Today, I’m back in the messy part of the story. I’m slightly agitated, slightly grumpy, and slightly guarded. I’m doing my best to interact with people in a way that is as kind as I can muster. I’m pulling back into my introverted tendencies and I’m trying not to be pissed off that some things are not going the way I’d hoped.
No, nothing has entirely fallen apart. I’m just moving through some of those emotions that tend to come up after a week of intense work, hosting a retreat with lots of complexity, and having to be extroverted for a longer period than is normal for me. Plus my eight-year-old computer may have met its “planned obsolescence” death point and I wasn’t planning to replace it while on this trip (but need a laptop to do my work). Hence the grumpiness and annoyance.
Since the retreat drew to a close a few days ago, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be an unfinished story. Today, as I deal with these emotions and this messiness, I am reminded that I am smack-dab in the middle of an unfinished story.
As an author, educator, and retreat facilitator, I sometimes feel the pressure to be living a more complete story – to have things more figured out and less messy, to be living with more serenity and less grumpiness. I sense that people want me to serve as a model for them of what it means to be spiritually grounded, enlightened and “complete” so that they can hope to be that way some day themselves.
The trouble is that, though I have done a lot of healing and growth work, there is still much to do and I am messily human. Each bit of healing and liberation work I do seems to peel back another layer that I hadn’t been prepared to witness before. I go deeper and deeper, and yet there seems to be no bottom to the depths I need to excavate.
At the retreat last week, I used the story of The Girl in the Velcro Dress to help us explore the layers of things that we carry around, layers that need to be explored, healed, released, and/or deconstructed. During each session, I shared a short part of the story related to whatever content we were discussing. As a visual aid for the story, I held up a dress I’d cut out of Velcro that was covered in pieces representing the weight of expectations, trauma, conditioning, oppression, etc. that the girl was carrying (see image). After the third session, I started peeling pieces off the dress during each session, inviting participants to similarly liberate themselves from whatever burdens they bore.
At the beginning of the last session, I held up the Velcro dress that still had a few pieces stuck to it and said “You may think I’m going to end the story now by removing these last few pieces. That’s not going to happen, though. I don’t believe that in real life, we wrap up stories the way that fairy tales are wrapped up. In real life, we stay messy and incomplete. Instead of setting unrealistic expectations, we learn to accept the messiness and let go of any expectations of perfection. No, the girl kept working on the pieces on the dress and I expect she’ll be doing that until she dies. But now she has some tools and resources and she knows how to be tender with herself in the process.”
What’s most important in this work of liberation and tenderness is not that we liberate ourselves of EVERYTHING we carry on our metaphorical Velcro clothing, but that we liberate ourselves as much as we can from the unhealthy rules and expectations of the systems (family systems, belief systems, cultural systems, hierarchical systems, etc.) that placed those burdens on us in the first place. (Recognizing, of course, that while we live in an imperfect world where unhealthy systems like capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy continue on, there will always be new attempts to put things on our Velcro clothing.)
Some of those “rules” are things like perfectionism, performance measurement, and purity – all rooted in systems (especially capitalism) that delude us into thinking we should strive for perfection, that we should punish ourselves for falling short, and that we should hold stories with happy endings as our highest ideal (just as we did when we were children watching Disney movies).
So… no, I’m not a finished story. I still get grumpy, withdrawn and/or irritated (especially after doing big work) and sometimes I take that out on people I care about. Sometimes my old trauma gets triggered and I make mistakes I regret afterwards.
HOWEVER… I have learned to be more tender with my imperfections. I have learned to hold space for myself when those imperfections send me into self-criticism and I have figured out how to surround myself with people who hold space for me with tenderness and without judgment in those times. I have learned how to set healthy boundaries so that I can look after my needs after big work without letting too many people down. And I have learned to soothe the reactivity in me when I fear my fumbling and my boundaries will result in my safety and belonging being jeopardized.
Perhaps most importantly, I continue (in my fumbling way) to liberate myself from the expectation of perfection, and liberate myself from carrying around other people’s judgement.
And now, after writing this on my phone because my laptop isn’t working, I’m going to have a nap. Because, as Tricia Hersey (of The Nap Ministry) teaches, rest is resistance from the grind culture that capitalism left attached to my Velcro dress.
“She was always selfless, sacrificing everything for other people.”
How often have you heard something like that said at a funeral? I know I’ve heard some version of it at the funerals of many people in my lineage – aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents. It’s often the kind of thing we say to praise people once they’ve passed. “How wonderful these people were in caring for other people so well!”
In Gabor Maté’s new book, The Myth of Normal, he talks about regularly reading the obituaries in the newspapers and noticing that what’s said about people in their obituary is often one of the clearest clues about the maladaptive patterns that they developed to survive the trauma in their early lives. Those who sacrificed everything, for example, were taught by their trauma that they didn’t have a right to boundaries and their access to safety and belonging was directly correlated to their acts of service for other people. Those who abandoned their own needs for the needs of their families weren’t given the kind of unconditional love needed to develop healthy attachment systems.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot since I read it, recognizing the truth of what he’s saying. I can see it most clearly in my mom and in what she passed down to her children. She was one of those people who was praised for how much she did for other people and for how selfless she was. We grew up quite used to her always feeding people, bringing wounded people into our home to stay, and giving up her own time for anyone who needed it. On her deathbed, one of her greatest regrets was that she never figured out how to rescue the foster child we’d once had, who was believed to have disappeared into homelessness and drug addiction.
