – it can be a body sensation (ie. my throat suddenly feeling like it’s closing, triggered by something they said), an emotional response (ie. my eyes fill with tears and suddenly I’m in my own story instead of theirs), or my own ego (ie. wanting to insert my own answer to their problem rather than wait for them to find their solution). Each time something like that happens, I have to bring my attention back to the person in front of me.
Over the weekend, I asked my Facebook friends a series of questions about listening.
1. What do you think are the best indicators that someone is genuinely listening to you?
2. What do you think are the indicators that someone is NOT genuinely listening to you?
3. When do you find it most challenging to listen to another person?
4. What personal work, self-care, etc. helps you be a better listener?
There were a lot of great answers to my questions. (Click on each question to see all of the responses.) Here’s a summary of some of the things that struck me in the answers:
- Genuine listening can’t be faked. While there were a lot of responses about outward signals that someone is listening (eye contact, bodily engagement, good questions), there wasn’t agreement about which signals were most valuable and there was lots of indication that people need to have a genuine felt sense that the person listening is fully present.
- Culture and context matter. Some cultures, for example, don’t value eye contact. And some contexts (ie. when the speaker has a lot of shame or trauma) require a more nuanced form of listening that may mean no eye contact and/or no questions.
- “Ultimately, a good listener allows the person they are listening to to hear THEMSELVES.” (Chris Zydel) When we, as listeners, interject too much of ourselves in the act of listening (questions, interruptions, too much body language, etc.) we can pull the person away from the depth and openheartedness of their own story.
- Genuine listening involves stilling your body and mind so that you can be fully present. In response to the question about indicators when someone is not listening, several people mentioned fidgeting, checking devices, not making eye contact, looking past the speaker, nodding too much, etc., indicating that when we are being listened to, we are usually perceptive to the body signals that a person is genuinely engaged with us.
- The behaviour of the person speaking strongly impacts our ability to listen to them. Approximately three quarters of the answers to the question about when people find it most challenging to listen to another person were about the speaker’s behaviour (when they are self-righteous, condescending, not willing to be openminded, basing their opinions on propaganda, performing rather than speaking from the heart, etc.) rather than the listeners. Fewer people identified their own blocks (when I am angry, weary, in disagreement, wrapped up in my own stuff, unwell, traumatized, etc.)
- Both speaker and listener have to be engaged and willing to be openhearted for it to work. Genuine listening is a two-way street and it can’t happen when one or the other is checked out, distracted or not being honest with themselves. If the speaker is closed off or defensive, it shuts down the ability to listen. If the listener is closed off, triggered, etc., it shuts down the speaker’s willingness to be vulnerable.
- Genuine listening requires self-awareness and good self-care. When we have done our own healing work, paid attention to our own triggers, and taken time to listen to ourselves first, we are in a much better position to listen to others.
Much of what I’ve learned about both listening and speaking, I’ve learned by practicing and teaching The Circle Way. The three practices of circle are: 1. To speak with intention: noting what has relevance to the conversation in the moment. 2. To listen with attention: respectful of the learning process for all members of the group. 3. To tend the well-being of the circle: remaining aware of the impact of our contributions.
Gathering in The Circle Way means that we slow conversation down and give more intentional space to both speaking and listening. When we use the talking piece, for example, there are no interruptions, cross-talk, etc. Nobody redirects what you’re saying by interjecting their own questions, nobody diminishes your wisdom by interjecting their answers to your problems, and everybody is trusted to own their own story and look after the circle by not taking up too much space or time. It can take a lot of practice (some people are quite resistant to talking piece council because they don’t feel it’s genuine conversation if no questions are allowed), but once you get used to the paradigm shift, it’s quite transformational.
According to Otto Schamer and Katrin Kaufer in “Leading from the Emerging Future”, there are four levels of listening.
- Downloading: the listener hears ideas and these merely reconfirm what the listener already knows.
- Factual listening: the listener tries to listen to the facts even if those facts contradict their own theories or ideas.
- Empathic listening: the listener is willing to see reality from the perspective of the other and sense the other’s circumstances.
- Generative listening: the listener forms a space of deep attention that allows an emerging future to ‘land’ or manifest.
Listening becomes increasingly more difficult as we move down these four levels, because each level invites us into a deeper level of risk, vulnerability and openness. There is no risk in downloading, because it doesn’t require that we change anything. Factual listening is a little more risky because it might require a change of opinion or belief. Empathic listening increases the risk because it requires that we open our hearts, engage our emotions, and risk being changed by another person’s perspective. Generative listening is the most risky of all, because it requires that we be willing to change everything – behaviour, opinions, lifestyle, beliefs, action, etc. in order to allow something new to emerge.
