“It’s a long and rugged road
and we don’t now where it’s headed
But we know it’s going to get us where we’re going
And when we find what we’re looking for
we’ll drop these bags and search no more
‘Cuz it’s going to feel like heaven when we’re home
It’s going to feel like heaven when we’re home.”
– From the song Heaven When We’re Home, by the Wailin’ Jennys
Last week, I found home in Florida, and, like the song says, it felt like heaven.
No, I’m not planning to move there any time soon (I’m not sure this Canadian girl could handle the humidity), but I found home nonetheless.
That home was in front of 175 people teaching a workshop on Holding Space through Grief and Trauma (see above photo). I taught the whole workshop, from 9 to 3:30, without any notes (other than my Powerpoint slides) – because this is my home. This is my work. This is the lifeblood that runs through my veins. The next day I taught two half-day workshops on The Circle Way and it was the same.
I know this material and these stories so well, have spoken and written about them so many times, that notes are no longer necessary. I can stand in front of 175 strangers and feel energized and a little nervous but still perfectly at home.
Some people call it a divine assignment, some people call it a calling, some call it your life’s purpose. In some Indigenous cultures, it’s referred to as your “original medicine” – the unique gift that you and only you can offer toward the healing of the world.
Whatever you call it, when you find it, you feel like you have finally come home.
Here’s what I know about finding it:
- Home is a lot more beautiful when you’ve taken a journey away from it. I spent many years doing work that didn’t feel like home, but that was all part of the quest that helped me find it. The more work I did that didn’t feel like “my work” the more clear I became about what I was looking for. A few days ago, I heard a chef on The Chef’s Table say that he’s known he’d be a chef since he was 14 years old. I’m intrigued by that kind of clarity, but that’s not the journey that was meant for me. There’s no way I could have imagined the work I do now when I was 14 – I had to take the long journey to get here.
- The quest for home will take you through “alien lands”. I couldn’t say it better than Parker Palmer does: “Most of us arrive at a sense of self and vocation only after a long journey through alien lands. But this journey bears no resemblance to the trouble-free ‘travel packages’ sold by the tourism industry. It is more akin to the ancient tradition of pilgrimage – “a transformative journey to a sacred centre” full of hardships, darkness, and peril.” There are many out there who are selling very tempting “trouble-free travel packages”, but what you’ll get from them is an empty shell of what you’re really meant to find in your life. Take the “road less traveled”. It’s risky, but it’s real.
- The path through the “darkness and peril” builds your resilience and helps you to eventually see the light. It was when I learned to surrender to the darkness and begin to see the purpose and meaning of it that I finally started to find the clarity I was seeking. I can only teach about topics like grief and trauma and the liminal space because I learned to navigate those worlds myself, and I could only learn to navigate them when I stopped resisting them. Wherever you are now, there is meaning in it and there are lessons to be learned from even the hardest moments.
- It all matters. Even those long years of doing work that didn’t feel connected to me mattered. I honed my communication skills writing speeches for politicians and government officials. I learned storytelling traveling to developing countries and telling the stories of the non-profit organization I worked for. I learned how to create enough content for a full day workshop when I was teaching courses in Writing for Public Relations at the university. It may not have been the content I wanted to speak or write about, but those were the skills I needed for what I now do.
- A true purpose includes generosity and responsibility toward others. If you live a self-absorbed life, you will be forever searching for the meaning of it. Look beyond yourself to find your purpose. “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how”. ― Viktor E. Frankl
- Many will never understand your quest or your purpose. Last week, crossing the border into the U.S., I was held up for an hour (and nearly refused entry), trying to explain my work to a confused border agent who couldn’t find an appropriate category in his big binder full of visa information. I get the same kind of confusion from lawyers, accountants, friends, family, etc. I used to think I just needed the right “elevator speech”, but no matter what I tried, there were always people who gave me confused looks. I gave up on the elevator speech and simply learned to accept that the work I’ve been called to doesn’t fit well with cocktail party small talk or border crossings.
- The right people will get it. It doesn’t take long to figure out whether a seat mate on the airplane, a participant at a workshop, or another parent on the soccer field is on a similar quest as I am on. If I speak words like “holding space” or “The Circle Way” and their eyes light up, I know we’ll be able to have a meaningful conversation. In Florida, those 175 people, who mostly support children in grief and trauma, stayed with me through every word. When that happens, it doesn’t really matter how many confused looks there were until that point.