I spent much of my early-adult life feeling at least somewhat guilty that I’d never live up to the selflessness of my mom. When I became a mom, I struggled with a fair amount of self-criticism, thinking I wasn’t doing it right because I wasn’t giving everything up for my kids.
It took me a long time to recognize what Gabor Maté was talking about – that my mom’s selflessness was not necessarily a personality trait that I’d failed to inherit, it was a response to the trauma in her early life. Her own mom died when she was just six years old, leaving her with a gaping abandonment wound – it’s not hard to understand why she spent so much of her life trying to compensate for it and trying to prove, through self-sacrifice, that she was worthy of love.
Sadly, there are deeply embedded beliefs in our cultures around the value of self-sacrifice, which is why it shows up in so many obituaries. We revere those people (especially women) who are the best models of it, and, partly because we all benefit from it and it helps our systems and families to function, we rarely ask the question that Oprah asked in the title of her book on trauma… “What happened to you?” Those of us who see it in our parents and grandparents mostly assume it’s a personality trait and we don’t think to dig more deeply to see it as a maladaptive response to trauma. Many, like me, end up dealing with self-criticism because we feel the pressure to live up to that kind of example.
One of the ways that this Liberation and Tenderness Tour that I’m on is serving me is that I’m spending intentional time looking more deeply at my own patterns, examining which ones might be trauma responses and social conditioning rather than personality traits, letting go of those that I inherited and don’t want to continue carrying, and choosing the way that I want to live instead. Although I wish I’d done more of this work years ago, to avoid unintentionally passing this baggage on through the lineage to my daughters, I am grateful for the years that I’ve been doing it and grateful that I can talk openly with my daughters about it and let them know that I wish for something different for them.
For the last three weeks, I’ve been in Costa Rica staying at my friend Mary’s farm. It’s a beautiful place in the jungle, with a workspace overlooking the river and a magical swimming hole not far away. There is currently a sloth in a tree about 50 feet from where I work, and about an hour ago, half a dozen red-tailed macaws flew over. Yesterday, we spent most of the day in an unbelievably beautiful natural hot springs in the jungle. It feels decadent to be here, enjoying this peaceful time, not having to look after anyone else’s needs but mine, enjoying deep rest, only doing the work that’s necessary and not overextending myself in any way.
Sometimes, the old stories in my head start to replay, and I feel guilty about not doing more, or I compare myself unfavourably to those people who spend more of their energy looking after other people. “Perhaps you’ve enjoyed more than your fair share of pleasure and rest this year already?” the voices in my head ask. “Do you really deserve to be in so many beautiful places this year without making a greater contribution to those who are suffering in the world?”
When those voices come, I pause for a moment to offer tenderness to the wounded parts of me that still think I have to prove my worthiness so that I can protect myself from abandonment or abuse. I know that there are many reasons why the worried parts of me have been so well-trained for martyrdom and selflessness. Not only did it come through my mother’s trauma wound, it’s also part of the way that systems like capitalism and patriarchy have helped to shape me and keep me in line. That’s a lot of baggage to try to unload – no wonder it’s taken me so many years to unload it.
I am determined that, when I die, a different story will be told about me. I don’t want to model self-sacrifice to my daughters. I want them to witness me loving myself and believing in my right to boundaries, rest, and pleasure. I want them to live rich and beautiful lives and to believe they have the right to those lives because they saw their mom claiming hers.
Next week, I’ll be in retreat, here in Costa Rica, in a circle of people who are gathering to explore these concepts of liberation and tenderness. While I haven’t done the resting and pleasure-seeking that I’ve done in order to be of better service to them (because that would still mean I’m putting their needs ahead of mine and only doing it because THEY are worthy), I know that I do my best work when I am well-rested, grounded in my own self-love, and in touch with my internal sources of joy and wisdom. That’s when I offer it from a place of generosity and love, not from a place of duty or sacrifice.
This I now know to be true: when I care for myself, I am caring for the collective. When I love myself, I am loving the collective. When I liberate myself, I am liberating the collective. When I honour my own boundaries, I am also honouring the boundaries of the collective.
It’s been a year. I don’t quite know which adjective to put in front, so I’ll just say that – it’s been a year. A year in which the last of my daughters moved away from home, quickly following her two sisters. A year in which I sold my home, gave away most of my furniture and belongings, put my personal items into storage and intentionally stepped into the liminal space of homelessness. A year in which I set off on my “love and liberation tour”, starting with a few weeks across Canada and then three months in Europe. A year in which I journeyed with a dear friend toward his medically assisted death. A year in which I wrote the final chapters of a book of personal essays in Costa Rica and Spain and then sent it off to the publisher. A year in which I returned to teaching in-person workshops in two European countries after two and a half years of only online work during a global pandemic.
