From the Path to the Living Room: Celebrating friendships of all kinds

There’s an older man I often encounter on the path when I go for my morning walks. We’ve become path-friends, always stopping for a brief interaction when we happen upon each other. Once, he showed me how the inside of his hat was falling apart, but “I just can’t bear to throw it away,” he said, tucking the broken bits in as he pulled the hat back onto his head. Another time he was laughing about the people he’d watched fishing unsuccessfully on the shore. “Just metres away,” he said, “the fish were leaping out of the water as if to taunt those with fishing rods.” The last time I saw him, he showed me a blurry photo he’d captured of a young eagle on a branch. “I’m glad he let me get so close,” he said, delight in his eyes. In turn, I told him about the two turtles I’d watched in a mating dance in the river a few weeks ago. “You’re so lucky!” he said. “You’re right,” I said. “I am lucky.”

At the end of last week, I wasn’t feeling quite as lucky. I’d spent too much time online and had reached that point I often get to with social media – overstimulated with the addictive quality of it, discouraged with how we’ve all become pawns caught in the hamster wheel of the attention economy, dysregulated from all the doom-scrolling, and disembodied from staring at a screen for too many hours. Add to that the self-loathing that creeps in when I recognize the state I’ve allowed myself to get to, and… well, it wasn’t pleasant.  

So I did what I know is best for me when I get that way – got offline and went seeking the stillness and nervous system soothing that the natural world offers me. “Eco-regulation” is what some people call it – immersing myself in nature to bring my body and soul back into alignment and a state of calm. More simply put, I let nature remind my body how to love herself again. I drove an hour outside the city so I could walk alone on the shore at sunset with just the seagulls as company.

Monday morning, after a weekend offline, I met my path-friend on my morning walk and we stopped for one of our short chats. I walked away smiling, and suddenly realized that what I receive from every encounter I have with him is exactly why I keep returning to social media and why I haven’t abandoned it entirely. It’s those brief moments of human-to-human encounter. It’s the way we make each other smile. It’s the way we delight in each other’s blurry photos and listen to each other’s slightly boring stories. It’s humanity meeting humanity with openness and little expectation. 

Social media is far from a perfect space. Like so many of our communal spaces, it gets co-opted by those who want to sell us things or manipulate our beliefs or secure our vote. Plus it’s been designed to keep us addicted because the more it has our attention, the more money can be made off the advertising put in front of us. All of that is true, but I still value the way that it allows us to encounter each other on the paths we travel down. 

I am reminded of what Richard Wagamese says in one of his short pieces in Embers:

We approach our lives on different 
trajectories, each of us spinning in our own 
separate, shining orbits. What gives this life its
resonance is when those trajectories cross and we
become engaged with each other, for as long or as
fleetingly as we do. There’s a shared energy then,
and it can feel as though the whole universe is in
the process of coming together. I live for those 
times. No one is truly ever “just passing through.”
Every encounter has within it the power of 
enchantment, if we’re willing to look for it.

****

I love my path-friends, whether online or on the path by the river, but life is not complete with only those encounters. While there is meaning and joy in our brief engagement, I’m sure that I would die of connection-deprivation if that was all I ever had. 

In a sense, those little moments are like fast food – they taste good, they sustain us in the moment and they give us a quick hit of energy to help us get through the day, but we burn through those empty calories pretty quickly. We need more nourishment and nutrients than that. We need the slow-cooked, lovingly prepared food of deeper conversations and more long-term relationships. We need the belongingness of community and lovingly nurtured friendships.

Perhaps friendship can be best plotted on a spectrum, with one end being the path-friends we encounter occasionally but might never know their names. Somewhere further down the spectrum are the coffee-shop friends – those with whom the relationship has deepened enough that we occasionally sit down together over a meal or a cup of coffee. Sometimes these are friends we only see once every few years, but their presence matters enough that we choose to set aside time for them for an exchange of stories.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had more lunch dates than I’ve had in years, and I feel deeply nourished by these coffee-shop-friendships. There is something special about re-encountering people who’ve witnessed me in different phases of my life and still delight in who I am now. There’s the former boss and mentor I haven’t seen in over twenty years – the person who helped me see I had leadership capacity before I saw it in myself – who wanted to know all about my work now. There’s the couple I traveled with in Ethiopia, India, and Bangladesh when I worked in international development and with them I shared a few good laughs over wine while we reminisced about the horrible nights we spent in a creepy house surrounded by abandoned army barracks, where I ended up with over 500 bedbug bites. There’s the friend I only see every couple of years, who once flew across the country to attend my retreat, who shared with me that she is once again on a journey with cancer. There’s the young friend I met in Costa Rica who delighted with me in traveling down a rabbit hole about what it means to change our belief systems and how queerness offers a frame for expanding our understanding.

I have coffee-shop-friendships all over the world and my life is much richer for these “sometimes playful, sometimes heavy, sometimes back and forth between the two” conversations. While we’re more committed in these friendships than with our path-friends, and we usually have the contact information for these people in our phones, we hold the connection with lightness and minimal expectation, enjoying each other when we see each other but not getting too attached to an expectation of how often we need to connect or how much we meet each others’ needs. 

In my work, I get to serve as a catalyst for creating space for the online version of these coffee-shop-friendships in the programs we offer at the Centre for Holding Space (like the Foundation Program or A Full-Bodied Life, where we gather on Zoom every week or two). We all come with an expectation that space will be held for our authenticity and vulnerability and so we offer ourselves wholeheartedly to the conversation. People often tell me, several years after being in my programs, that they still have regular meaningful contact with people they met in the program. Just this morning, somebody told me about the grief she experienced when our eight-month certification program ended because of how important this circle had become in her life.