- It will take a lot out of you and it will give a lot back. Whenever I finish doing work that really matters – like that workshop in Florida – I am both exhausted and invigorated. Though it flows with ease when I am doing the right work, it is far from easy. It’s true that I didn’t need notes up there, but that’s because I was sharing from such a deep and intimate place of my own stories of grief and trauma that notes are unnecessary. My heart was being poured out in front of 175 people. I do it out of pure love, but I know that this kind of work must be followed by a few days of rest and solitude.
- Desire is a guide even when you try to deny it. I had a lot of baggage around my desire to stand in front of a crowd of people speaking of things that were important to me. “It must be my pride that yearns for the spotlight,” I convinced myself. I needed to be more humble than that. I should be happy being in the background. But as much as I tried to deny it, it’s where I felt called to be and now, because I learned to silence those voices that told me I was wrong to want it, I can stand there and feel at home. “To have a desire in life literally means to keep your star in sight, to follow a glimmer, a beacon, a disappearing will-o’-the-wisp over the horizon into some place you cannot yet fully imagine. A deeply held desire is a star that is particularly your own, it might disappear for awhile, but when the skies clear we catch sight of it again and recognize the glimmer.” – David Whyte
- When you find it, it’s even better than you imagined it would be. I have had lots of discouraging days along this journey, lots of times when I thought I was deluding myself, and lots of times when I started looking for other work because it was all taking far too long. But now? I can hardly believe how lucky I am. I have moments of pure joy that are unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Who knew that speaking on topics like grief and trauma could be so invigorating? Just as I surrendered to and learned from the darkness and the grief, I am surrendering to and learning from the light and the joy.
After the workshops were finished, I stayed in Florida a few extra days to spend some focused time creating the content for my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, and once again, in my little Airbnb room close to the ocean, writing in solitude, I was home. Because my calling is not to stand in front of a room of hundreds – my calling is to teach, in whatever form it takes, this work that feeds my soul and invites me to feed other souls.
“I’m not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead – ahead of myself as well as you.” – George Bernard Shaw
I hope that you find it too – the place that calls you, the work that whispers to you in your quietest moments. I hope that your own long journey is worth it and that you relish the joy that and healing that can come when you find home.
* * * *
If you need some inspiration, here are a few books that inspired me along the way:
– Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation – by Parker Palmer
– Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity – by David Whyte
– Flow: The Psychology of Ultimate Experience – by Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi
– Man’s Search for Meaning – by Viktor E. Frankl
– Body of Work: Finding the Thread that Ties Your Story Together, by Pam Slim
– Making a Living Without a Job: Winning Ways for Creating Work you Love – by Barbara Winter
* * * *
One of my upcoming retreats might also help you find it:
1. Openhearted Writing Circle, June 11 – a day retreat in Winnipeg, Manitoba. There is still space available.
2. Nourish: A retreat for your body, mind, and spirit. Together with my friend and yoga teacher Joy, I’ll be co-hosting a holistic retreat in Manitoba, August 18-20.
3. Holding Space for Yourself, Oct. 12-15 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia
4. Holding Space for Others, Oct. 18-22 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia
5. Space for an Open Heart, Oct. 27-29 at Kawai Purapura, Auckland, New Zealand
I wanted to find hope again. I really, REALLY longed for it.
I wanted to have some hint of what it will be like when I no longer feel buried under the grief of Mom’s death and the added trauma of Marcel’s heart attack and the accompanying financial stress, extra workload on my shoulders, etc., etc.
I know that “this too shall pass”. It’s what I cling to every time I find myself spiralling down into the hard places in life. “I’ve been through this before. I know that I can survive. It will get better.”
When I found the necklace in Ten Thousand Villages, I knew that I’d found my symbol of hope. It’s a tree of life, crafted by artisans in Cambodia out of the shell casings of bombs that litter the countryside. Perfect. Creating something beautiful out of destruction, loss, and grief. Making the land safe again by cleaning up the unexploded land mines and making them into jewellery. Hope out of hardship. Sounds pretty close to what I specialize in.
“…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4)
I texted Marcel a photo of the necklace. “Don’t you want to buy me something for Valentine’s Day?” I asked. Sure enough, he did. He was in the store later that day and the necklace was mine. I was delighted.