The personal growth and healing that happened this year felt monumental. I let go of some old beliefs, learned to be more and more tender with myself, practiced acceptance in a more profound way, and stretched myself into increased courage.
I’m in a rented apartment back in Winnipeg where my daughters (who live in cities spread out across the country) and I have gathered to close off the year together. My daughters are still all asleep and I’ve put the kettle on for tea as I sit here reflecting on some of the things I’ve learned and relearned this year. Here are some of those things:
Spend time with dying people. Few things in my life have impacted my growth more than time spent with dying people (see my viral blog post about my mom’s death) and this year I had the indescribable gift of walking with my friend Randy along his journey with ALS and toward his death. Our weekly Zoom calls and my two trips to visit him softened me, stretched me, challenged me, and grew me. Sometimes I watched him wrestle with the frustration of what he was losing as his body deteriorated, but mostly I witnessed the grace and acceptance as he chose to spend his final year in joy and connection. On the day that Randy was dying (with medical assistance), I was in Brussels, serendipitously traveling with my friend Brenda who is living with cancer that will likely kill her, and she was able to hold space for me in a special way because she has her own relationship with death. As I become more and more intimate with death, I am learning to be more fully alive.
Accept the fly. In my last visit with Randy, this was one of the final teachings he offered me. ALS had ravaged his body and he had little movement left. He told me about the time he’d been lying in his bed waiting to be moved into the chair where he spent his days, and a fly kept landing on his face. He had no ability to chase the fly away, so he turned it into a spiritual practice. “Can I accept the fly?” he asked himself, and then he practiced simply being present with the fly instead of being irritated by it. I have repeated that question to myself many times since, whenever something or someone is irritating me. “Can I simply accept and co-exist with this person/situation/challenge/inconvenience/etc.?”
Be tender with yourself. The tenderness practice that I started in 2021 has grown into one of the most meaningful things in my life. Being intentionally tender with myself has helped me learn to love and accept myself in ways I didn’t think were possible. It’s helped me cope with anxiety, course correct when I start spiraling into self-doubt and shame, and pause when I’m slipping into the Three P’s – perfectionism, performance measurement, and punishment. You can learn more about it in my free webinar, in the upcoming course Know Yourself, Free Yourself, or in retreat with me in Costa Rica.
“Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” After I listed my house for sale and prepared to embark on my liberation and tenderness tour in the Spring, I got the above line from the Mary Oliver poem, Wild Geese, tattooed on my arm. I wanted a daily reminder to honour what my body most wants and needs, to choose my own body’s version of love, and to let go of the social conditioning that taught me to shame, punish, restrict and ignore my own body while looking after everyone else’s needs before my own.
Let go of things and give them to people who need them more than you do. When we were nearing the end of our packing and purging process, just before transferring ownership of the house to strangers, my daughters and I lined up all the things we didn’t know what to do with along the sidewalk in front of our house, put a “free stuff” sign on it and posted it on Facebook marketplace. In our brief conversations with the many people who came, we heard stories of refugees who’d fled war in their countries, single moms on fixed incomes trying to create home for their kids, and international students setting up apartments for the first time. It felt meaningful to be able to support so many people in creating a sense of home even as I was dismantling the one that had meant so much to me for twenty-four years.
Be honest with yourself. As I transition into this new era, with no dependent daughters living with me, I am asking myself a lot of questions about what I most want and need, what makes me happy, which relationships matter the most, and how I want to live. I am learning to be more and more honest with myself, honouring myself in ways I didn’t know how to in the past. Sometimes this new honesty surprises me and sometimes the choices that come with it don’t make sense to other people, so there is growth and some discomfort involved, but in the end, I believe it’s all worth it. “Tell the truth to yourself,” sing the Avett Brothers, “and the rest will fall in place.”
Wonder, wonder, wander. This is a personal practice I wrote about a couple of years ago and I put it into even more practice in the latter part of this year. First, wonder as a noun… “a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.” Second, wonder as a verb… “desire or be curious to know something.” And third, wander… “walk or move in a leisurely, casual, or aimless way.” (Read more about it here.) I did a lot of wandering in Europe, for hours at a time in several countries, and all the wandering helped me find myself in new and meaningful ways. It also helped my body find its equilibrium.
Stay a little longer in the places where your body feels ease. When I was in Sitges, Spain, a beautiful seaside town that’s one of the most queer-friendly places in Europe, I felt my body relax into the kind of ease I hadn’t felt in quite some time. There’s something about large bodies of water that almost always soothes my nervous system while also making my body feel more alive and vital. Add that to the welcoming, safe feeling of the town, and I noticed a perceptible difference in the unsettled feeling I’d been experiencing since the move out of my house in the summer. Instead of moving on to my next destination, I gave my body the gift of a few more days by the sea.