Generative listening not only requires a willingness to change, but a willingness to admit I might be wrong.
For example, when I engage in generative listening around race relations, I have to be willing to admit that I have benefited from the privilege of being white, and that I might be guilty of white fragility. If I am truly willing to listen in a way that generates an “emerging future”, there’s a very good chance I will be challenged in ways I’ve never been challenged before to accept the truth of who I am and how I’ve benefited from and been complicit or actively engaged in an oppressive system.
On a more personal level, generative listening as a mother means that I have to own my own mistakes and listen for the ways I may have wounded my daughters.
Not long ago, I was speaking with my oldest two daughters about some of the past conflict in our home, and I heard things that were hard to hear about how they felt betrayed by me when I didn’t protect them and didn’t help them maintain healthy boundaries. Everything in me wanted to defend myself and get them to understand my point of view, but I knew I would only do more damage if I did that. If I wanted our relationship to grow deeper and our home to feel more safe for all of us, I had to listen to their pain and not shut it down.
A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been nearly as receptive to my daughters’ words. Some of it, in fact, they tried to tell me then but I didn’t listen. Back then, I was still too wounded and didn’t have enough self-awareness to listen well. I would be much quicker to jump to my own defence or to offer a short-sighted solution.
Through the healing of my own wounds, I am much more able to hold space for theirs.
I’ve learned to listen better to my daughters, but there are still some spaces where I have a very difficult time engaging in generative listening. Some of the spaces I still have difficulty with are when I have to face too many of my own flaws, when the person speaking triggers unhealed trauma memories, or when the other person has more power or influence in a situation than I do. I will continue to heal and build resilience so that I am not shut down in these spaces. Some of that involves listening to myself more deeply and finding spaces where I am genuinely listened to.
This is not easy work, and it doesn’t happen by accident. Learning to listen is a lifelong journey that starts with the healing of the wounds that get in the way.
If you want to be a better listener, start by listening to yourself.
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1. Safety – my privilege
The atmosphere was rather festive as my daughters and I made banners for the women’s march. They’re not new to political activism, having been raised in a home where political dialogue is as common as mashed potatoes, but this was the first time all four of us were going to a march together and the first time we were all making our own banners. One chose a Star Wars reference and another chose Hamilton – their pop culture of choice. They dressed up and I teased them with “this is the resistance – not a fashion parade.” They retorted with “Feminism has evolved, Mom. Our generation believes we can look cute AND resist at the same time.”
On the way downtown, we picked up Saleha, a Muslim friend who’s lived in Canada for 10 years. She was excited and passionate about the march – her first political action of this kind.
The meeting place quickly filled with thousands of marchers – predominantly white women, some wearing pink pussy hats, some holding signs. As people gathered, one of the organizers announced that an Indigenous elder would be smudging whoever was interested. Saleha was eager for the opportunity, so we got in line. I stood by and watched a beautiful moment unfold – Saleha opening her hijab like a tent to let the smoke touch her face and her ears, while the elder offered gentle guidance. When Saleha turned away, the emotion on her face told me how moving it had been.
Leaning on a rail on the second floor of the meeting space, we watched the speakers and drumming group on stage. A mix of intersectional voices – Indigenous, immigrants, transgender, and women of colour – inspired us to consider ALL human rights, not just those that have been too often centred in marches like these (able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual white women).
Slowly, the crowd made its way onto the street. As soon as we stepped onto the street, I sensed something had changed in Saleha’s demeanour. I turned toward her. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Suddenly I don’t feel safe anymore.”
“Would you like me to hold your hand?” I asked.
“Yes, I think I need you to,” she responded.
Holding hands, we followed the crowd. Looking around, I tried to find at least one other woman on the street in a hijab, but I could see none. Nor were there many women of colour or Indigenous women. It was mostly women who looked like me – a crowd of white feminists, probably mostly unaware of who was missing. Did all of those other, more marginalized women, avoid the march because they sensed the same feeling of insecurity that was coming up for Saleha?
More than once I turned to her and said “If it feels unsafe to be here, we can step out and leave the crowd.”
“No,” she said. “I want to do this. I’ll stay in it as long as I can.” We kept walking and the stories began to spill. “It’s illegal to protest like this where I come from,” she said. “I once witnessed a friend yanked off the street by the authorities. We didn’t see him again after that.”