Not only was it a little bit of hope to wrap around my weary neck, it felt like a new trademark for the work I do with clients. “You too can find beauty in the grief and destruction of your lives. You can rise out of the brokenness and be courageous, resilient, and authentic. You can find deeper connection and more honest stories when you clean up the land mines and turn them into necklaces.”
And then, two days later, the necklace was gone. I stood in the bookstore bathroom, looking down at the chain on the floor. There was no tree of hope attached anymore. Somehow, somewhere, it had slipped off my neck.
I searched everywhere, but it was nowhere to be found.
Instead of holding my head up high and telling myself it was “just a necklace,” I took a nosedive into self-pity and hopelessness. “What the hell, universe? Do you hate me? Do you really want to take away the one thing that was giving me a bit of hope in all of this hardship?”
It was on my dad’s birthday that I lost my necklace. He would have been 79. Right there in that bookstore washroom (where I returned after retracing my steps throughout the store and into the parking lot), I sat and wept for all of the losses and grief stories in my life. The necklace was just the symbol (and the proverbial straw that broke this camel’s back) of everything else that has been lost in the last dozen years – my dad, my mom, my son, nearly my husband (twice)… and so many more, smaller losses. I wept and wept and let myself feel the weight of all of that grief.
And then the next morning, on my way to work, I had a car accident. Yes, really.
It was a minor car accident and nobody was hurt and there is only very minor damage to my car, but it felt like my whole world had fallen apart.
I sat in my office and cried some more. And raged at God. And cried some more. And raged. And cried. And then I got up, and moved my body a little, said a little prayer of gratitude that I hadn’t been hurt… And then… somehow… I carried on. I finished preparing for the workshop I had to deliver yesterday and then went out to the rural town where I was delivering it. I sat in circle with the women in the leadership program I’m co-hosting, and I let the conversation and the compassion in the room offer me a little bit of healing.
When I got home late last night, Marcel met me at the door holding a tiny silk package. Inside was another tree of hope necklace. He’d gone back the the store, told them about the clasp that had come undone, and they replaced it.
And now I’m wearing hope around my weary neck again – a neck made newly stiff from a slight case of whiplash, but a neck that is resilient and strong and will continue to hold my head up high when it needs to, and let it fall to my hands in tears when that’s what needs to happen.
I don’t have a neat little bow to tie this post up with. Life hasn’t become magically easy, and I still feel a little shaky and weepy, but this morning I am reminded that the real hope comes not from anything I can buy or wear. The real hope comes from the relationships that support me – my husband who cares enough to replace the necklace (and so much more), strangers at the store who were compassionate enough to believe him, the women in the circle who let me be authentic in their presence, my co-worker who let me be a little more broken apart than usual yesterday, the woman in the accident who thanked me for my courage in standing up to the man who caused the accident but refused to take personal responsibility, my friends who sent kind messages… and God, the source of my strength, who doesn’t promise ease, but promises courage if I dare to trust.
If another tragedy happens tomorrow, I might fall apart again, I might rage and scream and wallow in self-pity, but then I will get up off the floor and continue to make swords into plowshares. Because hope is still worth striving for. And love is still better than war. And light is still better than darkness.
And the tree of life grows best in the compost of the fallen trees of years past.
I have seen too many wounded women.
I have watched them lose the light in their eyes when the shadows overcame them.
I have heard a thousand reasons why they no longer give themselves permission to live truthfully.
I have seen too many wild hearts tamed.
I have witnessed the loss of courage when it’s just too hard to keep being an edgewalker in a world that values conformists.
I’ve recognized the fear as they take tiny brave steps, hoping and praying the direction is right.
“I feel guilty whenever I indulge in my passions. It feels selfish and irresponsible.”
“My husband doesn’t like it when I talk about feminine wisdom, so I keep it to myself.”
“If I write the things that are burning in my heart, it will freak people out. So I remain silent.”
“I used to love wandering in the woods, but I never have time for it anymore.”
“I just want to have a real conversation for a change. I want to feel safe to speak my heart.”
“My job makes me feel dead inside, but I don’t know what else I can do.”
“People expect me to be strong and hide my feelings now that I’m in leadership. I feel like I have too much bottled up inside that I can’t share with anyone.”
“Sometimes I think there must be something wrong with me. I just don’t fit in.”
“There is so much longing in the world. I get lost in that longing and don’t know how to sit with it.”