****

Further down the spectrum from the coffee-shop friendships are the living-room-friendships. These are the friends we let into our living rooms even if we haven’t dusted and there are stray socks tucked into the couch. These friends settle into the couch, pluck out the socks and toss them in the general direction of the laundry room, and before long, hours have disappeared in meandering, soul-bearing conversations. 

Living-room-friends are the ones who show up to babysit our kids, even though we haven’t asked them to, when they know we’re overwhelmed with grief after losing a parent. They’re the ones who bring a bottle of wine when the divorce papers are finally signed, or a big pot of soup when the flu knocks down every member of the household. They show up because they’re attuned to our emotional states and our times of need and we reciprocate by showing up for them.

The commitment level and risks are much greater in these friendships. Friends at this level witness our shadows but they also get a bigger dose of our light. We let ourselves be more needy with these friends, because we know that their presence in our lives is what helps us be more human and more emotionally regulated. We work out some of our insecurity and we might even heal some of our attachment wounds in friendships like this, because they’re dependable, secure, generous, and reciprocal.

Today’s lunch date is with one such friend, and I can hardly wait for her to show up. She’s been on vacation with her family, and I’m slightly annoyed that she abandoned me for so long, just as she was rightfully annoyed when I left the city last year and abandoned her. We laugh about that, though, because there is enough trust in the solidness of our relationship that neither of us ever feels truly abandoned. Even though I value therapy, I think it’s safe to say that more of my trauma healing has happened in this friendship than in any therapy relationship. We have such deep conversations that we’ve sometimes had baristas in coffee shops reveal their curiosity about what we talk about for so long.

****

I am a big fan of friendship and I want it to be more honoured in our culture. I wish that we would turn some of the attention that’s placed on romantic relationships onto friendships instead. I want more songs about friendships and more movies and novels. I want a section at the bookstore to be dedicated to friendship the way there’s so often one dedicated to marriages. I want us to celebrate friendships the same way we celebrate people’s engagements or weddings. Maybe we even need friendship apps to become as ubiquitous as dating apps.

ALOK talks a lot about the value of friendship and their words often stir something for me. “i want a world where friendship is appreciated as a form of romance,” they say. “i want a world where when people ask if we are seeing anyone we can list the names of all of our best friends and no one will bat an eyelid. i want monuments and holidays and certificates and ceremonies to commemorate friendship.”

We layer far too much expectation on our romantic relationships when we assume that one person will complete us and fill our needs for belonging, safety and identity. That’s far too much of a burden on one person and one relationship and it often results in codependence instead of healthy love. It’s much more realistic to get our needs met from a range of relationships, especially our friendships. 

When we have a range of friendships, from path-friends to living-room-friends, our cup is filled in many ways by many people and nobody has to carry the burden of helping us be whole.

****

P.S. People often ask me how to find friends, and one of the suggestions I make is that they seek out spaces where like-minded and like-hearted people will show up. If you’re looking for such a place, you might find it in our Full-Bodied Life community.

Living in this imperfect, good-enough body

I’ve been sick this week. Congestion, fever, a nose like a leaky faucet. This morning, I was just going to carry on with my day as though my body wasn’t begging to stay in bed, but then the fever finally convinced me a day under the covers was justified. One of the dangers of working from home, though, is that I can take my computer to bed and the inner drill sergeant still expects me to get stuff done. 

I can chalk it up to the work ethic I was raised with. My dad was known to push through every sickness and more than once, he passed out in the barn when he was too sick to stand (and then got up and went back to work). My mom came home from the hospital, where she’d just had a radical hysterectomy, and re-washed the floor that sixteen-year-old me had washed the day before (but had used too much cleaner so it was sticky).

Yes, even after all of these years, there is still a voice in my head that becomes hyper-critical whenever there is evidence of laziness. Perhaps it’s still sixteen-year-old me reminding me that I’m not living up to the expectations of the hard-working folks who raised me.

There are not a lot of things pressing that I must do today, so a rest day is not unreasonable, but here I am writing this blog post because I’d told myself I’d write one today and whenever I try to rest, my brain spins in circles and makes it nearly impossible. Here’s what I’m thinking now… maybe if I get this post out of my brain, it will allow me to nap. (Fingers crossed.)

It’s ironic to be writing this, so soon after I wrote a post about why Krista needed to rest, but isn’t it always easier to tell other people what they need than it is to meet those needs for ourselves? (I’ll let her get revenge when she comes back to work.)

I’ve been thinking, though, about the bigger picture about how we treat our bodies and why we need to be more tender with our own bodies and each others’ bodies. As I mentioned in the earlier post, grind culture is abusive and we shouldn’t contribute to that abuse on capitalism’s behalf. Let’s face it – capitalism is never going to be kind to us, even if we break our bodies on its behalf, so why make such a huge sacrifice?

The other thing I mentioned in that post is that when we rest, we send a message to people that we value them whether or not they make measurable contributions to a capitalist system. When we are cruel to our bodies because they don’t perform as well as we expect them to, we are upholding a values system that places bodies in a hierarchy, with healthy, productive, physically fit bodies above those that are chronically ill or disabled. We contribute to the marginalization of other people by not valuing our own bodies when they are sick, weak, or tired. (And then we succumb to internalized oppression when we’re hard on our own bodies for being sick.)