Fly across the country for a friend who matters. My friend Randy lived on the east coast, thousands of kilometres away from me, but when he told me he was dying last year, I made it a priority to visit him (once in the Spring and once in the Fall just before leaving for Europe) and those are trips I will never regret spending money on. Friendships that are worth flying across the country for are immeasurable treasures and I will NEVER take them for granted. One of the things I appreciated most about Randy was the way that he showed his delight in people, showering them with a special kind of love, and I was glad that I could give that love back to my dear friend in his dying year. Invest in friendships and hold onto the people who delight in you. Those are friendships that help you see your own beauty.
Witness the world through the eyes of someone losing their sight. When I was in the Netherlands, I spent a few days with my friend Cath, a visual artist who is losing her eyesight. Cath is a reflective person (and grief therapist) who’s learning to witness the world differently as her eyesight declines and incorporate that into her art. My time with her helped me to be more aware of both the gift and the limitations of living with and navigating the world with a disability. Cath regularly shares images of the textures and colours that she sees on her walks through the city on social media, and it’s changed my perspective on the world and on what it means to live in a disabled body.
Talk to your inner child. Part of my tenderness practice involves witnessing the younger versions of myself that show up when I am triggered, anxious, disconnected, or overwhelmed. I’ve learned to pause to give that younger version of myself a voice, to allow her to express her concerns and needs, and to give her what she didn’t know how to (or wasn’t allowed to) ask for. Sometimes I sit on a park bench with my journal writing conversations with a younger version of myself or writing letters to her. It’s been a healing and empowering practice, integrating all parts of myself into who I am and who I’m becoming.
Talk to your emotions. Another part of my tenderness practice is to have conversations with my emotions. When I feel afraid, for example, I ask my fear what it is trying to tell me. When I am excited, I let that excitement have a voice rather than trying to dampen it with “grown-up” sensibility. (You can read more about this in The House that Tenderness Built.) I’m learning to feel more safe with any emotion when it arises and to course correct when my trauma wants to send me into dissociation.
Ask for what you need. This goes along with the above practices about being more honest with myself and witnessing my inner child. I’m learning (and relearning) how to honour my own needs and to ask other people to help fill them when necessary (without becoming too attached to an expectation that they do so). It’s brought up some discomfort and has forced me to confront some of the social conditioning I have about what it means to be a “good woman” who minimizes herself in service to others, AND it’s also helped me to have healthier boundaries and to be more tender with myself. Just last week, when the first AirBnB I’d rented for my daughters and I was a sad and dirty place, I practiced asking for what I needed by requesting a refund and finding a better place.
Stop trying to change people. This is one of those life-long learning things that didn’t just land in 2022, but seemed to gain more clarity this year. Perhaps it had something to do with my daughters all setting off into lives of their own while I supported each of them in making choices that were best for them. This year, I practiced internalizing a mantra I’ve heard my friend Michael say many times: “Nobody and nothing has to change.” When I let go of the expectations that other people would show up in the way I wanted them to show up and leaned further into an acceptance of just who they were, I became more resilient in the face of their inability to meet my needs AND I learned to turn elsewhere to have the needs met that they weren’t able to meet.
Let go of beliefs that don’t serve you. Again, this is lifelong stuff that gained increased clarity in 2022. I spent quite a bit of time this year interrogating my belief systems and asking myself which of my beliefs were genuinely mine and which ones belonged to my parents, my culture, my lineage, my trauma, etc. (There will be lots more about this in the book I’ll be publishing in the coming year. It’s also an important part of Know Yourself, Free Yourself, a course I’ll be offering again in March – registration opening soon.) Some of the beliefs seemed worth hanging onto, some seemed like they were holding me back in my evolution into the next part of my life, and some I continue to wrestle with. This is all part of the “liberation” that I’m referencing when I say I’m on my “liberation and tenderness tour”, and it will be part of the upcoming retreat in Costa Rica. (Join us at the end of January – there are still spots available.)
Learn to love your own company. As I’ve grown older, I’ve grown increasingly comfortable with solitude. In fact, I crave it whenever I’ve been with people for too long. I spent much of my time in Europe (especially the last month, after the teaching portion was finished) in solitude and I genuinely loved it. Many people assume that traveling solo is second best when you can’t find anyone to travel with you, but I love it just as much as I love traveling with friends or family. (I’m happy to have a mix of both.) I like making choices that are solely focused on my own comfort and delight. I like exploring places by myself. I like being alone with my thoughts for hours and hours. Most importantly, I like ME.
Go on a quest to find the version of you that wants to evolve next. This year when my daughters left, I stepped into an intentional liminal space that felt like a vision quest. I let go of familiarity, let go of home, let go of routine, and let go of my comfort zone. I wandered into unknown places to meet myself in a new way, I asked important questions of myself, I followed my curiosity, I sat with discomfort, and I played with new ideas and possibilities. I called it my “liberation and tenderness tour” because I was liberating myself of old baggage and old stories and learning to be increasingly tender with myself. It has already been life-changing and it’s not over yet (I leave for Costa Rica next week). I would highly recommend some version of this for anyone who’s going through an important transition, especially for those whose children are moving into their adult lives.
