The workday was finished and I had just picked up my two daughters – one a toddler and one an infant at the time – from daycare and we were on our way home in the family minivan. I was tired and knew that I still had to find enough energy to make supper, feed the girls, and give them the attention they needed after a day away from me.
There was a train crossing the road, so I stopped at the railway crossing, the second vehicle away from the tracks. Suddenly, a screeching sound caught my attention and I turned to see that the last three cars of the train, still about 50 metres from the road I was on, had come off the tracks and were crashing down to the ground on my side of the tracks. I had only an instant to process what was going on and what was about to happen. The wayward cars were being dragged along by the still-moving train and were in danger of swinging outward to exactly the spot where I sat.
I jammed the van into reverse, but then looked back to see a long line of cars behind me – unless they moved, I had nowhere to go. The railway cars were heading my direction and I was frozen in place, waiting to see if my daughters and I would be crushed by a careening railcar.
Fortunately, the derailed rail cars stayed close enough to the track that none of the vehicles on the road were hit. With my heart pounding, I, and all of the others on the road, turned away from the wreck and found our way onto other roads that would take us home.
Yesterday morning I was waiting for another train at a crossing not far from where the train derailed and I had a flashback to that moment, over twenty years ago, when I didn’t know whether I’d be able to keep my daughters alive.
When the tears started to fill my eyes with the memory, I realized it wasn’t just the train I was thinking about. “This is exactly how LIFE feels right now!” I thought. “We are ALL sitting on the road, watching a derailed train barrel down the tracks and all we can do is sit and watch it come toward us wondering whether we’ll be in the path of destruction.”
That derailed train is so many things right now. It’s the pandemic that none of us can control and nobody knows when/if it will touch our families or circles of beloveds. It’s the jobs being lost and the businesses that may not survive the repeated shutdowns. It’s the bank accounts careening toward empty as a result. It’s the changing climate. It’s the racial injustice and the pain and trauma of BIPOC people and the rising tension because there seems to be no sign of the systemic racism and related deaths coming to an end. It’s the coming U.S. election which is causing so much fear not only because a misogynist bully might win again and continue to wreak havoc, but because there is a very real threat of serious disruption and possible violence as a result of the election outcome. It’s a Supreme Court in the U.S. that is now dangerously tipped against the rights of LGBTQ+ people and the reproductive rights of women.
Many of us, in fact, are at an intersection where multiple derailed trains are coming at us at once and we don’t know which one will wreak the most havoc. For a person of colour in the U.S., for example, or a person with a disability at greater risk because of the pandemic, there are converging trains coming down the track at once.
I don’t write this to be a doomsday prophet or town crier shouting about the end of the world. (I can already imagine the emails I might get from those who want me to post more “positive thoughts” so I don’t “attract” those runaway trains.) I write it to acknowledge that we are in a strange and complex liminal space and none of us has any control over the outcome and in some moments the only thing we can see on the horizon is sure disaster. This is where we are. This is the complexity of the liminal space the world is in right now, and if you are afraid or angry or overwhelmed, you are not alone. And you are not “doing it wrong”. You are human, with real human emotions. And I will never, ever shame you or gaslight you or offer you any spiritual bypassing cliches that would suggest you shouldn’t be having these feelings right now. I’ve been on the road watching that derailed train come toward me and my children – I know how it feels to be powerless in that moment.
That moment isn’t the end of the story, though. I survived it. And my daughters did too. And trains don’t stay forever off the rails. And moments of terror pass. And even if there is destruction, those of us left behind figure out how to pick up the pieces, and we carry on. And we get stronger. And we discover our own courage and resilience and we turn toward each other and we share the stories and admit our fears so that we can help each other survive.
And then one day, more than twenty years later, we sit at another train track, where a train passes us smoothly and we remember that we survived. And we are grateful to still be alive and to be able to continue to parent those little girls who are now adults. And we might cry a little, because it feels like another train is coming at us from another direction, but we remember that we have the capacity to survive and that trains pass. Even the derailed ones.
Here’s what I want to say to you if you’re sitting there, feeling helpless, as the derailed train is coming toward you and your beloveds.
1. Recognize the trauma response. Your body has within it the capacity to respond to moments of threat and stress in what it senses are the right ways to protect you. When the pressure is intense, your amygdala kicks into gear and takes over your brain functioning and nervous system, raising your adrenaline so that you are ready for the flight, flight, freeze, or tend-and-befriend. This quick reactivity serves an important purpose, but it also comes with a cost. For one thing, it makes it very difficult for you to engage the other parts of your brain that are more rational and calm. For another thing, when the trauma from your past is still present in your body, you’ll have a tendency to respond the same way even when the threat isn’t immediate, or isn’t as dangerous as your body senses it to be. That means that, in times of high intensity, especially when multiple trains seem to have become derailed at the same time, you might regularly find yourself with a flooded nervous system and a diminished capacity for calm and rational thought. And sometimes you might even find yourself suffering from adrenal fatigue when your nervous system has been functioning at high alert for too long. Give yourself a break if you’re not able to accomplish much right now or if you seem to be over-reactive to every stimulus. Speak gently to yourself the way you would to a frightened child. Practice soothing yourself with tactile items, gentle touch, or time in nature. Consider seeing a therapist or seek out the medical and/or psychological support you need.