“The day after the Paris attacks, I was waiting for a train in Amsterdam when a man shoved his face just inches from mine and started verbally attacking me. Nobody stepped in to stop him.”
On and on it went – the many times she had felt unsafe, just because she was a woman on the street wearing a hijab. The airport security checks when customs officers discovered her last name was the same as one of the 9-11 terrorists, the times she’s dropped her children off at school and teachers or other moms ignored her until they realized she spoke English like them, the drunk man on the street who told her to go back home in front of her children.
“I don’t know why these are all coming up right now,” she said. “Each time something happened, I stuffed it away and told myself I was okay. It was the only way I could carry on – to convince myself I was safe. But I’m not safe. Since coming to Canada, I’ve done everything I can to blend in and to convince people that I’m not a threat. I worked so hard to learn English. And now I will probably cancel my post-grad studies in the U.S. because I’ll be even less safe there.”
More than once, as we walked, she apologized for saying things that might make me, a white woman, feel badly for what people like me had done or said to her. “I don’t want to be somebody who blames white people.”
“Stop,” I said. “You don’t need to apologize. If I am your friend, I need to be able to hear the ways that you feel unsafe around people like me. Even if it makes me uncomfortable, I need to listen. You are not responsible for looking after me in this situation.”
“But I’m not used to this kind of conversation,” she said. “I am much more used to doing whatever it takes to make white women like you feel safe.”
As we walked, I glanced ahead to where my daughters walked, and was suddenly hit with these two realizations:
- I and my daughters never once considered that we might be unsafe on the street. My safety to march is just one of the many privileges I take for granted. So is my safety to go grocery shopping, to drop my kids off at school, and to ride the bus without being verbally attacked. Although there are some places I wouldn’t feel safe, especially at night, I have access to enough privilege (ie. my own vehicle, a house in a relatively safe part of town, etc.) that I rarely have to place myself in situations where I am at risk.
- Although I consider myself to be as non-threatening as a person could be, my white skin and my place within the dominant culture make me unsafe for some people. In order to stay safe themselves, others often need to contort themselves in order to make me feel safe. White women like me might present a particular risk because we’re the ones that the police would probably respond to most quickly if we were feeling threatened.
2. Safety – my cage
My friend Desiree is fierce and bold. She says things on her Facebook stream that I don’t have the courage to say and she doesn’t apologize if people take offence to them. Rather than coddling people, she expects them to take responsibility for their own emotional response.
We are quite different in our communication styles and I’ve often wondered about the many factors that contribute to that difference. I chalk up my more conciliatory, sometimes timid communication style to my pacifist, Mennonite, Canadian roots, but lately I’ve considered that it may be more than that. We may have been intentionally conditioned differently by the patriarchy.
For nearly seven years now, Desiree and I have been having periodic conversations about the ways in which we’ve learned to respond to the world differently. As a Black woman living in the southern U.S., her lived experience is quite different from mine. We’re passionate about many of the same things, but we came to these issues from different directions.
After the women’s march, Desiree and I talked about what the march represented, what happened during the march, whose voices were heard, etc. One of our most profound conversations was about the images on social media that portrayed police officers wearing pink pussy hats at the marches.
“When white women show up to protest,” Desiree said, “police wear pink pussy hats. But when people of colour show up to protest, they wear riot gear.”
We went back and forth about what that meant. Did the police just assume that, because the Women’s March was predominantly white women, there would be no danger involved? Was it a purely race-related difference?
And then, something new emerged in our conversation – the possibility that the police were serving as agents of the patriarchy, keeping white women in line by appeasing them and convincing them they were there to protect THEM from outside forces rather than protecting OTHERS from them. When they show up with riot gear, they’re protecting the community from the protestors. When they put on pussy hats, they’re signalling that they’re protecting the protestors.
And that, we theorized, is one of the reasons that there is fragility among white women (and why someone like me might adopt a more timid, conciliatory communication style) – because we have been conditioned by the hierarchy to believe that our fragility keeps us safe. As long as we are fragile, the patriarchy protects us. When we are no longer fragile, the patriarchy withdraws its protection and we are at risk.
The patriarchy benefits from the fragility of white women.
Women of colour, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of being fragile. They are taught to survive at whatever cost, usually by their own means and without the help of those in authority. They don’t grow up assuming that the police will protect them if they are fragile. They grow up with images of the police protecting the community from them, not the other way around.
