The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
~ William Stafford ~
In order to ensure that Theseus would find his way back out of the labyrinth (which he entered in order to slay the minotaur and free his people), Ariadne gave him a ball of thread that he could unravel on the way in and follow on the way out.
Much of my life feels like a version of Theseus’ journey and Stafford’s poem. I’ve been following a thread that’s hard for others to see, but that keeps me from getting lost even when tragedies happen and people get hurt. Stumbling through a dark labyrinth, I often can’t see more than five feet in front of me, but I can feel the light touch of the thread in my hand that invites me forward.
A conversation with a client yesterday reminded me of this thread and how it has sustained me over the years. She was lamenting the fact that, unlike others who seem so focused on their goals, she could never see a clear vision for her life or her work. She had lots of interests and passion, but couldn’t seem to shape those into a business plan or “elevator speech” that would help her make sense of her work to other people. On top of that, grief had rearranged her recently, so she barely recognized herself some days.
The conversation reminded of the time, five years ago, when I was in a similar place. Back in 2012, when I was still struggling to make this business viable, my mom was dying and my marriage was crumbling. I was afraid, angry, and lost. Any vision I thought I’d had for my unfolding future seemed like nothing more than a mirage that had vanished from the horizon. I’d started looking for part time work, afraid I was failing at self-employment because I hadn’t mastered those things the business experts tell you to do, like envisioning my target audience, having clear goals, or writing solid business plans.
Up until that time, I’d often made vision boards, like many good life coaches do, collecting and collaging visual images that represent my unfolding vision. But that process, like so many others, had failed me. No matter how many vision boards I made, my work still felt unfocused and my future was still a mirage. The pending death of my mom and my marriage only compounded the situation.
Frustrated and angry, and feeling betrayed by the practices I’d adopted and coached other people to use, I turned to destruction. I started tearing up maps. Here’s what I wrote at the time:
Tearing up old maps can feel surprisingly cathartic when there’s no roadmap for the journey you’re traveling along. I tore and I placed and I glued. I shredded roads and lined them up with wasteland. I tore up countries and provinces. I cut lakes in half. I destroyed international borders. I had no idea what was emerging, but it felt good to destroy.
What emerged from that was the most helpful collage I’ve ever made – my lack-of-vision board. (The above image.) It was messy and beautiful, with glimpses of the thread I keep hanging onto even when I couldn’t see my way out of the labyrinth.
I’ve never made another vision board since. The lack-of-vision board works better for me – helping me sit in the messiness and practice mindfulness even when I feel lost. The vision board always felt a little forced – like I was trying to bash down the walls of the labyrinth so that I could see where the path was going to take me. Instead, my practice is to hold the thread lightly in my hand and trust that one foot in front of another is the only way to follow the path.
Now, when I look back at the development of my work, I can see that moments like this, when I tore up the map and made meaning out of the mess, were the pivotal moments when my real work was emerging. I was learning to surrender to the liminal space. I was letting go of the vision I thought I should have and letting go of the way I thought I should do my work (in other words, the ways that seemed conventionally acceptable). Instead, I was learning to trust the path as it emerged from the shadows in front of me.
When I coach people now, it looks different from what it did in those early days. I’ve let go of many of the conventions of what coaching is supposed to be and I’ve learned that those liminal spaces are where the really important work happens.
Many in the personal development field want to rush you through those places and into more productivity, light and positive thoughts, but my work is different from that. It’s about holding space for people while they learn to sit with the questions and work through their discomfort with the liminal space.
I couldn’t always tell you what the thread was, back in those moments when I felt lost and confused, but now, when I look back at the places I’ve been, I can see that the thread was there and it helped me get to where I am now. The thread finally became clear when, after my mom died, I wrote the blog post about holding space that went viral and changed my work forever.
All of that time when I was walking through loss and grief and liminal space, I was doing the hard learning that brought me to where I am now.Surrendering to the experience is what allowed me to develop the body of work that is now emerging in my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. Though none of it felt focused at the time, and, as Stafford says, “people wondered about what I was pursuing,” in retrospect I can see that it all threaded together and made a remarkable amount of sense.
Preparing this program has felt like stepping out of the labyrinth into a clear sunny day.
I had to go through all of that to see that what I was meant to develop was not the same kind of coaching or facilitation work that has become common in the personal development world. It is something different, something deeper – something that doesn’t run from complexity, grief, or discomfort but learns to make meaning of it instead.
This work is counter-cultural and doesn’t always make sense in a culture that values linear progress and simple answers, but it’s clear that it responds to a hunger people hardly know they have. When people finally give themselves permission to feel lost, and they no longer feel so alone in the lostness, there’s a new light in their eyes that wasn’t there before.