2. Remember the impermanence of every state. It gives me great comfort to recognize that no emotion ever stays forever. It lets me feel even the intense emotions with a little more ease and presence because I know that they will pass. Fear, grief, overwhelm, anger – none of them are sustainable in the long term and so they will all fade away eventually and you will find yourself in other emotional states that are less exhausting. Yes, they may cycle through you again and again, especially in times of stress or tragedy, but you can practice holding them with more mindfulness and awareness, watching them come, holding space for them for a moment, and then watching them leave. Your emotional state does not own you and you can allow whatever shows up to pass through you without becoming overly attached to it.
3. Find outlets that help you release the emotions and the impacts of the trauma. If you need to scream, scream (perhaps in a place where you won’t alarm the neighbours). If you need to cry, cry. If your body feels shaky, let it shake. If you need to laugh until you cry, then do that. If you need to punch something, make sure it’s a pillow and not the face of someone you love. If you need to break something, find your least favourite mug and throw it against a cement wall. Emotions that threaten to overwhelm you need a healthy outlet so that you don’t hurt anyone (including yourself) with them. And trauma that is not physically released from your body has a greater chance of staying locked inside. Sometimes wild dance movements help. Sometimes swinging a hammer or using power tools helps. Sometimes making messy art helps. Sometimes just watching a sad movie and letting your tears flow helps. Emotions that get stuck inside of us will find less healthy ways of showing up later.
4. Find stillness. As I mentioned above, intense emotional states aren’t sustainable, and worry and fretting are among those that we need to let go of when they’re ready to pass. It’s hard to let go of that kind of frenetic energy, though, if we stay in the frenetic space that feeds the worry. Step away from your computer for awhile. Stay off social media one day a week or turn it off at 7 p.m. Don’t check the news first thing when you wake up. Limit the number of conversations you engage in online, especially if there are some that cause you anxiety and discomfort. Unfollow people whose feeds are full of doom and gloom. Pick a comfortable chair in your home that is the no-electronics zone and leave your phone in another room every time you curl up in that chair. Or designate your backyard a no-tech area. Find the places that give you some measure of peace and visit them regularly.
5. Lean into love. Even though we can’t spend as much time in the same physical spaces as the people we love, this is a time when we need connection and community more than ever. This is a time when we need to rely on each other and find the spaces where we can be authentic and vulnerable with people we trust. Lean into that. Reach out to your friends and host Zoom dates. Go for walks in the park together. Send a small gift to someone who’s special to you. Find a way to offer love and that love will come back to you in some way or another. Notice who’s in the most direct line of the oncoming train (i.e. who will be the first to be impacted by the disaster?) and find a way to support them or advocate for them. And if you need mental health support, call a help line or ask around to find a therapist or support group. You are not in this alone. Collectively, we have more capacity to weather derailed trains than we do alone.
6. Know that you are resilient. This too shall pass. You have survived hard things in the past and you will survive hard things in the future. And each hard thing you survive gives you additional resources to help you survive the next one. Trust that you have the strength and resilience to weather this storm. Trust that your emotional muscles will grow under the strain of this new weight. Trust that even those who lose limbs learn to dance again.
Perhaps next year, when we find our way through the rubble of the derailed trains, and we can touch each other again, we’ll lean on each other, we’ll hold up the most wounded, and we’ll do the dance of the wobbly yet resilient.
I didn’t rake the leaves off the lawn this Fall. My climate activist daughter regularly sends me articles about how the dead leaves create biodiversity in the backyard, serving as places for insects (including pollinators) to hibernate, and then, in the Spring, bringing more birds and flowers to the yard. As for the leaves I needed to clean off the patio and walkway – I built a backyard composter where they can rot into food for the soil.
The neighbours on both sides of my yard raked their leaves, so there’s a clear line between their property and mine – crunchy leaves on one side, grass on the other.
As much as I believe in more healthy symbiosis with the natural world, I will admit I struggled with the decision not to rake. Nobody wants to be THAT neighbour – the one whose cluttered yard is talked about in whispered tones because of the way it brings the property values down. Though I don’t need it to be pristine, I wanted it to be at least as orderly as the neighbours’. (Somebody in our neighbourhood once gave their next-door-neighbour $500 to temporarily clean the clutter from the yard while their house was up for sale.)