This isn’t just about rest, it’s about all of the ways that we treat our bodies. It’s about the ways we punish our bodies with restrictive diets to try to lose pounds so that we can be seen as acceptable and attractive. It’s about harsh exercise regimes that make us feel like our bodies are more worthy. It’s about supplements and cleanses and… so much more.

You don’t have to spend much time on social media to realize just how much we are inundated with messages about how we should treat our bodies to make them conform to a certain standard. Influencers tout the latest exercise trend or body-enhancing supplement, ads tell us which bathing suit to wear so that we’ll look slimmer, and movies remind us that slim, attractive, fit people will find love before we will.

Wellness is a huge industry and, sadly, much of it promotes healthism. Healthism, defined in the 1980s by Robert Crawford, is “the preoccupation with personal health as a primary focus for the definition and achievement of well-being; a goal which is to be attained primarily through the modification of lifestyles”. When we believe the wellness influencers who tell us that our health is within our own control, then we make health a moral issue and we treat those who have attained good health as superior to those who haven’t. Those who are disabled, fat, chronically ill, immuno-compromised, aging, or simply out of shape can easily be blamed for their status in life because they “just haven’t done enough to take control of their own health”.

Healthism “ignores the impact of poverty, oppression, war, violence, luck, historical atrocities, abuse and the environment from traffic, pollution to clean water and nuclear contamination and so on. It protects the status quo, leads to victim blaming and privilege, increases health inequities and fosters internalized oppression.” (Source: https://newdiscourses.com/tftw-healthism/

A healthy lifestyle is not a bad thing, but when you begin to define health as only one thing, then it becomes problematic. What is healthy for you might not be healthy for someone else. What is the right size for your body may not be the right size for another body. Many health experts are now revealing, for example, that fatness is not nearly as unhealthy as it was once believed to be. Many of the health risks and diseases once associated with fatness have now been linked to other factors. (Listen to the very informative podcast Maintenance Phase for more on this.)

It turns out, in fact, that our culture’s phobia of fatness is not about the health risks at all, it’s about white supremacy. In the book Fearing The Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, Sabrina Strings does a thorough excavation of history to find out why western culture became so afraid of fatness, and it turns out it’s largely because elevating the status of white bodies meant denigrating Black bodies. According to Strings, “…the current anti-fat bias in the United States and in much of the West was not born in the medical field. Racial scientific literature since at least the eighteenth century has claimed that fatness was ‘savage’ and ‘black’.” She goes on to say that “…racial discourse was deployed by elite Europeans and white Americans to create social distinctions between themselves and fat racial Others. Black people, as well as so-called degraded or hybrid whites (e.g., Celtic Irish, southern Italians, Russians), were primary targets of these arguments.”

Recently, I heard someone on a podcast talk about the rise of “body fascism” and I was intrigued, so I went digging to find out more. Collins Dictionary defines it as “intolerance of those whose bodies do not conform to a particular view of what is desirable.” Taken to an extreme, though, it’s not just about intolerance, it’s about control, oppression, marginalization, and violence. When a culture becomes too consumed with the elevation of a certain body type, as Strings points out was the case within the western world’s obsession with whiteness and thinness, then that culture will naturally vilify any body that does not fit the ideal. It will become harder for those who don’t fit the ideal to access social programs, to be treated fairly, and to be seen as worthy. 

It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to see body fascism as the next dangerous step in the progression from healthism. When you assign personal responsibility to each person to reach a certain standard of health, and you devalue those who are unable to attain that standard, then you’ve created the conditions where it’s socially acceptable to marginalize people. Consider, for example, the Aryan race that Hitler was determined to create and uplift, while extinguishing those who didn’t fit his standards – that’s body fascism to the extreme. 

When I consider the concerns currently being raised, especially in Hollywood, with the way that Artificial Intelligence can now be used to recreate video images of bodies that don’t even need to be present (or consenting), I can’t help but wonder whether this is another step toward body fascism. For one thing, if they can make movies without having to deal with the fallibility and imperfections of real bodies, what’s to stop movie producers from even more significantly elevating a certain body type while denigrating others? For another thing, why pay real bodies, when they can simply create images of bodies that will do their bidding without the annoyance of contracts or the need for fair treatment?

What does all of this have to do with me being sick? Well, it all comes down to the way that I choose to treat my own body. Do I view it as an unworthy body when it can’t perform the way it’s expected to perform? Do I punish my body for failing? Or do I cherish it, find a way to be tender with it, claim its inherent value, and divest myself of the systems that teach me to abuse it?

After all of that… I’m going to answer my own questions by turning off this computer, crawling back under the covers, and having a nap. Not because I’ve earned it, but because this body is worthy of it.

***

p.s. If you’re on a quest for a more tender relationship with your body, join us for A Full-Bodied Life. Sign up to study alone, or join the community for meaningful conversations.

The Woman by the River: on holding space for those in despair

I had good intensions of writing something light-hearted this week, in celebration of the beginning of summer and the launch of my new program, A Full-Bodied Life. The first lesson in that program is about embracing joy, so it seemed fitting to write something joyful. But then something hard happened, and those plans were set aside because it felt more important to write about this. Sometimes, that’s just the way life is. Sometimes the hard gets mixed in with the happy (which is all part of what I teach in A Full-Bodied Life). Maybe next week I’ll be back with something light-hearted.