This is how the patriarchy keeps us both in line – by keeping us separate and at odds. It’s the same way that apartheid worked in South Africa. The white establishment created fractions between the local tribes, giving some more access to education, jobs, etc. When they were fighting amongst themselves, they did not present a threat to those in power. If you look around at the places where women are gathering to develop political actions such as the Women’s March, you’ll see the same kind of dissension. Groups with differing access to privilege, power, and protection have a hard time hearing each other’s concerns.
(I would add that those police officers in pussy hats and riot gear are also being controlled and wounded by the patriarchy, though they probably don’t recognize it. It’s a flawed system that is doing damage to us all.)
Two more realizations:
- Fragility in white women is real AND it’s tool of the patriarchy in order to keep us silent and weak. If I don’t challenge it in myself, I stay trapped and nothing changes.
- If I place too high a value on my own safety, I won’t risk stepping into conversations that make me uncomfortable and I won’t be able to build better relationships with women of colour and other groups that have been oppressed by the patriarchy.
3. Safety – my right
A few days ago, I was part of a text conversation of another kind. My friend Jo shared that she had been verbally abused in a conversation on social media. She’d been invited into a conversation about whether or not patriarchy is real, and though she intuitively felt unsafe as the only women surrounded by opinionated men, trying to explain something that they had all benefited from, she took the risk because she cared about the person who invited her. She stated her discomfort, but that discomfort was used as a weapon against her to make her feel shame for wanting a “safe space”.
Jo’s story reminded me of the times when I too have felt unsafe, trying to explain sexism or discrimination to those who had more power than me. Several years ago, I wrote a letter addressing some sexist behaviour on the board of an organization I was part of and I sent it to the three men I thought needed to be aware of it. My letter was ignored by one, dismissed by another, and responded to only with a back-handed comment by the third. I was left feeling small and ashamed for “over-reacting” and unsafe to raise any such concerns again in the future.
I know, from listening to my friends who are Indigenous and people of colour, that they feel similarly when white people ask them to explain racism, or when they need to challenge racism in their workplace. It is unfair to expect the people who’ve been oppressed to explain to those who’ve benefited from the oppression. It puts them in a dangerous position where they are often targeted with more abuse for “over-reacting”, “being too sensitive”, etc. Some people even lose their jobs for daring to challenge the system.
Though I have to recognize safety as my privilege and my trap, I also believe that it is a human right. Those who dismiss my safety as irrelevant or who tell me I’m over-reacting and need to calm down are attempting to gaslight me – making me think that I’m crazy or weak for needing safety. That’s how oppressors win.
As I mentioned in my last post, trauma further complicates this issue. Unhealed trauma convinces us that we are unsafe even when we aren’t. And much of that trauma is hard to pinpoint because we may have inherited it or it may have been caused before we were old enough to know what was going on. The fear that comes up when a trauma memory is triggered is as real as the fear we felt when the trauma happened.
Two more realizations:
- Next to air, water, and food, safety is our most basic need. We will do almost anything to find safety, including contorting ourselves in the presence of those who make us feel unsafe. Those who’ve been oppressed are usually masterful at contortion, and if they’re not, they are at greater risk.
- When we have experienced trauma, our need for safety is easily triggered and our bodies respond with fight, flight, or freeze. Often we don’t recognize that we are being triggered and then it’s easy to feel shame for over-reacting. Those with more power usually don’t recognize (or choose to ignore) that they are triggering our fear and our shame because their lived experience is very different.
Note: All three of the friends mentioned in this post gave permission for their stories to be shared.
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It’s often said that “cleanliness is next to godliness”, but in my Mennonite upbringing, it was pacifism that held that honoured place.
From early childhood, we understood that that was one of the key things that set us apart. We were the people who didn’t go to war.
Our ancestors believed in pacifism so deeply, that they were willing to risk their lives for it. Rather than be conscripted into armies, they faced torture and, more than once, gave up their countries to move to where they could continue to practice non-resistance. First they fled Europe for Ukraine/Russia, and then, when Russia turned on them, they fled to North and South America.
On my bookshelf is my dad’s copy of Martyrs Mirror. It recounts the many people in our Anabaptist history who were martyred not only for their faith, but for their stance on non-violence. According to Wikipedia (and I believe it to be true), “Next to the Bible, the Martyrs Mirror has historically been held as the most significant and prominent place in Amish and Mennonite homes.” That’s how high we hold our values around pacifism.