I recognize how vain this makes me sound – that I would make decisions that could negatively impact the environment based on what the neighbours think. But it’s the truth, isn’t it? Even when we pretend we’re not paying attention to our neighbours, friends, and family, we’re always at least somewhat aware of the ways that we stand out, the ways we’re seen as odd, and the ways we’re judged for not having our lives together. We do it in our neighbourhoods, at our schools and workplaces, and online. We don’t really grow out of our childhood need to fit in.
But change doesn’t happen until someone is willing to be the outlier, and so I’ll leave my leaves and if they ask about it, I’ll tell them about the insects and the birds. And if my leaves blow onto their lawns, I’ll offer to rake them back onto mine.
This decision, while a minor one in the grand scheme of things, is making me think about the many ways that we choose to hide our messes so that the neighbours don’t see them and so that we conform to the (often unspoken) collective norms and expectations of the places where we live and work. Even if our lives are messy behind closed doors, we want to project the appearance of having shiny, happy, orderly lives.
It’s a cultural thing (especially in wealthier western countries), it’s a neighbourhood thing (especially in the suburbs), and it’s a capitalist thing (especially among those who want others to see that they have the kind of success that is valued within capitalism). In an era of social media, it’s even more prevalent, because we are always peeking into the virtual windows of other people’s curated lives. (Be honest – how often have you moved things out of the frame before you’ve taken a photo to post on social media? The pressure is real, isn’t it?)
On an interview for a parenting podcast, recently, the interviewer asked me to speculate on why, when change is such a constant in our lives, so few of us are truly equipped to handle change in our lives. My answer was some version of this… “Change comes with disruption and messiness. And we have been led to believe, in our culture, that truly successful lives are those without the messiness. When the mess shows up, and we don’t have control over it, we assume we must be doing something wrong.”
We are always comparing our own lives to the curated versions of other people’s lives. If they don’t show their messes, we assume that they don’t HAVE messes. But they do. We all do. Life is messy. We break things. We spill things. We hurt people. We get hurt. We get overwhelmed and incapable of the simplest tasks. We get triggered back to the less mature versions of ourselves. We get resentful of our kids who NEVER clean up after themselves. We get angry with ourselves because “WHY didn’t we teach our kids better?!” We get depressed. We get anxious. We fumble. We fail. ALL OF US.
What if we showed more of that messiness? What if we divested ourselves of the toxic values systems of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy and we stopped trying to perform to some ridiculous and unreachable standards of perfection? What if we let our bulges spill out over our jeans, left our leaves on the lawn to make happy homes for the critters, left the dirty dishes in the sink when we’re taking photos to share on Instagram, and let people know when it feels like the world is crushing us? What if we agreed to no longer play by the rules that place value on curated lives? What if we invited people into our homes even when we haven’t dusted the furniture in weeks (and then didn’t apologize)? What if we wrote letters to all of the marketers who try to tell us our lives aren’t good enough and we told them we’ll never buy anything from anyone who markets from that kind of manipulative, scarcity mindset?
Maybe then we’d nap more, play more, eat more, and laugh more. Maybe then we’d crawl around on our hands and knees and stare at the pretty bugs gathering under our scattered leaves. Maybe then we’d lean into new ways of being in relationship, where value is placed on presence and not perfection. Maybe then we’d be less hard on ourselves and we’d smile at ourselves when we look in the mirror. Maybe then we’d wake up and realize how much we’ve been manipulated into the kind of shame and self-judgement that keeps us from being real.
People often ask me why it’s so hard to hold space for other people when they’re going through the mess of the liminal space, and I usually say “When you can become more comfortable with your own mess, then you can become more comfortable with other people’s messes. When you stop seeing yourself as someone who needs to be fixed, then you’ll stop trying to fix other people. And when you stop believing that you only have value when you’re DOING something productive and meaningful, then you’ll become better practiced at simply BEING with another person.”
There is a LOT of value in being the kind of friend who is unphased by the mess, who can sit with someone and deeply listen, seeing through to their heart without being distracted by the things that are out of order. There is a LOT of value in being silent when someone simply needs a listening ear and not advice. There is a LOT of value in your presence and your acceptance and your love. And yet… so often we overlook that value and only focus on the value of that which feels more active, productive, and “useful”.
Another question I’ve been asked a few times on interviews recently, and which seems related, is “What about cancel culture? Can we truly have deep and meaningful conversations, and wade into conflict (especially online), when we’re all afraid of saying the wrong thing and being canceled?” Here are my thoughts on cancel culture… It wouldn’t exist if we didn’t live in a culture rooted in capitalism and patriarchy that has placed so much value on perfectionism, ease, order, and power. If we hadn’t developed this skewed belief system that, with the right work ethics, the right thoughts, the right courses, the right purchases, and the right intentions, we can all have perfect, easy lives, we wouldn’t be at risk of being ‘canceled’.