A few days ago, my day took a complete detour from where I expected it to go. On my morning walk, I came across a young woman getting up off the ground with her bike near the river’s edge. She was stumbling and I thought she’d fallen off her bike. I stopped to ask if she was okay and needed help.

She wasn’t okay, she told me. She’d been trying to end her own life.

I said I was sorry to hear that and asked her if there was someone I could call to be with her. She told me her mom was in the hospital in a coma, her grandma lived far away, and there was nobody else around who cared for her.

Not sure what to do next, I asked what her name was and whether she’d consider continuing my walk with me. (I’ll call her Debbie for the purposes of this story, though that’s not her real name.) Debbie agreed to walk with me and I learned about her hard life on the streets. She is HIV positive. It was the anniversary of the miscarriage of a baby boy she really wanted. She’s two years aged out of the foster care system that she was placed in because her mom tried to sell her for drugs when she was ten. She has lost several siblings to drug-related deaths.

I found Debbie at the edge of the Red River, not far from the place where Tina Fontaine’s body was pulled from the water. She told me that the day before, she’d ridden her bike out to Brady Road landfill site, intending to end her life there, but she couldn’t get in. The landfill site is where Linda Mary Beardy’s body was found back in April. I don’t know whether either of those things have significance for where or how she was planning to end her life, but I couldn’t overlook the connection.

She didn’t want me to call 911 or take her to a hospital because she doesn’t have a history of being treated kindly by people in the medical system in our city. “I have PTSD from it,” she said. I honoured her request and instead made a couple of calls to try to find someone with a vehicle who could help me get her to somewhere safe. In the end, my daughter Julie met us with my car.

Debbie was barefoot, and it was Julie who first clued in to the fact that her first need might be for a pair of shoes. We didn’t have any at our house that would fit her, so I drove her to a thrift store to buy her a pair. Then I bought her breakfast, and then took her to a social services agency where she said she had access to mental health support. We spent about two hours together, chatting about our families. I told her that I, too, had lost a baby boy that I really wanted. I asked her if she liked music. “Taylor Swift?” I asked “Or Harry Styles?” She smiled and nodded vigorously and I turned on one of my daughter’s playlists.

I don’t know whether anything I did for Debbie was the “right” thing. I don’t know whether she found a way to carry out her plan later in the day (or tomorrow, or the next day). I don’t know whether she’ll find a place in the world where people treat her with the kind of dignity that she has been offered so little of in her life. To be honest, I don’t feel a lot of hope on her behalf, so I didn’t walk away feeling like I’d done anything heroic in helping her choose not to die that morning. Life has been unbelievably cruel to this young woman and I don’t know how she can hold as much pain in her body as she does.

I saw the way people looked at her when she walked into the thrift store barefoot, and I don’t disbelieve anything she said about the ways that people in health care and social services have mistreated her. My heart feels broken on her behalf. This lovely young woman, whose face broke into a grin when I offered to buy her second-hand shoes (“They’re New Balance!”, she bragged to the support worker later, before I left her), who wanted to know all about my life too when I asked about hers, who gave me the best hug before I left… she deserves so much better than the world has offered her.

No, I don’t know if anything I did was right, but if nothing else, I wanted her to experience a little kindness on a day when she was grieving her dead son (just as I once grieved mine). She deserves at least that.

A couple of days later, there is much about this experience that is still alive in my heart and my body. This is not my first experience with someone who wanted to end their own life. Just down the road from where I met Debbie is the hospital where I rushed my former husband the second time he tried to die. He was also there the first time, fifteen years earlier. There’s a hill outside the hospital where I cried some of the most hopeless tears of my life. I know something about how much people can be failed by the medical and mental health systems because I’ve seen it up close and personal.

There are more stories. There were other times I sat in other emergency rooms in this city with other people close to me who could see no reason for carrying on their lives. Some of those stories can still flood my body with anxiety over the memory of them.

When I shared this story on social media a few days ago, some people asked for more, and I could sense in their questions some desire to know what to do should they ever find themselves in that position. I can’t claim any suicide prevention expertise (and don’t, to be honest, entirely resonate with the terminology of “suicide prevention”), but I can share some of what feels true for me now, having lived some version of this story multiple times. Know this… I share these things partly because, in the past, I have done completely the opposite and later wished I could go back and change things.

1. Don’t deny or gaslight anything they share with you about how hard their life is. The pain is real. Treat it like it’s real and don’t belittle them for having a moment when it feels like too much to manage.

2. Don’t try to sugar-coat how good their life might be if they choose to hang on a little longer. Don’t even pretend that you know that they are better off alive than dead. You don’t know that and there’s no point in lying about it.

3. Place their dignity and autonomy at the centre. They get to make their own choices and you are not in control of what they choose. You might not like what they choose, but it’s their life and their choice.

4. Offer them kindness, presence, and listening. Ask them questions that honour their humanity and let them know that, if nothing else, in this moment they are being seen.

5. Consider it simply as one moment and one choice in that moment. Maybe they can choose not to die in this moment. Maybe they can hang on for one more moment. Maybe they can go for a walk with you and you can chat about your families for awhile and that is enough for this moment. The rest of their lives is beyond the scope of your conversation.

6. Be brave enough to open your heart to them, at least a little (if/when appropriate). You’ve found them in a vulnerable position, and they will likely be sensitive to judgement. Let them know that you are as human as they are and your life is full of imperfections too.

7. Shut down your inclination to try to be a hero. You are not the star of this show. Do what you can, and, if possible, try to get them to somewhere safe where support is available to them, but keep your ego in check and don’t try to fix their life. It’s not yours to fix.