I am looking forward to working with the participants of the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, because I know that they will bring much wisdom and curiosity to the work. Those who join me will be people who, like me, have walked through pain and grief and despair and have found the source of their own resilience. They will be people who’ve learned to sit with the questions without rushing to find answers. They will be meaning-makers and mystics who embrace the mystery and complexity of life. They will be those who understand what it’s like to stumble through the labyrinth, trusting that the fragile thread in their hand will guide them through the darkness.
This is not a linear path we’re on and there are no easy answers, but when you follow the thread, you can find your way through. Join me?
* * * * *
The Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program is a new online training program, built in a modular way that offers something for everyone who holds space. Register now for the first session which begins May 29th.
If you are looking for coaching for your own liminal space, sign up now as I will only be receiving new clients for the next 2 weeks. After that, the doors will be closed for several months while I work on the new training program.
Sometimes grief comes like a runaway truck. You can see it careening down the highway toward you, but you don’t have enough time to get out of the way before it flattens you.
Sometimes it’s a slow moving train, and you’re stuck at the crossing, impatiently waiting for it to pass so that you can get on with your life.
Sometimes grief is a stealth bomber, dropping missiles from the sky and leaving you with an unfamiliar and sinister landscape that you don’t know how to navigate.
This Christmas, grief came to me like a sailboat – not disruptive or forceful, but with a strong enough wake to rearrange the pebbles on the shore.
It came in the dark while I was driving down the highway, on the way home from a full day of Christmas merriment at my brother’s house. It came on the same road where, six years earlier, I told my husband that, unless something changed, I couldn’t stay in the marriage any longer. It came while my daughters were peacefully sleeping in the van behind me. I was glad for the cover of darkness to hide the tears streaming down my face.
There is a unique grief that becomes part of your narrative when you’ve lost both parents and the partner you thought you’d spend the rest of your life with. It feels untethered – like there is nobody holding you to the ground anymore and you have to figure out how to do your own holding. It comes with a unique loneliness – a feeling of separateness – when you’ve lost those relationships at the first level of intimacy and the best that you now have is second-level intimacy. Those people care that you’re there and they love you dearly, but their eyes won’t light up when you walk into the room, and their hand won’t reach out to touch yours in a way that says either “you are my child” or “you are my beloved”.
I’d just spent the day with the people I adore (my siblings and their families), and my van was full of three girls whose love lights up my life, and yet I felt an undeniable sense of loneliness.
It was not unhealthy, this loneliness, nor was it even particularly painful. When it came, I felt no desire to banish it or even to resolve it in any hurry. There is no gaping hole in the centre of my heart; there is only a gentle gap that offers possibility for more fullness in the future.
I simply felt the longing in the loneliness and let it keep me company as I drove.
Longing is not something to be banished or feared. Longing is a friend, a messenger that points us in the direction of our hearts. Like a treasure map, it gives us clues that help us figure out where to dig.
Longing is what helps us make connections – with ourselves, with each other, with the sacred, and with the earth. We are meant for connection, to be in relationships that help us thrive and grow. If we didn’t ever feel longing, we would never seek each other out. We would live in isolation, never building communities, never taking the kinds of risks that result in intimacy, passion and aliveness.
Longing and love go hand in hand. Love grows in the world when we respond to our longing and reach out in connection and community.
My longing pointed me toward intimacy, touch, and deep soul connection.
There are many beautiful connections in my life, and for that I am grateful. But there’s a level of intimacy – both physical and emotional – that’s missing, and that is what my longing asks me to open my heart to.
There are other clues on this treasure map as well – clues that tell me that, in order to find the treasure of intimacy, more excavation will be required. I will need to continue to clear out the emotional clutter – old stories and attachments – that don’t serve me anymore. I will need to continue to heal the wounded parts of me that fear the deep vulnerability that comes with intimacy. I will need to soften the parts of me that keep me guarded and protected.
This past year has included a lot of excavation, a lot of decluttering, and a lot of dismantling of old stories. Now, at the end of it, I feel ready to sit with the empty spaces in my heart – the longing and hunger that comes when the old has been removed and the new has not yet come to fill its place. I feel ready to sit at the centre of the labyrinth – emptied of what I needed to release on the journey inward and ready to receive what has yet to arrive.
With this writing, I am suddenly aware of what my word for 2017 will be. My longing pointed the way to it.
My word for 2017 is intimacy.
What about you? Do you feel a deep longing right now? An ache in your heart that won’t go away? If so, what is it trying to teach you, what connection is it telling you to seek out?
Don’t chase it away and don’t fear it. Let it enter you, let it teach you, and let it point you toward the treasure you have yet to uncover.
If you’re interested in exploring your own longing and want to pick a word for 2017, A Soulful Year may be a useful resource.
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection and my bi-weekly reflections.