If we all showed our messes more regularly, then we wouldn’t have these ridiculous and unattainable standards of perfection that lead to inevitable failure. If we were open and honest about our fumbling and failure, took responsibility for the harm we’ve done, made amends, and didn’t have so much fear of having our messes exposed, then we would no longer be at risk of being torn off the hollow pedestals that were never meant to hold our weight in the first place.
Take J.K. Rowling, for example – I believe that if she had truly listened, early on when she was first challenged about trans rights, and that she’d been willing to fumble in her attempts to understand what she was being challenged with (and make necessary repairs), then I don’t think there would have been so many people ready to tear her down. We tear down those who don’t live up to our expectations of perfection – expectations that have been skewed by our celebrity-worshiping, humanity devaluing culture. We also tear down those who don’t take responsibility for messing up.
We are not meant to be perfect people. None of us are – not even the celebrities our culture elevates to ridiculous heights. We’ve been manipulated into striving for that perfection, believing it’s attainable, idolizing it when we see glimpses of it in others, and spending more and more of our time and money trying to at least create the illusion that we are close to it.
It’s all a lie. It’s a messed-up fairytale that you’ve been taught since childhood so that you’ll spend more of your money on useless things and abdicate your power to those you believe have greater value than you do.
It’s time to divest of those belief systems and the cultural systems that prop them up. It’s time to live more honest and messy lives. It’s time to stop trying to fix ourselves and other people. It’s time to stop spending our money on things that don’t truly bring us joy. It’s time to stop changing our bodies to meet some ridiculous standards of beauty.
It’s time to let our leaves rot so that they can nourish new life.
If you’d like to learn more about how to live with the messiness of life and hold space for yourself and others in the midst of it, there is still time to sign up for the Holding Space Foundation Program that starts next week.
A few weeks ago, my shoulder started to ache. My right shoulder has become a bit of a barometer for my emotional state. Specifically, it tends to ache when there are trauma memories being triggered by a particular season or event.
Three years ago, I broke this shoulder on a day when my body was trying to process a couple of traumatic events at once. On the afternoon of that day, I’d had a hard conversation with a couple of dear friends with whom some conflict had arisen. I came off a Zoom call feeling tense and anxious, knowing that the conflict hadn’t been fully resolved. Then, only minutes after the call, my former husband, who’d dropped in to pick up my daughter for a quick errand, brought up some abusive behaviour he’d been guilty of during our marriage and – out of the blue – he wanted absolution for it. I wasn’t ready to process the weight of what he suddenly dropped in my lap, or the casualness with which he brought it up, and my body tensed up even more as my fight/flight/freeze reactivity kicked in.
After that, while trying not to reveal the chaos spinning around in my brain, I took my daughters out for a promised restaurant meal. Though I tried to put on a brave front, my body simply couldn’t fully relax. When I got home, I did the only thing I could think to do in the state I was in – I ran the bathtub full of hot water and added Epson salt. Then – because I was fairly certain I’d need to cry in the bathtub – I locked the door and climbed in.
Unfortunately, one of my daughters was going out that evening and needed her makeup from the bathroom. Somewhat resentfully, I stood up and reached for the bathroom door. Suddenly, because the doorknob was really too far to safely reach from the bathtub, my feet slipped out from under me and I slammed to the floor, twisting my outstretched arm in a manner it wasn’t meant to twist. It was broken, in a way and place that’s tricky to heal, and I had to live with pain for about a year after that.
And that’s how trauma and my aching shoulder became so closely intertwined. It was trauma that put my body into a tense state, which I’m certain resulted in the fall. And now it’s trauma that brings the ache back. When it aches, I’m learning to pay attention to what my body might be needing.
At first, I wasn’t sure why it started aching a few weeks ago. I was feeling relaxed and happy after taking some much-needed time for self-care and family-care during the month of August, and I was excited about my upcoming book launch. Trauma was far from my mind.
But then the memories started to flood back. First, it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of my former husband’s first suicide attempt (which I wrote about in a recent blog post on the Centre for Holding Space website). Then, just a few days later, it was the twentieth anniversary of the day my son Matthew died and was born (in that order).
Just two days later was my book launch. While I was processing all of those memories, I also had to prepare to share my book with the world and do several media interviews about the book.
I chose that book launch date a long time ago, not remembering, at the time, that it would be happening in one of the most difficult weeks of the year for me. Now, when it was about to happen, I was beginning to regret not paying more careful attention to the calendar.
And yet… even as I was struggling to keep my head up when my body wanted to shut down… I started to consider that perhaps this was the PERFECT week to launch a book about holding space. What better time to talk about trauma and grief and overwhelm and boundaries and relationships than in the middle of a week that represents SO MUCH of my learning in those areas?