Thank you for journeying with me in 2022 in whatever way you have, even if you’ve just discovered my writings recently. I hope that what I have offered will inspire you to live with more courage, intention, liberation, tenderness, and ease as we step across the threshold into 2023.
The more I understand trauma, the less I am okay with the dismissal and/or glorification of where it originated.
I toured a medieval castle this morning. As I walked from room to room, in this massive stone structure that has stood for 900 years, I listened to the voice of the man on the earpiece telling me stories of the history of the place. “This is where they lowered people into the dungeon. Then, from this hole, they would dangle meat over the prisoners and yank it back when the prisoners reached for it.” “This is where people waited to find out what punishment they would receive for their crimes. Would they lose a hand or a foot, or would they have a screw put through their tongue?” “Down these stairs is the torture chamber. You can use your imagination to figure out what form of torture each of the things hanging from the walls was used for.”
The narrator seemed to relish the many stories of torture those walls held. In between stories of torture and punishment were stories of how the castle had been defended against the enemy. “Those gaps along the wall are where they would drop stones or pour hot oil on anyone trying to scale the walls.”
It was all a bit much. Sometimes I had to skip through sections of the recording, or turn away from the pictures or objects hung on display.
Ever since I started researching my own lineage on European soil, I have not been able to take lightly the ways in which people have been tortured here. In the 14th and 15th centuries, not far from this castle, my ancestors were being tortured for their beliefs by the dominant churches (Roman Catholic and Dutch Reform). A few years ago, I spent hours reading through the accounts in Martyrs Mirror about the many ways Mennonites were punished and/or killed – tongue screws, burning at the stake, drowning, etc. I am alive today because at least some of my ancestors were able to escape, first to Russia and then to North America.
We can laugh about the stories and treat them as entertainment, as the narrator enjoyed doing, but then we overlook the fact that these stories still live in our bodies and the trauma inherent in them still shapes our cultures, centuries later.
Resmaa Menakem wrote about this in his book, My Grandmother’s Hands. Much of the trauma that lives in white bodies, he says, has its origins in the brutality of Medieval Europe. Bodies still carrying memories of torture brought that trauma with them to the lands they colonized and they passed that trauma on to brown and black bodies. Out of that, colonization, white supremacy and slavery grew, because traumatized bodies traumatize other bodies and then they create systems to carry on that legacy. Now here we are, with cultures that are still trying to heal and transform the ancient trauma embedded in our inhumane systems.
Once you see the through-line, it’s so easy to see the ancient trauma and mistreatment of bodies in nearly every system that exists. It’s embedded in what we euphemistically call our “justice system” which is really a system of judgement and punishment. It’s in our attachment to prison systems and policing. It’s in our education systems, healthcare systems and religious systems. It’s in the way we punish trans bodies, fat bodies and queer bodies. It’s in cancel culture on social media. It’s in our perfectionism and the punitive ways we treat ourselves and each other when we fumble.
We are not as far away from the days of excessive torture as we like to think we are. Our cultures are not as gentle as we pretend they are, especially where marginalized people are concerned.
The narrator at the castle didn’t see it that way, though. “We are no longer as vigilant as our medieval ancestors had to be,” he said, again with a chuckle under his breath. “Imagine walking past a wall like this and having to pay attention to whether a stone might be dropped on your head. Now the only thing I need to be vigilant about is whether the yoghurt in my fridge has expired. Last week I had to throw some out because it was a day past expiration.”
I beg to differ. We may know little of stones falling from castle walls, but our bodies are still vigilant. We are vigilant for the ways we have to perform in order to be seen as worthy within our capitalist systems. We are vigilant for the ways our bodies might be ridiculed and/or victimized. We are vigilant for the ways we might be canceled on social media. We are vigilant for the ways our communities might reject us if we fail to meet expectations. We are vigilant to the expectations of grind culture and perfectionism.
I am here in Europe on what I’m calling my liberation and tenderness tour because I want to be intentional about healing this kind of trauma embedded in my body and lineage and I want to divest myself of the systems that continue to pass it from body to body. Instead of punishment, performance, and perfectionism, I am embracing tenderness, rest, and imperfection. It’s much more that self-care – it’s disruption and resistance.
Walking out of the castle this morning, I stood in the sunlight and paused for a moment to shake the trauma out of my body. I couldn’t help but wonder… how do we build monuments of tenderness that help offset the balance of these castles where the glorification of our generational trauma is on full display for the sake of entertainment? Or, at the very least, how do we create re-entry portals through which to pass when we’ve been to historic sites where torture was part of the narrative? At the Canadian Human Rights Museum in my hometown, they’ve built a garden of contemplation where you can sit quietly to regain your humanity after witnessing so much inhumanity – perhaps we need more of that. But honestly? I think we need far more.