This week, school is back in session. One of my daughters started today and the other two start tomorrow. Two are now in university and one is in grade 8, her last year before high school.
I can say all of the clichéd things, and mean them… My how time flies! Wasn’t it just yesterday I was changing their diapers? How did it all rush past in the blink of an eye?
The return to school always reminds me of the relentless and dependable forward motion of time. Tick, tick, tick goes the clock. Flip, flip, flip go the pages of the calendar.
Today I was rushing out for last minute school supplies, haircut appointments, musical instrument rental, etc., and in the middle of it all, I wanted to hit the pause button. I wanted to slow down the pace of time, enjoy a few more summer days, and cling to my daughters’ fleeting childhood before it all disappears.
From my daughters’ perspective, still in their formative years, this is the way life is supposed to be lived – growing each year, advancing one grade after the other, stepping always forward on the straight line of time guided by the clock and the calendar. It’s the way we’re all raised – to believe that there is always meant to be forward movement. That’s not a bad thing – we want growth to happen.
But that’s only part of the truth and there’s something else I really want my daughters to learn that they probably won’t be taught in school.
Life is to be lived along the spiral and not simply the straight line.
When I was at the beach this summer, working on my book, I spent a lot of time watching pelicans. One of the things I love about pelicans is that, often, they fly across the sky in giant spirals, round and round, adjusting the arc of the spiral just enough each time so that they end at the far side of the sky from where they started.
They do this to conserve energy, riding thermals (updrafts of warm air that rise from the ground into the air), so they don’t have to flap their wings as often. They look so content and relaxed up there, circling round and round with very little effort on their part. High in the sky, they look like mythical creatures, as if they’d climbed out of ancient legends of magicians and shamans. Their shape and the way they move holds both mystery and myth.
That’s the path that I have come to believe is the most true way of seeing our lives. We go round and round, coming back each time to nearly the same place we’ve been, but always with enough of a difference to help us progress forward over time.
How many times have you been in this place you’re at right now? Like the seasons, our lives come back again and again to the harvest of Fall, the dormancy of Winter, the rebirth of Spring, and the growth of Summer. And, like the seasons, we live through the long dark spells, the slow sunny days, the rain, the wind, and the snow. We cycle through grief, through growth, through joy, through surrender, and through ease.
None of the seasons lasts forever. All of them change us a little before we begin the spiral again.
If you are in a place you feel like you’ve been before – whether it’s another cycle through grief, restlessness, waiting, or fear – don’t despair. You’re simply spiralling through the sky, learning what you need to from this trip around the circle, and moving a little further each time.
If you were traveling up a mountain, you’d be best to take the spiralling path, adjusting to the altitude, not tiring yourself out too quickly. Like the pelicans floating on the thermal air, you conserve your energy by not rushing straight ahead. You also learn more and see more that way. This is the way life is meant to be lived.
Don’t rush through, even though the path might seem hard right now. Take what you need from this time, and let it unfold in the fullness of time.
If you want to take a closer look at your own spiral path, I invite you to join us for the October offering of The Spiral Path: A Woman’s Journey to Herself.
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection. I send out weekly newsletters and updates on my work.
“Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being. Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.” – Saint Augustine
Since returning from my trip to Whidbey Island on Monday, I have been trying to come up with at least a few words to describe my time away. I haven’t been very successful, though. If you’re following me on social media, you might have noticed an uncharacteristic silence of late. It’s hard to say in 140 characters or less what I can’t even describe in a blog post or conversation. Some experiences are two deep for words.
It was one of those life-changing, heart-opening, paradigm-shifting trips.
I was on Whidbey Island for two purposes – a.) to work with a small circle of people on a new website for The Circle Way, and b.) to replenish myself and dive into my writing at Self as Source of the Story, a retreat facilitated by my mentor, Christina Baldwin.
Both of those experiences were dreams come true. I am working and learning and building things with my mentors and friends, and finding my way on the very path I first started dreaming about fifteen years ago. It’s been an incredible journey, learning to trust the nudgings and whispers along the way, gaining resilience in the hard parts, and trying to be patient in the slow parts.
If you’re hanging onto a dream that just won’t let you go, take heart – it may be slow in showing up, but that doesn’t mean it’s not coming. Keep your heart focused in the right direction, and life may some day surprise you with its abundance and grace.
The entire trip felt like a divinely-offered gift, and there are many parts of it that feel tender and fragile and that I need to hold close to my chest right now rather than share. Some day they will become part of my storytelling, but not yet – not until they are full grown and well processed and strong enough to stand on their own. (In a few months, you have permission to ask about the frog that showed up on my 49th birthday and the gold key that came to me in the labyrinth.)