In fact, those two narratives – the death of my son and the suicide attempts of my former husband – are two of the primary narratives in the book because they shaped me in ways that few other events ever could. They taught me how to survive disruption and chaos. They taught me what it’s like to go through the depths of liminal space. They taught me how to strengthen my boundaries and how to be more clear about my own needs and limitations. They taught me about spiritual bypassing, and about all of the ways that we tend to hijack space instead of hold it. They also taught me about the importance of community.
This book would not exist without those two narratives. It would not exist without the trauma that still holds a place in my body. It would not exist if I hadn’t learned what those two events taught me about resilience and grace and strength and mindfulness.
As I prepared for my book launch, I realized that possibly one of the subconscious reasons why I’d picked that date was because I wanted to write a new memory for my body to hold when next September rolls around. No, my body might never let go of the memory of those traumas, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t hold joy and pride and gratitude simultaneously.
This is one of the greatest survival skills I have learned from the traumas I’ve experienced: After the trauma settles and you have the space to work on healing it, make meaning of the trauma so that you can practice holding it differently. Tell the story of it, again and again, as much as you are able, so that the story takes a new shape in your life and it becomes less and less destructive. Turn it into paintings and dances and songs and blog posts. Mold it into shapes with clay or play doh. Play with it and move with it and teach your body that it can hold it with more lightness and ease. Talk about it in sharing circles and coffee dates with friends. Release it out into the world so that it doesn’t take the shape of shame or resentment in your life.
Your trauma is not the end of the story. In fact, it can be a new beginning. You have the capacity, like an alchemist, to turn it from pain into triumph. You have the capacity to transform it into a gift that you can offer other people who, some day in the future, might experience a similar trauma. You have the capacity to make it into music.
For me, this book marks a milestone in the relationship with my trauma. Like a potter with my hands in the clay, I have worked with those stories again and again, kneading and re-shaping them until they were ready to be offered to the world as gifts. No, that doesn’t mean that my body will forget or that I can stamp “healed” on all of my past wounds, but it means that I can hold it all more lightly than I ever could before, and I can trust that the meaning I’ve found in it all will make its way to those who need it.
This is the beauty and complexity and messiness of being human. We are molded by our trauma, but then we get to turn around and mold that trauma into meaning and gift so that it doesn’t control or imprison us.
Want to learn to reshape your trauma and to hold space for yourself and others in a deeper way? Join us in a few weeks when we begin the next session of the Holding Space Foundation Program.
I had high hopes for what this season of my life would be. Back in late 2019, when I settled on September 29th as the date my book would be launched into the world, I was imagining myself heading out on an extensive trip, connecting with my friends and readers around the world. I wanted to fly to Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands to spend time with the many people I’ve met there in the last few years, people who helped me shape the ideas in the book. I even contemplated getting a camper van and setting out for a long road trip, crisscrossing North America.
Back then I thought the timing was PERFECT – my youngest daughter would have graduated from high school, likely one or two of my daughters would have moved out, and I would be much less needed on the homefront. I could go away for more extended periods than I have in the past.
But, alas. COVID-19 hit. And here I am, at home, spending endless hours on Zoom instead of hugging the people I want to hug and passing my book from my hand to theirs.
Not only am I stuck at home, but all three of my daughters are here too. This year, all four of us will be working or studying from home (even though one is going to university halfway across the country). Our house isn’t very big! We’re having to get creative about finding spaces for everyone to work. (If you follow me on social media, you might have seen the desks I built for them.) We’re hoping we still like each other in a year.
I’ve been feeling some grief about the loss of my book tour. At first, the grief simply felt like inertia – I just couldn’t motivate myself to plan a book launch on Zoom when I’ve already spent more time on Zoom this year than most people will do in a lifetime. And then I recognized it for what it was – grief.
I had to process that grief, and one of the ways I did that was to get out my power tools, buy some wood, and build things.
Something occurred to me while I was building… Sometimes you have to get smaller before you get bigger. Sometimes you have to contract before you expand.
I was reminded of the time, almost exactly eight years ago, just before my mom died. It was August and I’d flown to Ontario to co-host a fairly large gathering. I was excited about the opportunity and it felt like it was the beginning of bigger and bigger work for me. I was ready for my work to grow and my circles to expand. Then, like now, the timing felt perfect for expansion.
But then, while I was in Ontario preparing for the event, I got a call from Mom. She’d seen her oncologist. The cancer was back and was too far progressed for any more treatment. The best she could hope for would be six months to a year of life.
At that gathering, it was suddenly clear that, though I was ready for expansion, what would be needed instead would be contraction. Instead of hosting bigger circles, I would need to spend the next few months in a very small circle – sitting with my mom in her last days of life.