8. Find other people who can help, if possible, but be prepared to stand up for the person’s right to their autonomy and dignity. Some people will be inclined toward judgement and/or trying to control the situation, and you might serve the hurting person the most by being an advocate for their right to be treated kindly.

9. Pay attention to how you’re being triggered by what’s happening and do your best to soothe yourself so that your own fears, grief, anxiety, trauma, etc. are not projected onto the situation. For the moment that this person needs you, try to make it about them, and then make sure you look after yourself later.

10. When the moment is over, give your body and heart heaps of tenderness and soothing (and reach out to others to talk about it if you need to) so that the trauma of that moment doesn’t settle into you. If the person chooses to end their life regardless of what you did or said, don’t take that on – you did the best you could and they made their own choice. Don’t be afraid to get professional help to figure out how to deal with what happened.

Friends, I hope you’re never faced with such a situation, but if you are, I hope that you will trust that whatever kindness you are able to offer is enough. And don’t forget to extend that kindness to yourself as well.

Rethinking Liminality: evolving my understanding of “the space in between”

“Liminal space is an inner state and sometimes an outer situation where we can begin to think and act in new ways. It is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next. We usually enter liminal space when our former way of being is challenged or changed—perhaps when we lose a job or a loved one, during illness, at the birth of a child, or a major relocation. It is a graced time, but often does not feel ‘graced’ in any way. In such space, we are not certain or in control.” – Richard Rohr
 
The first time I came across the concept of liminal space (I believe it was in the book Falling Upward, by Richard Rohr), I felt an instant connection to the concept. Liminality helped to explain so much of my life at the time. I’d let go of some of the stories of my past and was stepping into the unknown, not yet knowing what lay on the other side. I was leaving things that felt relatively firm and familiar – marriage, career, church, etc. – assuming I’d find something that felt similarly firm and familiar on the other side once I’d gotten through the wobbliness of the liminal space in between.
 
Readers of my book, The Art of Holding Space, will know that I use the metaphor of the chrysalis to explain the concept of liminal space. A caterpillar leaves the life she has known, surrenders to the gooey mess of the chrysalis, and waits to become something new, not really knowing that the butterfly life is in her future but trusting the process nonetheless.
 
That metaphor made a lot of sense to me then, when I was releasing old stories and trusting that there would be an “other side”. But now… well, my understanding of liminality continues to evolve and I’m no longer as attached to that metaphor as I once was. I think it tells only part of the story of liminality and it’s time for the next iteration.
 
Last summer, after my children had moved away, I sold my house and intentionally thrust myself into liminal space, becoming a digital nomad in Europe and Central America, not knowing for certain what would be the “butterfly” version of the “end” of my journey. I thought at some point, I’d have an epiphany about where I wanted to live for the next part of my life and what my life would be like. Just like in the past, when I left my marriage, church, and career, I assumed I’d find something that felt firm and familiar on the other side. In the meantime, I spent time exploring different places and paying attention to what the “soft animal of my body” loves.

What I didn’t anticipate, when I set out on my liminal quest, is that the greatest value in the experience would have nothing to do with the butterfly life on the other side, but everything to do with liminality itself.

In other words, liminality is THE WHOLE POINT. Liminality isn’t just the process, it’s the new destination. I wasn’t preparing myself for an end point, I was becoming more liminal.  

What I’m beginning to understand, on a deeper level, is that ALL OF LIFE is liminal and the best we can do is learn to accept the liminality and become more adapted to it. Instead of telling ourselves “this wobbliness is temporary and there will be something stable, familiar, and predictable on the other side”, we are better off finding stability within ourselves so that the instability of liminality does not cause as much disruption and struggle in our lives.
 
This has probably always been true, on some level, but it is especially true in this moment in history when things like climate change, a pandemic, and increasing political unrest are causing almost daily disruptions in our lives and will likely do more and more so in the future. Our lives are wobbly and unpredictable. We can’t find solid ground on which to land. So, what’s the alternative? Learning to adapt to liminality.
 
When I started to examine the metaphor I’ve been using for liminality, I realized that even while embracing the concept wholeheartedly, I was still attached to a linear, binary view, where there is a “here” and a “there”, an “old story” and a “new story”. That doesn’t feel sufficient anymore. Perhaps a better metaphor, one that I’ve explored in the last few months as I’ve spent a lot of time by the ocean, is the shoreline, where you can be standing on dry land in one moment, and up to your knees in water the next. It is neither land nor sea, but both/and. Liminality is a place of flux, where you are always becoming and releasing, evolving and adapting.
 
Not only does an expanded understanding of liminality help us make sense of a world that feels unstable and unpredictable, it can also help us evolve our thinking in areas where we tend to get stuck in binary thinking. Take gender, for example. If we learn to become liminal thinkers, we no longer need to see all people divided into two clear genders, male and female. We can accept that there is, in fact, a broad spectrum of genders and to try to fit people into boxes is to deny them of their full humanity.
 
Alok, one of the wisest teachers on this topic that I know of, said in this short video clip, “It’s not just that the binary reduces the complexity of the world, but that it forces us into oppositional thinking. We’re taught that there is one side and another side, but I think non-binary thinking allows us to hold harmony where other people see dissonance, to be able to say we can be both/and. We can experience incredible grief and sorrow and joy inside of that. We can feel so certain about something and still incorporate doubt. And that’s, I think, what we need now in this world more than ever – to reject parsing the world into dichotomies, like here or there or like us or them. They hold us back from a more intimate and honest encounter with how the world is already both/and.”
 