One answer to my question came when I crossed the street into the town square to wait for the tram. At my feet was a sign etched into the concrete: “These streetlights are connected to the maternity hospitals in the city. Every time the lights slowly flash, a new baby has been born.” Aaahhh… new babies have a way of bringing my tenderness back. I appreciate the collective care and celebration embedded in the act of notifying the community with flashing lights.
I think, on this journey of liberation and tenderness, that I will seek out more places like that – where new life is being honoured with flashes of light – and fewer places where objects of torture are fodder for entertainment. I believe that we must remember the inhumanity, the way we do in human rights museums, for example, but I don’t believe we should ever make light of it or forget that it still lives in our bodies and our systems. More than anything, we should work to heal it and disrupt it so that we pass less and less of it on to the generations that come after us.
I’m on my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. After selling my house and putting my personal things in storage, I set off on what is likely to be a 5-6 month adventure, starting in Europe. (You can follow along on social media – #liberationandtendernesstour.)
Perhaps you want to know what I mean when I talk about Liberation and Tenderness? I’ve been thinking about these themes for a long time, but I don’t always articulate what I mean by them. While sitting on the train yesterday, somewhere between France and Belgium, I started writing a list of what each term means for me at this moment in my life. Here’s what I have so far:
Releasing the expectations of other people;
Allowing all parts of me to be seen (when I want those parts to be seen);
Divesting from harmful systems and institutions that don’t have my best interests (or other people’s) at heart;
Recognizing the ways I’ve been socially conditioned to behave and letting go of those that are harmful;
Healing and releasing internalized oppression such as misogyny and fat phobia;
Healing codependency and letting others carry their own burdens;
Allowing myself to live according to my own rules (and breaking some that are imposed on me);
Testing my comfort/discomfort with certain things (like travelling alone) to see if I’m limiting myself based on other people’s fears and social rules or my own;
Walking away from spaces/communities/institutions/individuals that don’t care about me;
Believing in my own worthiness and right to care and comfort, despite the measurements for worthiness that exist in my culture;
Releasing all of the “shoulds” attached to being a middle-aged mother and caring for my daughters in the ways that feel right for me and for them;
Releasing the expectations of perfectionism, productivity, and all of the other pressures imposed by capitalism;
Accepting my neurodivergence and not putting pressure on myself to behave and think like neurotypical people do;
Reclaiming body trust and not accepting the restrictive eating that is part of diet culture;
Choosing adventure when I want it, and stillness when I want that instead; and
Making decisions about where I want to live and/or travel based on my own longings and my joy.
Loving my fat body without shaming it;
Loving and caring for all of the wounded parts of me;
Pushing back against the punishment and judgement of a patriarchal, colonial system, and choosing grace and compassion instead;
Refusing to allow the rules of the systems I am divesting myself of to be part of the spaces where I work;
Offering myself grace and forgiveness when I mess up;
Offering others grace and forgiveness when they mess up;
Making repairs when necessary and expecting the same from others, but not making punishment one of the steps to “righteousness”;
Recognizing and soothing the trauma caused by systems, generational pain, etc.
Trusting my body;
Making loving choices on behalf of my body and my heart;
Slowing down and being mindful;
Spending lots of time in solitude and contemplation, usually in nature;
Holding space for ALL of my emotions when they surface;
Honouring the complexity of holding both joy and grief simultaneously;
Being soft and honouring softness;
Recognizing that some of my resilience is born of trauma and letting myself be less resilient when I feel beaten down;
Soothing myself when my trauma gets triggered;
Having healthy boundaries that protect my tenderness;
Seeking out people who honour my tenderness and hold me that way;
Healing the parts of me that are reluctant to trust people;
Letting people care for me; and
Letting go of the dread that something bad is always waiting – just around the corner – to ruin my joy.
As you can see, there are several themes that overlap in the lists. I’ve come to the conclusion, as I consider these themes, that they are inextricably intertwined. You can’t fully liberate yourself (in the way that I’m defining liberation) without tenderness. And you can’t really be tender without holding a core value around liberation. They are companions, supporting each other along the journey.
“We create most of our suffering, so it should be logical that we also have the ability to create more joy. It simply depends on the attitudes, the perspectives, and the reactions we bring to situations and to our relationships with other people. When it comes to personal happiness there is a lot that we as individuals can do.” ― Dalai Lama XIV, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World
In The Book of Joy, which consists of a week-long conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmund Tutu, the two spiritual teachers talk about how they approach joy not as a feeling, but as a lifestyle – one which they’ve each learned to cultivate even in the midst of extreme hardship. Both have been through wars and have been exiled from their countries, and yet, when you watch them together in their advanced years, you can’t help but be drawn in by their playfulness and delight in the world and each other.
With them as my inspiration, I am doing my best to cultivate a lifestyle of joy. I am intentionally chipping away at some of the old stories that tell me I am not worthy of joy, I am working to heal the trauma that gets triggered when too much joy is present, I am removing things in my life that actively serve as thieves of my joy, and I am finding daily practices that help to grow a strong foundation of joy.