That’s exactly how it turned out. For the next three months, my work nearly ground to a halt. I was still teaching a class at university, but other than that, my business was barely growing. Instead, I spent much more time than usual with mom. Yes, there was a part of me that was resentful over that fact, but I was also glad I had the flexibility to pivot and turn my focus toward her. I will never regret the time I spent with her and with my siblings, especially in those final days of her life.
It took some time, after that, to regroup and to refocus on the expansion I’d been hoping for earlier. For the next two years, I plodded along, growing slowly and learning what I needed to learn from grief (it’s always been one of my greatest teachers). And then, two years after Mom died, I wrote the blog post about holding space at her deathbed, and…. BAM… suddenly the expansion I’d let go of two years earlier came barreling toward me faster than I could have dreamed it would. Suddenly my inbox was exploding and my work was growing exponentially. Over the next couple of years, I built the original program that has evolved into the Holding Space Foundation Program (a program that has sold out all five times it’s been offered). Plus I got to teach in Australia (three times), New Zealand (twice), the Netherlands (three times), Costa Rica, and all over North America. It was more than I’d hoped for back when I was in Ontario ready to co-host that gathering.
And the lesson in that is… sometimes you have to get smaller before you get bigger. Sometimes you have to contract before you expand. Sometimes – despite your readiness to rush into the next big thing – the work has its own timing and it asks you to slow down, to wait, to spend time in reflection, to learn a few more critical things, and to accept a pace that you’ll only have the capacity to understand in retrospect and not in that moment.
I don’t know why this is happening again – that I’m now needing to contract back into my own home, into a small circle with my three daughters. I don’t really need to know the meaning of it (or even if there IS a meaning in it). I simply need to do the next right thing, the thing that’s in front of me to do. For now, that will include more Zoom calls. It will also include more conversations with my daughters before they leave the nest (like the ones that helped birth the course on How to Hold Space for Difficult Conversations in Your Family) and more quiet time for writing and reflection. There will be time for learning new things that likely couldn’t be learned if I were traveling for days on end.
Perhaps there will be expansion in the future. Perhaps, though my personal life feels contracted, the book will have its own expansion, traveling all over the globe and sitting with people as a sort of surrogate for me. And maybe that’s good enough for now. Maybe, in fact, it will give people time to read the book and let it gestate before we come together again.
I am open to what will come. I am open to discovering what magic is possible through the power of the internet. I am open to waiting until COVID-19 no longer keeps us contracted and we’ll all get to experience a return to in-person circles and real hugs again. Imagine what that will be like!
I have passed through the grief that was with me for the last few weeks and now I am beginning to dream again. I am dreaming about what a virtual book tour will look like. Perhaps I can still sit (virtually) in some of the circles I’d hoped would be possible, and maybe even in MORE countries than I’d first imagined. Perhaps I can pop into book club gatherings in South Africa or Singapore or Iran. Perhaps I can visit schools or speak at conferences in Brazil or Bangladesh. Who knows what’s possible?!
I wonder, dear reader, if you’ll begin to dream with me? Would you like to invite me to wherever you are, to sit with whoever you’ve gathered, to talk about what’s on the pages of my book? Please reach out with an invitation and we’ll see what’s possible from the contracted space of my own home. And then, maybe next year, I’ll travel the miles to give you that in-person hug.
It’s Friday afternoon. I’m staring out a large picture window, watching the poplar leaves dance with invisible partners. A squirrel just darted across my line of site, leaping from poplar tree to pine tree to spruce tree. Just beyond those trees is the lake. If I stood up from my semi-reclining position on the couch, I could see it. A moment ago, I was out on the patio, watching a pair of cormorants on the water, until a light rain chased me inside. This morning, I paddled across that lake, when it was as smooth as a plate of glass, on a yellow kayak and I watched an eagle come in for a landing at the top of a tall tree at the edge of a cliff. On the way back, I stopped to photograph lily pads and lotus flowers. After I put the kayak back in its place, tipped over to drain the water that had dripped from my paddle and down my knees, I sat on the dock with my journal and watched a turtle poking its head above the water.
I’m at a cabin in western Ontario. It’s nearing the end of a week of solitude and writing. I haven’t been online since Sunday. I don’t miss it. I have no idea what’s going on in the world and the only time I’ve spoken has been once to the young boy who greeted me on the dock, and for about five minutes each day when the owner of the cabin checks if I need anything. (My answer to her is always the same: “I’ve got everything I need.” Except when I needed more propane for the barbecue.)
Since I arrived here on Sunday, I have done a remarkable amount of work – more work than I normally accomplish in two months at home. I’ve worked twelve hour days since I got here, and today was the first time I allowed myself enough of a break from the work to paddle across the lake.