How, then, do we become more liminal? How do we adapt to the shoreline, accepting that we will live in that place indefinitely rather than assuming eventually the land will be stable again? I’ve given that a lot of thought, and instead of attempting to answer that question in this blog post, I’ve created a new course and a community where we can have conversations to explore it together. We are very near to launching that program (it should be available next week) and I look forward to exploring these questions with you

Some thoughts on loneliness, solitude and connection

For the last eight months, I’ve been a solo traveler, wandering around Europe and Central America while working as a digital nomad. Sometimes friends joined me for short periods, sometimes I stayed with friends in their homes, and sometimes I was facilitating workshops where I was surrounded by people. Mostly, though, I traveled alone.

“How do you deal with the loneliness?” That’s the question I heard most frequently when people learned I was traveling alone. Some of those people wanted to try solo travel but were afraid they’d be too lonely, some couldn’t imagine ever traveling alone and were incredulous that I had, and some were projecting their own fear of abandonment or isolation onto my story.

I understand the question, and have empathy even for those making projections, because I had some of those same fears when I set out on this journey. There’s also a part of me, though, that believes the question itself is worth interrogating for what’s under the surface.

The subtext I heard under the question was a belief that “together” is always better than “alone” – that “together” is the solution and “alone” is the problem. When we are together, we believe ourselves to have social capital, to be wanted, to be whole; when we are alone we believe ourselves to have less cultural value, to be rejected, to be less-than-whole.

It’s not true though – together and alone each have value, and I, for one, need a balance of both in my life. Though I value my relationships greatly, when I go through long stretches without any solitude, I don’t know how to listen to the deepest parts of myself and that’s when I tend to abandon myself the most.

Also, contrary to the assumption that many people make when they discover I travel alone, “alone” isn’t the same as “lonely”. “Alone” is a state of being. “Lonely” is a feeling that comes from a particular longing and feeling of lack, and that feeling can come whether you’re alone or surrounded by people. I’ve had some of my most lonely feelings when I’m the least alone, and some of my least lonely when I’m enjoying solitude.

As Maya Angelou says, “Many believe that they need company at any cost, and certainly if a thing is desired at any cost, it will be obtained at all costs. We need to remember and to teach our children that solitude can be a much-to-be-desired condition. Not only is it acceptable to be alone, at times it is positively to be wished for. It is in the interludes between being in company that we talk to ourselves. In the silence we listen to ourselves. Then we ask questions of ourselves. We describe ourselves, and in the quietude we may even hear the voice of God”

There was a time when I would have judged myself – based on the hierarchical value our culture places on relationships – to have less value as a single person, especially when I’m traveling alone, and that judgement would have caused me to experience more self-pity and self-criticism and therefore more loneliness. That’s no longer a yardstick on which I measure myself, however, so my trip was full of a lot of joyful, peaceful solitude – just the way I like it. Even when a few people very pointedly asked me where my husband was and why I didn’t have one, I was able to laugh it off and not get weighed down by people’s judgement. I am very fond of my primary relationships, and I was glad when I had companionship on this trip, but I also love myself and I can be quite content spending many days alone. I don’t need anyone else to affirm that that’s okay – I KNOW it is.

With all of that said, there were still, of course, some moments when I was lonely, especially when I would get up in my head with thoughts of unworthiness or self-doubt. Because this trip was partly about learning to know myself on an even deeper level and being tender with the most vulnerable parts of me, I paid attention to those moments to see what I could learn from them. Here are a few things I discovered:

– Almost every time I moved to a new location, the first day felt a little lonely as I learned to navigate my new surroundings. Once I knew how to navigate (i.e. where to buy groceries, where to catch the bus/water-taxi, etc.), the loneliness dissipated. In other words, loneliness was at least partially attached to feelings of incompetence or insecurity.

– I noticed my aloneness most when I was surrounded by other people who had family or friends with them and I was the only solo traveler (like when I’d go on an organized tour and was jealous of the parents who had their kids with them). In other words, loneliness was often about comparison and jealousy.

– I rarely felt lonely when I was in a location with great places to walk. That made me realize that loneliness was at least sometimes connected to boredom and/or restlessness and when I could get out and move my body, it would often go away.

– Similarly, I felt less lonely when I had access to good public transportation and knew that I could easily hop on a bus, train or boat to go exploring. In other words, loneliness was connected to feelings of isolation, restriction and lack of mobility.

– The least lonely locations were those that were near water or other large bodies of water. There’s something about water that soothes my nervous system and helps me feel connected to myself and to the natural world. In other words, loneliness is also about disconnection from nature and disconnection from what makes me feel most alive.

The shortened version of the above reflections is that loneliness is related to: incompetence, insecurity, comparison, jealousy, boredom, restlessness, isolation, restriction, lack of mobility, disconnection from the natural world, and disconnection from what brings me joy.

Here’s my even shorter conclusion: Loneliness isn’t about aloneness, it’s about disconnection.

Loneliness is a signpost, pointing toward the road ahead, and the words on it are “Make Deeper Connections”. Those connections don’t necessarily need to be with other people – often a deeper connection with myself (body, mind and spirit) or with the natural world will make the loneliness dissipate just as quickly as a connection with another person.