If you have been following along on my journey over the past several months, you will know that, after helping my daughters launch into their own lives, I have sold my house, packed my belongings into a storage unit, and set off on a nomadic journey for at least six months. I’ve got some in-person workshops to do in Europe and then in Costa Rica, and then… I don’t know where I’ll settle (or if I’ll choose to wander for a while longer). I’m letting my heart be my guide. Right now, I’m in a seaside town in Spain, and though I planned to spend only a week here with a friend, I’ve already booked additional days because my body feels so relaxed and peaceful here. That’s how I intend to make decisions for the next six months (and hopefully the rest of my life) – by checking in with my heart and body and not just my often-overactive mind.
I am calling this my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. I want to continue to liberate myself from old stories and limiting beliefs and I want to find more freedom from the bounds of oppressive systems like the patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism. I’m doing my best to challenge things like internalized fatphobia, misogyny, martyrdom, and shame. I believe that tenderness is the path toward the liberation I seek, and I believe that joy is the outcome. In other words, it’s not hedonism I’m talking about, but a deep, intentional, and sturdy joy.
Cultivating a lifestyle of joy doesn’t mean that I expect to be always happy. No, life continues to have its challenges, and I don’t intend to gloss over anything with spiritual bypassing or avoid feeling the hard stuff when it comes. At the beginning of this journey, for example, I spent a few days with my beloved friend Randy, who is dying of ALS, and I carry the grief of that anticipated loss with me everywhere I go. Instead, like the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop, I want to create a bedrock of joy that offers a solid foundation for whatever may come.
“’Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say,’ the Archbishop added, as we began our descent, ‘save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.’” – The Book of Joy
Last week, when I was in Italy enjoying a week-long food, wine, and art tour in the Abruzzo region, I noticed exactly what the Dalai Lama talks about in the above quote. As I opened myself to more joy, I was feeling ALL of the things more deeply. I stood in the crypt of a twelfth century abbey and felt the grief and longing of centuries of spiritual seekers who’d stood there before me. I stood in a cattle barn, and the familiar smell flooded me with grief over the loss of my dad. The grief was real, and yet… none of it diminished my foundation of joy. If anything, the moments of grief made the joy even more vibrant.
I don’t believe you need to pack up your belongings and set off on a quest like mine to cultivate a lifestyle of joy – I believe you can do it right where you are, right now. Here are some of my thoughts about how you can begin to cultivate a lifestyle of joy:
Make peace with the fly. For this piece of wisdom, I must credit my friend Randy, whose body has been ravaged by ALS. When I spent time with him just before leaving for Europe, the mobility in his arms and hands had become limited to about five inches of movement in his left arm. He is now completely dependent on other people for all his physical needs. Yet even in his dying and dependency, Randy embodies the kind of joyful lifestyle that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop talk about. His eyes still sparkle when I walk in the room and his grin still frequently flashes across his face. “I was lying in bed one day and there was a fly in the room,” he said to me, in one of the brief moments when he had enough energy for conversation. “It kept landing on my face, and I could do nothing to chase it away. I simply had to practice accepting the fly.” For Randy, after years spent cultivating a rich spiritual life and mindfulness practice, the fly became his teacher and the practice became acceptance of what was. Ever since that conversation, every time I experience a frustration (a person who annoys me or a situation that’s outside of my control), I try to ask myself “can I simply accept the fly?”
Laugh at broken doorknobs. This point is a lot like the last one, but it’s worth mentioning separately. On my second day in Italy, in the bedroom of an Airbnb I was sharing with some people I’d just met, the doorknob on the inside of my bedroom door broke off in my hand and I was left trapped, with no other escape route. Fortunately, I had my phone with me and could text the other occupants of the house to come and rescue me, so I wasn’t trapped for long. We shared a good laugh when they opened the door, and it became a shared memory that we could go back to later in the week when other situations seemed outside of our control. Sometimes you simply have to surrender to the ridiculousness of a situation, let other people rescue you, and then have a good laugh.
Let other people’s emotional journeys be their own. Some of the greatest thieves of our joy are other people’s problems – or rather, our attachment to their problems. Because many of us have codependent tendencies, we attach our own emotions to those of the people we love and we think we can only be happy when they are happy. We try to fix their problems because their problems become our problems and their anxiety becomes our anxiety. And sometimes, if we’re too happy, codependent family members or friends become resentful or afraid we’ll abandon them, and they try to drag us into their drama because it makes them feel more safe. But nothing is truly served in sacrificing our joy for other people. We can’t make them happier by giving up our happiness. We can hold space for them and help to soothe their fear of abandonment, but they must find their own pathway to joy. Holding space, as we teach about in the Foundation Program, is all about loving detachment.