It always seems somewhat indulgent when I book a cabin like this for a working retreat, or I fly to Reno to stay in my friends’ guesthouse to complete my book, but so far I have never, ever regretted it. Not even a bit. It’s worth every penny I spend on it. And I’ve done some version of it at least once a year for the last eight years or so. (In the early years, I had to find inexpensive options, like borrowing spaces from friends.) I will continue to do it every year for the foreseeable future, though it may look different once my kids are all moved out of the house.
Because this is how I do deep work. This is how I hold space for my wild and wonderful wisdom. This is how I entertain the muse when it’s especially greedy and wants my undivided attention.
Not that it’s only for capitalist reasons, or that I have to justify why I do it, but if I were to work out how much income I generate from what I create in a week like this, the hourly value would be much higher than the usual time I put into my business. It is, therefore, one of the best annual business expenses I ever invest in. (If you have a business that relies on your ability to create things, I highly recommend you consider doing something similar.)
It’s not that I can’t write or create at home. I can and I do. But when I have a major project that requires intense focus and my clearest, most creative mind, I do much better when I remove as many distractions and other commitments as possible (it’s especially important to get offline), give myself large chunks of uninterrupted time, and find a place where nature nourishes and inspires me.
Cal Newport calls this “Deep Work”. It’s “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. … In short, deep work is like a superpower in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy.” Sadly, he says, most people have lost the ability to go deep, “spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.”
It’s true – our world has become too fast-paced, too high-impact, too full of distractions and unrealistic expectations of speed and availability for many of us to do deep work. Just as I am less focused and less creative in my home, where the internet distracts me, the news worries me, and my children’s and clients’ needs and expectations often take precedence over my writing time, so too are people the world over. (Especially in a pandemic.)
Some of us, though, have a special calling to do such deep work. The writers, artists, makers, musicians, philosophers, designers, teachers, inventors, healers and leaders – all of us need to find ways of accessing deeper wells of inspiration than we normally have access to in our day-to-day lives. We need to carve out time and spaciousness to tap into our own wild and wonderful wisdom. We need to create containers where the flicker of our most brilliant ideas can be protected from the wind of the noisy world, and then we need to add fuel to grow that flame into burning heat that warms, lights and destroys whatever it needs to.
It feels a little like an archaeological dig, when I disappear into work like this. When I’m at home and can only work in snippets, I only ever dig a few inches beneath the surface and never get to the really juicy ancient stories buried under centuries of history. When I’m away and can dive into the work for twelve hour stretches, interrupted only by the need to sleep and eat (and occasionally stare out the window or sit on the dock), I get to dig down into the places that make my whole body come alive with wonder and possibility.
I wish that there were more support, more permission, more money, and more acknowledgement of the importance of this kind of dedicated time available for the creators and thinkers of the world. I wish that there were more patrons and/or public institutions that would fund the sparks of ideas that come especially from those who can’t afford a week in a cabin the same way I can. I wish that there were many champions who would advocate for anyone who needs dedicated time to work on their craft, so that they didn’t have to spend all of their energy convincing people of the economic value of their work and could spend more time creating. I wish that we had stronger communities that would identify the makers and dreamers and thinkers among us and would collectively decide that they need to guard, protect, and encourage the space and time for these people to do what they do best. I wish there were eager volunteers for childcare and meal prep for all those whose families take them away from their ability to create.
Because, more than ever in these strange, challenging, disruptive times, we need art. We need music. We need books. We need ideas. We need ingenuity. We need dreams. We need hope. We need makers. We need thinkers. We need inventors. We need scientists. We need healers. We need people to go to those DEEP places.
We need creative people who will imagine our world into climate solutions. We need artists and musicians who will help us dream into more racial justice. We need thinkers and inventors and scientists who will navigate our way through this global pandemic. We need creative community builders and healers and web masters and coders who will help us thrive and connect in the midst of this strange pandemic-imposed disconnection.
But all of these people need to first find ways of doing deep work. They need to be able to carve out space and time without disruption. They need to be given ways of feeding their families and paying their bills so that their minds are not consumed with financial stress and family responsibility.
What will we do to make this happen? I don’t know. Coming up with that solution is not my particular line of genius, but I hope for whoever it IS, they will find a way to disappear into the exquisite solitude of a week in a cabin by a lake (or whatever helps their creativity blossom) so that they can think and create their way into their wild and wonderful wisdom. And then I hope they share it and we all get onboard.
Last night, after sunset, I lay in my hammock in the growing darkness of my backyard feeling low. I couldn’t shake the growing melancholy that’s been with me this week, but I couldn’t quite name it either. Why, in the middle of all of the excitement of finally launching the Centre for Holding Space after many months of hard work, was I feeling so much sadness?
Perhaps it was launch hangover? Perhaps it was weariness from holding space for some of my daughters’ crises this week, combined with disappointment in myself when I missed a baseball game and let down my nephew, combined with some vicarious sadness for a daughter’s friend who’s been here a lot this week because of family conflict? Perhaps it was worry over my daughter’s health or concerns over my other daughter’s disappointing job prospects?