“I wanted to be a painter, but I needed a real career. I haven’t painted in years.”
“People think I’m strange when I share my ideas, so I’ve learned to keep them to myself.”
“I can’t go to church anymore. I don’t feel understood there. But I haven’t found another place where I can find community, so I often feel lonely.”
“There’s a restless energy inside me that wants to be free. I long to be free.”
So much woundedness has been laid tenderly on the ground at my feet.
So many women want their stories validated. Their fears held gently. Their tiny bits of courage honoured.
I hear them whisper “please hear me” through clenched teeth.
I see the tears threaten to overflow out of stoic eyes.
I recognize the longing.
I know the brokenness.
I feel the ache of silenced dreams.
They come to me because they know I have been broken too.
They trust me with their whispers because I am acquainted with fear.
They look to me for courage and understanding because they witness my own long and painful journey back to my wild heart.
I see you.
I know you.
I honour you.
I love you.
You are beautiful.
You are courageous.
You are okay.
You can be wild again.
You can trust your heart. She will not lie to you.
You can live more fully in your body. She will welcome you back.
You can go home to that part of you that feels like it’s been lost.
You can find a circle of people who will understand you.
You can step back into courage.
You have permission to be an edgewalker.
You have permission to speak the things that you’re longing to say.
You have permission to be truly yourself.
You have permission to step away from your responsibilities for awhile.
You have permission to wander in the woods.
You also have permission to be afraid.
And to wait for the right time.
And to sit quietly while you build up your courage.
You don’t need to do this all alone.
And you don’t need to do it all at once.
You don’t need to shout before you’re ready to whisper.
You don’t need to dance before you’ve tried simply swaying to the music.
You can give your woundedness time to heal.
Take a small step back into your self.
Move a little closer to your wild heart.
Pause and touch the wounded places in you.
Just breathe… slowly and deeply.
And when you’re ready, we can do this together.
If this post resonates, please consider the following:
1. Join me as I host a circle of amazing women at A Day Retreat for Women of Courage in Winnipeg on October 20th. Pay what you can.
2. I’m creating a new online program called Lead with Your Wild Heart (related to the themes in this post) that feels like a coming together of a thousand ideas that have filled my head in recent years. Add your name to my email list (top right) to be the first to hear about it and to receive a discount.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves. – Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You can be mediocre.
You can fail to capture the attention of hoards of admirers.
You can struggle all of your life to create a masterpiece and then leave it, at the end of your life, unfinished.
You might never get your book published.
Your business might never bring in more than $1000 a year.
You might not get that masters degree you always dreamed of getting.
You may not make it to the Olympics.
You might die without a penny to your name.
It doesn’t matter.
All of those measures of “success” are not important. They are the measures that we have arbitrarily attached to our efforts because we feel the need for yardsticks and goalposts.
But what if there are no yardsticks and goalposts? What if life is not a competition? What if the only winner is the person who lived well? What if the journey is the destination?
What if, at the end of your days, the only thing that matters is that you were faithful to your gift and your calling?
What if the only measurement you need to concern yourself with is whether or not you kept walking?
What if the only thing that’s important is that you let the “soft animal of your body love what it loves”?
It’s about love. It’s about the wisdom of the bumblebee as it follows its hunger to the next beautiful flower. It’s about the trust of the wild geese as they follow the migration patterns that call them to their next home.
It’s about the soft animal of your body – the part of you that knows nothing about goal-setting or success, but knows everything about love.
It’s about writing and painting and dancing and laughing and connecting and counting and inventing and problem-solving out of our deep and passionate love for that thing we do. It’s about doing it because we can’t be happy any other way. It’s about trusting the gift to lead us where we need to go. It’s about sharing what we do because we feel compelled and it doesn’t matter what other people think.
The outcome is not your responsibility.
The path is the only goal. One foot in front of the other. Winding, dipping, trusting, falling, surrendering, picking yourself up from the ground and stepping once again.
Your only responsibility is to love what you love. And to be who you are. And to dream what you dream.
Now stop telling yourself you have not succeeded. Are you in love with what you do? Then you have succeeded.
Go ahead and ask the soft animal of your body what it loves.