With this new awareness, I started to be more intentional about how I responded to loneliness when it appeared. First, I received it with tenderness, not judging myself for feeling it and not trying to chase it away. Sometimes that involved putting my hand on my heart, and sometimes it involved some tears (a good release is often the best “cure”). Then, when I was ready to make a move in the direction of connection, I tried one of the following:

– I pushed myself to have a conversation with a stranger. As an introvert, conversations with strangers don’t often happen naturally, so I had to push myself out of my comfort zone. It was always worth it though. I made quite a few short-term friendships, and some of them went surprisingly deep, nourishing my need for intimacy.

– I texted a daughter/sister/friend and sometimes asked for a Zoom chat.

– I did something that helped me feel connected to the natural world. Swimming, walking, bird watching, taking pictures of beautiful things – those almost always help to shift the ache.

– I did something that helped me feel more connected with myself. Journal writing, a massage, tenderness practice, a nap, listening to a podcast, reading a book, mindfulness, “hammocking”, etc.

– I went on social media to connect with my community. Of course, social media can have the opposite effect and make a person feel more lonely instead of less, but I try to pay attention to that and stay off when it’s not feeling healthy.

There might have been a time in my life when I thought I’d fix or transcend these human conditions like loneliness, self-doubt, and lack of self-worth, or that they’d at least shrink in size and no longer be a problem I’d have to face, but that day is long past. Now I realize that life isn’t about fixing ourselves or evolving into beings who don’t feel these emotions – it’s about acceptance, tenderness, self-love, forgiveness and grace. It’s about learning to hold space for ourselves and then turning around to offer that to other people as well. It’s also about rejecting the measuring sticks that our cultures impose and learning to love ourselves unconditionally.

The birds I carry with me (lessons on living and dying well)

In my luggage, I carry two birds – a grey stuffed owl and a yellow clay bird whistle. Most of what I carry with me from place to place, as I travel across Central America, is functional, but these two things are purely sentimental.

At the beginning of this journey, just after I’d sold my house, I flew to Nova Scotia to be with my friend Randy one last time. While I was there, his wife and I loaded Randy into their wheelchair-accessible van so that I could drive to the small seaside graveyard where Randy’s body would be put to rest in the not-too-distant future. Randy had chosen that graveyard specifically because it overlooked the water, and he wanted me to see it so that I could picture him there once he was gone. While we sat at the edge of the serene graveyard, we listened to the song that Randy had chosen for his funeral, “Where Peaceful Waters Flow,” by his favourite musician, Chris de Burgh.

After the song had played, I turned to Randy and asked “If you can come back to visit me, to remind me of your presence after you have died, in what form can I expect to see you?” He paused for a moment and said “I’ll have to think about that for awhile,” and I knew he would, because it was just the kind of question that would inspire Randy’s thoughtfulness and playfulness. Although I never heard him use the term for himself, I would say that Randy was a mystic. He had a deep and contemplative spirituality that inspired me and made me feel safe.

The next day, Randy had an answer for my question. “I think I’ll visit you as an owl,” he said. “My eyes look a little like an owl’s do, plus I like the way owls sit and watch things so quietly, with what looks like wisdom.” It was perfect. Yes, Randy’s eyes were big and clear like an owl’s, and he had a wise way of witnessing the world. A few weeks later, after I’d arrived in Europe, Randy and his wife sent me a video of the owl they’d attached to the top of a fence post at the edge of the graveyard, near Randy’s burial site.

In mid-October, a month and a half after I arrived in Europe, Randy died. I knew the day was coming, and, because he’d chosen to die with medical assistance, I even knew the hour. By then ALS had taken much of his movement and speech capacity and he was ready to go. Randy wasn’t afraid of death – in fact, he anticipated that it would be a release into “pure joy”.

The day before Randy’s death, my friend Brenda arrived in Brussels to meet me for a week of traveling together. I’d warned her that I might not be a lot of fun on our first full day together, and she took it in stride. Brenda was the perfect person to be with on that day because she too was dying. Like Randy, Brenda was a deeply spiritual and contemplative person and she too had been intentional in preparing herself for death. She’d been living with cancer for several years by then and knew it would likely take her within the next year or two.

“I brought some candles,” Brenda said when she arrived, “in case you want to light them in honour of your friend. You do whatever you need to do, and I’ll be here to listen when you want to talk about it. We’ll create a little ceremony if you want to.”

When it was time for Randy to die, I left Brenda in the hotel and took a candle to a nearby park. I lit the candle on a bench and sat with my grief, knowing that one of the most beautiful people I’d ever known was leaving this earth and I’d never get to have another one of our meandering mystical conversations.

After the candle had burned for awhile, I blew it out and then did what I so often do when the emotions feel too big to hold or even name – I walked and walked and walked. While I was on the path through the park, the sun broke through the clouds and shone down on me through the trees. I took it as a sign that Randy’s soul had parted from this earth and he’d been released into pure joy. Surprisingly, I felt some of that joy in that moment, and when I turned onto another path, I was delighted (and somewhat confused) to see a tree full of parakeets. One doesn’t expect to see bright green parakeets in Brussels, but there they were. Apparently the city has been flooded with them for several years, since somebody released their pets into the wild.

The next day, before leaving Brussels, I bought a stuffed owl to keep Randy close as I traveled. That owl later became part of the circle’s centre when I taught workshops in Belgium, the Netherlands and later in Costa Rica, to honour the fact that Randy will always be with me and his wisdom will always be woven into my work.