I gave up on the hammock last night and came inside to let Netflix put a pause on the overthinking.
And then, some time in the middle of a mediocre TV show, it hit me… today is my anniversary. Twenty-seven years ago, I was a hopeful bride entering a new chapter in my life. Twenty-seven years ago, I was oblivious of the hardships that would bring that chapter to an end.
And tomorrow is another kind of anniversary. Seventeen years ago – the day after we celebrated our tenth anniversary – my dad was killed in a farm accident.
Suddenly I knew what my body was holding. It was grief over the many losses that this week represents. It was the loss of dreams, the loss of security, the loss of hope, the loss of belonging, and the loss of lineage. It was also the loss of home (my mom left the farm shortly after) and the loss of a grandfather for my kids.
It was the loss of Plan A.
Earlier this week, my daughter and I watched the movie Interstellar. It’s a too-long sci-fi about a hero who must pass through a worm-hole into another galaxy to find another inhabitable planet on which to relocate humanity (because the earth is dying). Frankly, I’m weary of the hero’s journey trope in movies in which someone (usually a white male) has to make the ultimate sacrifice and abandon his family in order to save the world, but there was at least one thing in the movie’s plot line that I found intriguing.
Finding another planet and relocating humanity is Plan A. It’s what motivates the hero (the only man left who knows how to fly into space) to take the journey because he wants to save his children and create a future for them. Plan B – the fall-back plan if the hero and his crew can’t return to this galaxy and to earth – is to stay in the new galaxy, let the old earth and all her inhabitants die, and colonize another planet with the frozen embryos they’re carrying with them.
At some point in the movie, (spoiler alert), after the hero and his crew have made multiple sacrifices and are somewhere in the other galaxy, we find out that the scientist who was the mastermind behind the journey knew that Plan A would never work. BUT… he also knew that if the hero didn’t BELIEVE that Plan A was possible (that his sacrifice was worth it in order to save his kids), he would never be motivated to make the journey. Plan A was what got him to the place where Plan B could be implemented.
Sometimes Plan B is the only thing that CAN happen, but we only get there because we commit ourselves to a belief in Plan A.
This morning I rode my bike to the park and sat on a bench with my journal. The tears started to flow as I realized that my body was still holding some of the grief over the loss of Plan A.
Plan A was what that blushing bride was carrying down the aisle twenty-seven years ago today. It was the dream of a traditional family unit – a home with a mom and a dad with good jobs and a couple of kids with the white picket fence and the annual vacations to interesting places. It was stability and ease and it was raising kids who’d still have grandparents into their adulthood. It was the kind of Big Love and Romance the fairy tales had held out in front of her.
Plan A didn’t involve divorce and single parenting and a dad killed under a tractor or a mom dying too young of cancer. It didn’t include suicide attempts or psych wards or dead babies. There was no thought of trauma or grief or tear-soaked pillows in the middle of the night. None of that was there, in her thoughts, when she walked down the aisle. They couldn’t be, or she would never have taken those steps into the unknown galaxy.
But maybe Plan A was never anything more than an illusion – the kind of mirage that keeps a person moving forward in a desert even when there is no water to be found. Maybe the belief in Plan A is what motivates us, in the early days when the world seems more black and white and full of clarity and promise and binary belief systems, so that we have the chance to grow and deepen enough to live into an acceptance of Plan B.
Maybe Plan A was never the point, it’s just the path to get us here.
For me, an acceptance of Plan B – the realization that my life wasn’t going to be a fulfillment of the hope that the blushing bride carried down the aisle along with her bouquet of white roses – is what brought me to the Centre for Holding Space. It’s what allowed me to make meaning of my mom’s death and write the blog post that catapulted this work into the world. It’s what was awakened in me when my stillborn son Matthew made his brief sojourn into the world and introduced me to grief and pointed me in the direction of the quest I’ve been on since.
No, I wouldn’t have chosen Plan B, but if I hadn’t found my way here, I wouldn’t know the pure joy that this work has brought me. I wouldn’t have found my way into genuine community and the kinds of deep relationships that give life meaning.
I wouldn’t have discovered that life has more purpose and beauty when you let go of the illusion.
Truthfully? Though I let myself grieve Plan A for a moment in the park this morning, because my body needed me to acknowledge it and not brush it aside, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The loss of Plan A is what brought me to this beautiful life, this beautiful community, and this beautiful work. And next month, it’s what will allow my book to be born into the world.
From this side of the Great Loss, Plan B looks pretty amazing and richly textured. In retrospect, Plan A looks rather two-dimensional.
I’m going to celebrate the beautiful complexity that is Plan B. And I won’t be afraid of the grief over losing Plan A, because that’s what gives the beauty its shadow and texture.