Slow down and be mindful. Many North Americans (and probably other places in the world, but I can only speak of what I know) are addicted to busyness. In a culture built on capitalism, where productivity is highly valued, we think we only have worth when we are busy and making a meaningful contribution. But busyness numbs our emotions, keeps our nervous systems on high alert, and makes it hard for us to listen to the deeper longings of our hearts and bodies. Deep, embodied joy is cultivated in slowness and mindfulness, when we take the time to breathe deeply, smell the flowers, slow our nervous systems, listen to the music, and enjoy the flavours of a lovingly prepared meal. Last week, in Vasto, Italy, with a guide who understands what it means to live a good and intentional life – a life not driven by capitalism – I learned to make homemade pasta, to savour the flavours of olive oil from ancient trees, to bake bread in a brick oven, and to paint with the petals of a flower on the side of a mountain overlooking the sea. All of it was slow and mindful and all of it helped to soothe my nervous system and give my body a place to feel safe and at home.
Pluck only the chin hairs that matter. If you’re over 50 and living in a female body, you know about the chin hairs. Nobody told me that this would be a thing! When I arrived in Italy, after spending a very busy couple of months packing up my belongings and helping my daughters settle into new places, I looked in the mirror and realized how little time I’d spent tending to my appearance. There was a vast array of long hairs sprouting from my chin. Since I was about to spend time with a dozen women I’d never met, I pulled out my tweezers and started plucking. As I stood there, looking at myself in the mirror, I made a very intentional choice. “I will only pluck the chin hairs that matter,” I said to myself. “I’m going to leave my eyebrows bushy, and I’m not spending a lot of time fussing over my hair or putting on makeup.” It wasn’t just about chin hairs, though. It was about accepting my body as it is and treating it with tenderness. It was about liberating myself from the pressures to conform to a patriarchal beauty standard. In the week that followed, my commitment went far beyond chin hairs. When other women on the tour criticized their own bodies, talked about how they needed to “earn” their gelato with exercise, or worried about the pounds they might put on because of the abundance of food we were offered, I stayed silent. I was determined not to speak one word of critique of my body, not to contribute to the talk of food restrictions or body shame, and simply to be in loving relationship with my body. (For more on this, I recommend the brand new book Reclaiming Body Trust, by Hilary Kinavey and Dana Sturtevant.)
Let go of martyrdom and performative acts of sacrifice. This has become one of my most important areas of personal growth lately. I was raised with a very strong narrative around the value of martyrdom and acts of sacrificial service. I continue to unpack the ways in which my religious and family lineages taught me that sacrifice is next to godliness and I continue to question the ways that I act out of a subconscious belief that I only have value when I am being sacrificial. While I was traveling with other women last week, I could see so clearly how some of them had been raised with a similar value system. They were eager to give up the best room to someone else, eager to be the first to jump up to do the dishes, and eager to be of service even when that service was not requested, plus they expressed guilt when other people served them. As I witnessed this and noticed the same tendency in myself (especially when surrounded by others doing it), I tried to be mindful of what was genuine generosity and what was rooted in martyrdom as a conditioned response (for myself – I tried not to make assumptions about others’ reasons for doing it). There’s a fine line between generosity and martyrdom and I’m trying to find that line in myself, trying to allow myself pleasure and accept generosity without rushing to sacrifice myself for others. There is a way, I believe, of being of service to other people while also unapologetically receiving service from others and welcoming pleasure without guilt. (Just before I finished writing this post, the friend who I’m staying with in Spain decided to go for a swim at the beach just outside our front door. At first, I was going to stay inside and finish this post, but then I asked myself why I was denying myself the pleasure of a swim, and I closed my laptop and went outside.)
Stop trying to change other people. One of the other thieves of our joy is our attachment to the way that others should behave. Other people should be kinder, more patient, less angry, more generous, less chaotic, more playful, more mature, less serious, less critical, etc., etc. In other words, they should be more responsive to our needs and create a world that is safer and more comfortable for us. But when we attach our joy to other people’s behaviour we become, in a sense, enslaved to them. And… let’s face it… everyone has their own problems and insecurities and they’re all trying to get their own needs met just like we are, so they won’t always behave in the way that suits us. Last week, in a moment in which I noticed some agitation with other people’s behaviour, I looked around and could suddenly see the little child in each of the others I was with – a little child who had developed behaviour that was simply an adaptive strategy to help them cope with whatever they’d faced in their childhood. That awareness helped me be more patient and accepting of them, knowing that I too have such a child within me. To cultivate a lifestyle of joy, instead of trying to change people, we need to stop allowing their behaviour to control how we feel, and we need to “tend our own membranes”. (That’s a term that comes from my book, The Art of Holding Space: A practice of love, liberation and leadership.) Through a lifelong practice of self-exploration, we can become more aware of our own needs, we can discover who has the capacity to help us meet those needs and whose behaviour hinders us from having those needs met, and then we can develop healthy boundaries that help protect us from the behaviour that is harmful to us. “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” – Prentis Hemphill
Admittedly, I am far from perfecting any of these points, but some of my joy comes from accepting myself as a work in progress. I take solace in the fact that I still have several years to catch up to the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop. I’ll be patient with myself and keep practicing. I invite you to do the same.
Learn more about holding space for yourself and others, and about cultivating the lifestyle and relationships you want, in our upcoming online Holding Space Foundation Program.