Though it’s most obvious during times of war, pacifism is much more all-encompassing than that. It’s a way of being that affects your whole life. If you believe that violence is not the answer on the political stage, you must also believe that it’s not an answer on the personal stage. Peace must be at the core of all of your relationships. Look into non-violent communications courses, peace workers in conflict zones, and conflict resolution organizations and you’ll be surprised at how many of them have Mennonites roots.
Peace-loving runs deep in my bones. At all costs, we were taught, remain non-violent. Turn the other cheek. Be a servant of peace.
Although my faith has shifted and I no longer attend a Mennonite church, I am still, at heart, a pacifist. It’s a belief system that deeply informs my work. In hosting the circle, for example, I work to create spaces where conversations can happen without violence and where conflict can be addressed peacefully. Look closely at my writing and you’ll see that I rarely use the language of battle. (ie. I prefer to talk about “dismantling the patriarchy” rather than “killing it” or “smashing it”, and I prefer “serving justice” rather than “fighting for justice”.)
Sometimes though, I let my pacifism get mixed up with passiveness. But that’s a mistake. They are far from the same thing.
As my ancestors modelled, pacifism actively serves peace. Though it avoids violence, it’s not afraid to disrupt the status quo.
Passiveness, on the other hand, doesn’t disrupt the status quo. By not standing in the way of violence, it allows it to continue.
When I am passive, I let people get away with abuse and oppression. When I am a pacifist, I put my life on the line to stand with those who are abused and oppressed.
When I am passive, I hide my outrage and pretend I am at peace. When I am a pacifist, I harness my outrage for the cause of peace.
When I am passive, I fall victim to oppressive systems and flawed leadership. When I am a pacifist, I offer peaceful alternatives and non-violent leadership models.
When I am passive, I turn a blind eye to people’s pain. When I am a pacifist, I am galvanized by people’s pain.
Pacifism has strength and courage that passiveness lacks. It’s feisty and bold and isn’t afraid to disrupt. It’s not always pleasant and it’s not always gentle. Sometimes it turns over tables and gets in people’s way.
The more I learn about holding space, the more I realize that it is a pacifist act, but it is NOT a passive act.
Because I talk about non-judgement, humility, keeping our egos out of the way, and allowing people to determine their own outcome, people sometimes assume that holding space is passive. When I hold space for someone, they think, I am passive in allowing their circumstances to unfold.
But that is far from the whole truth.
Instead, holding space is about “active pacifism”. It’s non-violent, at its core, AND it’s strong, firm, and not afraid to disrupt.
It’s not about sitting passively and allowing people to walk over us.
In my workshops, I use the visual metaphor of a beautiful, intricate crystal that some friends gave me to represent the person or group of people I’m holding space for. There is much beauty and capacity to reflect light in this crystal. There is also fragility, sharp edges, and shadow. It has to be held tenderly and firmly.
In order to take my crystal with me to workshops, I’ve created the perfect container to hold it – a small wooden box that I have lined with foam that is cut to just the right shape to hold the crystal.
The container holds space for the crystal.
On the inside this container could be considered passive. It’s soft and malleable and doesn’t resist the shape of the crystal. It allows the crystal to show up exactly as it is and it holds that space for it.
But on the outside, this container is far from passive. It has structure and sturdiness. It holds the crystal firmly in place and it resists those forces that might threaten to destroy it.
Like the container, we cannot effectively hold space for people if we are only passive.
If the container were only soft and malleable, the crystal would be easily destroyed if a rough baggage-handler tossed my suitcase onto the conveyor belt. It needs the strong outer shell to protect it.
That strong outer shell provides a form of “active pacifism” for the crystal. It stands firm in the face of violence and oppression. It is courageous and willing to be bruised in order to keep the outside forces from destroying that which it holds space for.
In order to hold space well, we have to be like that container – soft and malleable to hold the fragility, and strong and firm to ward off outside attack. If we are only one without the other, the crystal shatters.
This morning I listened to John Lewis being interviewed on CBC radio about his many years as a civil rights leader. He talked about some of the violence he suffered, including being beaten by a police officer with a club on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
Despite all of the violence and injustice he has seen, John Lewis continues to be committed to non-violence. “There are too many guns,” he said. “We need more peace. We need more love.”
He may be serving peace, but John Lewis is far from passive. “As a child, I was taught not to get in trouble,” he said. “But then Rosa Parks taught me how to get in good trouble. And I’ve been getting in trouble ever since.”