“When you come to the edge of all that you know, you must believe one of two things: there will be earth to stand on, or you will be given wings to fly.” – Author unknown
Today is my first day back at work after three weeks of spending time with my beloved as we search for healing following his suicide attempt. It’s good to be transitioning back into some form of “normal”, but I have to admit, the ground still feels a little shaky under our feet. Healing doesn’t happen overnight.
I feel a little like what I imagine earthquake survivors must experience – you can’t quite trust the ground anymore. Who knows when the aftershocks will come?
At the same time, though, there is something strangely invigorating about re-building when the metaphorical earthquake has left your foundation unrecognizable. You don’t assume the same things are rock solid anymore, so you factor in more flexibility. You realize you have to re-think old patterns, so you look for better materials on which to build.
Gradually you learn to trust the earth once more, and when it shifts again, you’re more ready to move with it. You enter the dance of change more readily when you’ve learned to bend at the knees.
Though he doesn’t know it, and wouldn’t admit it if you pointed it out to him, Marcel has been my teacher these last few weeks. He is spending a lot of time re-thinking old patterns and habits. He’s reading, he’s learning, he’s talking to wise teachers, and he’s practicing what he learns. He’s trying to find new foundations and new ways of thinking and being that don’t result in the same tragic results. He asks honest questions, and he doesn’t get angry when he doesn’t like the answer. I’ve seen an openness and vulnerability in him in the last few weeks that is remarkable and awe-inspiring. In a family that has never been given to much sharing of emotions, he’s learning to say “I love you” to his siblings. With a personal history of never being able to accept a compliment without turning it into a joke, he’s practicing saying “thank you” and trying hard to believe it. He’s even learning to set aside pride, shame, and stubbornness to say “I need help”. Those are all lessons I can learn from.
We are growing as a family. Our daughters are watching him and they are learning new habits through what they see modeled. They’re watching both of us, and through it all, I believe they’re learning what it takes to build relationships, trust people, grow, adapt, and be strong while still admitting to weakness.
Slowly but surely, beauty is emerging from the ashes.
A few days ago, I let Maddie drag me out of the house to see the Olympic flame as it passed through our city. It was my first day back to work and I really didn’t relish the thought of leaving my warm cocoon again in the evening, but I just didn’t think it was right to extinquish the enthusiasm of a 7 year old child who’ll probably only have one chance to see the flame in her lifetime.
In the end, I was glad we went. We didn’t get there in time to see it arrive at the Forks, but it was burning brightly in a fairly large torch on the stage where performers were putting on a concert.
At the end of the festivities, the flame was passed from the large torch to a very small enclosed lantern where they keep it burning through the night. It was just a tiny flame, but it was still THE Olympic flame. The next day, it would burn brightly again as it continued its journey toward the coast.
As I stood there watching them shrink the flame and then extinquish the large torch, a sudden epiphany visited me. That flame is just like me. Sometimes I’m burning brightly for everyone around to see, and then sometimes I have just a tiny flame burning inside me, nearly invisible to the naked eye. The beauty of the moment was the recognition that that small flame still holds within it the capacity to burn fiercely and powerfully.
Lately I’ve been going through one of those “tiny flame” periods. There are moments when there seems to be no more passion, no more inspiration, and no more energy. No more fuel for my fire. It’s not just a “January blahs” thing this time around. It’s a “something happened that makes the future seem dark again” kind of thing.
But seeing that flame reminded me that it’s still burning deep inside me. I just have to wait for it to be refueled and then it will shine again.
This morning, after having a conversation with a good friend over a chai latte, and then reading the article that my friend Darrah passed on, I had another epiphany. I am letting the shadow of this difficult situation cloud the future and I am forgetting to focus on that tiny speck of light that still burns within me (and within the people around me). I am also forgetthing that I have some control over what fuels my flame and do not have to wait for external forces to fuel it for me. But at the same time… I don’t NEED to burn brightly all the time – some times low flame times are crucial for helping me refuel and prepare for the times when I am called on to burn brightly.
As Pema Chodron says in the article linked above, sometimes we take the shifts of our emotional weather too personally. Sometimes we let ourselves believe that our current experience is how it IS instead of remembering that things are always shifting and changing.
A few days ago, I wrote this on Twitter: “I’m in one of those moods where I can flip-flop between ‘life is beautiful’ and ‘life sucks’ in mere seconds.”
Today I wrote: “Every day gives us another opportunity to rise above the things that dragged us down the day before.”
What about you? Where is YOUR olympic flame these days?