From Brussels, Brenda and I traveled to Ghent where we wandered through cobblestone streets, took a boat tour, and sat in sidewalk cafés eating waffles. I talked about Randy, she told me about her love of all things Mary (stopping to take photos of every Mary statue she could find, usually next to old cathedrals), and in the evening, we watched the sun set over the city from our AirBnB window. Chemotherapy had taken a lot out of Brenda by that time, so her energy reserves were limited, but she was up for almost anything, as long as she could break it up with rest time. Often that rest time looked like her finding a park bench or coffee shop where she could pull out her sketchbook and work on a small water colour painting while I continued to wander the streets.

From there, we took a train to Luxembourg, the destination that had been Brenda’s reason for flying to Europe from her home in the U.S. Through her family line, Brenda was entitled to naturalized citizenship in Luxembourg, and she’d long dreamed of making another trip there to sign the final paperwork. She’d once hoped that she could use that citizenship to allow her easier travel in Europe or perhaps a year of living there, but by now, her only wish was that she’d complete the process before she died. Her friends and family had helped raise the funds to make this possible and I’d offered to travel with her to carry her bags when her energy flagged.

In Luxembourg, we stayed with Brenda’s relatives and they took us to explore parts of their beautiful (and small) country. We visited Brenda’s favourite castle and made a few stops in gift shops and galleries so that Brenda could share with me some of the local art and culture. In one gift shop, she delightedly picked up a clay bird whistle and told me how these birds, the peckvillchen, are traditionally given out at Easter in Luxembourg. Brenda has a collection of these little birds at home. I asked her to pick one out for me and we each took one with us.

Brenda’s citizenship papers arrived from Luxembourg a few weeks ago. A week later, almost exactly six months after she was with me in Europe, Brenda died. Although her friends and family knew it was coming, it still arrived more suddenly than anyone anticipated.

On the morning of her death, not knowing that she was departing, I woke up feeling unsettled and sad, even though I was on a beautiful island off the coast of Belize and could think of no reason for my emotions. I walked to the seashore and did two things that almost always help to soothe my nervous system – lay in a hammock and watched the waves and shorebirds. Above me, pelicans and frigatebirds floated effortlessly in the air, occasionally diving down to catch a fish. Later I found out that Brenda had joined Randy in that place of pure joy and I thought it fitting that it happened while I was watching the birds.

The day after Brenda died, I went snorkeling. It seemed a strange thing to be doing, while holding the grief of my friend’s death, and yet it also felt right. Like me, Brenda delighted in exploring the world’s beauty, and I knew she would have encouraged me to keep on finding beauty in the world and keep on seeking joy, even while I cried. Once again, grief and joy were my side-by-side companions.

A few days ago, I lay in another hammock on another island (in Mexico this time), watching Brenda’s memorial service online – the second such service I’ve watched virtually in six months. During the service, the spiritual leaders at the front led the group in singing the Beatles song, Let it Be. “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be. And in my hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.”

In the week since, I have continued to be in this liminal space, betwixt and between the beauty and the loss, the joy and the grief. Sometimes one is more present and sometimes the other, and sometimes both show up at once.

The more I live with these seemingly contrasting states, the more I know there are no clear lines between them. There is room for both in my heart, and there is less and less uneasiness in allowing them to coexist. One doesn’t need to chase the other away. In fact, each enriches the other. The beauty is even more vibrant when it stands next to loss, the joy is even more potent when it stands next to grief. On the flipside, loss and grief feel richer and easier to bear when their companions offer them balance.

Like the yin and yang symbol teaches, two elements that are seemingly opposite can exist in one cohesive whole and each holds within it elements of the other.

Last year, after Randy told me he was dying and we started having weekly conversations that centred, in part, around his upcoming death, I started asking myself what it means to live at the intersection not only of grief and joy, but of life and death. Now, since Brenda died, those thoughts have once again risen to the level of my consciousness.

Is there a way to stand on that curvy line of the yin and yang symbol and hold both death and life in the same circle of wholeness within me? What if death is not the opposite of life? What if death is part of life, life is part of death, and each enriches and gives balance to the other?

If those things are true, and I can hold both, what does that look like and how does it change me?

I am still at the early stages of this inquiry, so I expect that more will evolve in my consciousness, but one thing I do know is that I want to do what I witnessed both Randy and Brenda do – make peace with my death before it arrives.

For starters, I’m asking myself a series of questions about what feels most important to me, if I truly believe that I am dying. What do I most value and love? What things do I want to stop doing if my time on earth is limited? What self-consciousness, fear, judgement, etc., ceases to be important if life is short? What relationships need repair? How do I want to treat myself? How do I want to treat others? Where will I invest my time, resources and money?

These questions don’t threaten any drastic changes in my life, since I’ve already been on this intentional journey this year to get clearer on who I am and how I want to live, but they have clarified some things for me. I know that I want to continue to orient my life toward joy. I know that I will continue to write, teach and speak with more and more courage and clarity and less and less concern about how people will judge me. I know that I will prioritize the relationships that matter most to me and make repairs to heal those that are worth investing in. I know that I will no longer abandon myself or martyr myself in service to harmful systems. I know that I will always pause for beauty.

Both of my friends wanted to be at peace with their deaths and to spend their final days living joyfully, and with as little anxiety, disappointment, or regret as they could manage.  To do that, they both embraced their spiritual practices, prioritized what they valued most, and embraced those they loved and wanted to hold close. I will do what I saw modeled, and when it is my time to go, I will invite death in, knowing that I have lived well. Then, when my last breath has left my body, I will step from this life into pure joy.

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