In can be said that John Lewis is holding space for all of those who’ve been oppressed by racism in the U.S. He is an “active pacifist” for the cause, willing to get into the “good kind of trouble” in order to serve justice and peace.
We’re going to need a whole lot more people like John Lewis.
It is my sense, in a world in which Trump is the leader of the most powerful country in the world, that a lot more of us are going to need to learn how to be active pacifists. If we truly believe in peace, justice, and human rights for all, we’ll need to be willing to get into the “good kind of trouble”.
Passiveness is not an option. Passiveness allows oppression to continue.
Either we hold space with both softness and fierceness, or the crystal is destroyed.
Sometimes grief comes like a runaway truck. You can see it careening down the highway toward you, but you don’t have enough time to get out of the way before it flattens you.
Sometimes it’s a slow moving train, and you’re stuck at the crossing, impatiently waiting for it to pass so that you can get on with your life.
Sometimes grief is a stealth bomber, dropping missiles from the sky and leaving you with an unfamiliar and sinister landscape that you don’t know how to navigate.
This Christmas, grief came to me like a sailboat – not disruptive or forceful, but with a strong enough wake to rearrange the pebbles on the shore.
It came in the dark while I was driving down the highway, on the way home from a full day of Christmas merriment at my brother’s house. It came on the same road where, six years earlier, I told my husband that, unless something changed, I couldn’t stay in the marriage any longer. It came while my daughters were peacefully sleeping in the van behind me. I was glad for the cover of darkness to hide the tears streaming down my face.
There is a unique grief that becomes part of your narrative when you’ve lost both parents and the partner you thought you’d spend the rest of your life with. It feels untethered – like there is nobody holding you to the ground anymore and you have to figure out how to do your own holding. It comes with a unique loneliness – a feeling of separateness – when you’ve lost those relationships at the first level of intimacy and the best that you now have is second-level intimacy. Those people care that you’re there and they love you dearly, but their eyes won’t light up when you walk into the room, and their hand won’t reach out to touch yours in a way that says either “you are my child” or “you are my beloved”.
I’d just spent the day with the people I adore (my siblings and their families), and my van was full of three girls whose love lights up my life, and yet I felt an undeniable sense of loneliness.
It was not unhealthy, this loneliness, nor was it even particularly painful. When it came, I felt no desire to banish it or even to resolve it in any hurry. There is no gaping hole in the centre of my heart; there is only a gentle gap that offers possibility for more fullness in the future.
I simply felt the longing in the loneliness and let it keep me company as I drove.
Longing is not something to be banished or feared. Longing is a friend, a messenger that points us in the direction of our hearts. Like a treasure map, it gives us clues that help us figure out where to dig.
Longing is what helps us make connections – with ourselves, with each other, with the sacred, and with the earth. We are meant for connection, to be in relationships that help us thrive and grow. If we didn’t ever feel longing, we would never seek each other out. We would live in isolation, never building communities, never taking the kinds of risks that result in intimacy, passion and aliveness.
Longing and love go hand in hand. Love grows in the world when we respond to our longing and reach out in connection and community.
My longing pointed me toward intimacy, touch, and deep soul connection.
There are many beautiful connections in my life, and for that I am grateful. But there’s a level of intimacy – both physical and emotional – that’s missing, and that is what my longing asks me to open my heart to.
There are other clues on this treasure map as well – clues that tell me that, in order to find the treasure of intimacy, more excavation will be required. I will need to continue to clear out the emotional clutter – old stories and attachments – that don’t serve me anymore. I will need to continue to heal the wounded parts of me that fear the deep vulnerability that comes with intimacy. I will need to soften the parts of me that keep me guarded and protected.
This past year has included a lot of excavation, a lot of decluttering, and a lot of dismantling of old stories. Now, at the end of it, I feel ready to sit with the empty spaces in my heart – the longing and hunger that comes when the old has been removed and the new has not yet come to fill its place. I feel ready to sit at the centre of the labyrinth – emptied of what I needed to release on the journey inward and ready to receive what has yet to arrive.
With this writing, I am suddenly aware of what my word for 2017 will be. My longing pointed the way to it.
My word for 2017 is intimacy.
What about you? Do you feel a deep longing right now? An ache in your heart that won’t go away? If so, what is it trying to teach you, what connection is it telling you to seek out?
Don’t chase it away and don’t fear it. Let it enter you, let it teach you, and let it point you toward the treasure you have yet to uncover.
If you’re interested in exploring your own longing and want to pick a word for 2017, A Soulful Year may be a useful resource.
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