The biggest lesson of the trip was this…
Authentic living is like scuba diving. Just when you get comfortable diving to a certain level, you’ll become curious about what the sea looks like further down and you won’t be able to rest until you get there. Soon you’ll be developing the lung capacity and looking for the equipment to take you deeper.
During Monday’s closing circle at the writing retreat, I said “I’ve been a writer long enough to know that every few years I’ll be invited into an even deeper understanding of and connection with my own voice. I just didn’t know how deep this week was going to take me.” This statement doesn’t only apply to writers – it applies to anyone on a personal/spiritual journey. We are always invited to go deeper.
I’d started the retreat with one goal in mind – to gain some clarity about the book I finished nearly three years ago. Some of you who’ve followed me for awhile know that I was working on a book about how the three weeks leading up to and including the birth and death of my son Matthew changed my life. I thought I was finished that book three years ago. I was in the process of editing it when my Mom was diagnosed with cancer.
Mom’s death changed the story. Not only did my grief make it difficult to re-enter the story of my short relationship with Matthew, it changed the very fabric of what I’d put on the page.
Several times since then, I’ve taken it off the virtual shelf and tried to revisit it, but there was always resistance. I didn’t know how to bring it to completion. I hadn’t found the right equipment or developed the lung capacity for the deeper dive.
By the time I got to the retreat, I was ready to simply put it away and allow it to be part of my own personal growth and never have it published. But I opened myself to the possibility that the story wasn’t finished yet. It wouldn’t leave me alone.
In the very first writing prompt at the retreat, I cracked the story open again. Instead of putting it onto the shelf, I was invited into a deeper understanding of it. A new voice showed up on the page. Or rather – an old voice showed up – an old voice that wanted to weave itself into mine. This old voice had always been there, but I hadn’t known how to tap into it before. It took the right container, the right intention, an open heart, and a few simple words from my mentor to crack it open.
That’s the lesson I want to leave with you today… Your personal work is never done. You will always be invited to go deeper.
I don’t know what your version of “deeper” will look like, but I know that if you create the right container, find the right circle of support, and let yourself be guided by the right mentor(s), you’ll be invited into deeper and deeper self-awareness and deeper and deeper trust in your own voice.
This deep diving doesn’t happen by accident, however, and it doesn’t happen at the fringes of our overly-busy lives. We have to be intentional about it, create space in our lives to invite it in, and seek out the people who will lovingly hold space for it. We have to seek out the equipment and do the practices that increase our spiritual lung capacity.
Throughout the week, I did the work to invite this deeper voice more fully into my life and work. I walked the labyrinth several times, I spent a day in silence, I had deep and personal conversations with like-minded people, I wandered the woods, I sat in circle and listened to other people’s stories, and I wrote pages and pages in my journal. I also shed a lot of tears and let some of my fears hold court until they felt adequately heard and were willing to let me move on.
Our deeper voices have to be tended well. They don’t show up by accident and they’ll go back into hiding if we don’t create space in our lives to foster them. They are easily swayed by fear and easily ignored by long to-do lists, unless we give them priority attention.
If you feel that you are being invited into the next layer of depth, be intentional about creating space for it.
- Go on a retreat that’s long enough for the work you need to do
- Spend an hour each day with your journal and your spiritual practices,
- Find a coach or mentor who will ask the right questions,
- Gather like-minded people into circle, and
- Guard the parts of the story that feel tender and fragile. (Only share those parts with your most trusted confidantes – people who can be trusted to help you nurture them.)
If you need some support, consider joining The Spiral Path: A Woman’s Journey to Herself (starts June 1st). Or sign up for one of the remaining spots in the Openhearted Writing Circle (online on June 6th). Or learn to Lead with Your Wild Heart. (Note: At this time, I am not accepting new coaching clients, but will open the door again in September.)
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection. I send out weekly newsletters and updates on my work.
I want to tell you about last weekend’s sweat lodge, but each time I sit down to write something, I delete it. The words just don’t come out right. This was an experience beyond words.
What I’m about to share doesn’t come close to expressing it, but it’s the closest I’ve come…
It was intense. It was emotional. It was hard. It was frightening. It challenged me in ways I didn’t expect to be challenged.
I didn’t last inside the whole time. It was too much for me – the tightness, the steam, the extreme heat, the intensity of the drumming and singing, the bodies too close together, the emotions, the fear, my own tendency toward claustrophobia, the memories of trauma. I came out, sat (shaking and weeping) for awhile, and thought I’d go back in, but I couldn’t. When I climbed back inside the open door, my whole body went into panic mode and I had to remove myself.
All I could do was sit outside and weep. I wept and wept. I couldn’t stop the weeping. There was so much that my body wanted to release. Some of it was my own fear, trauma, and grief, and some of it was as ancient as the stones at the centre of the sweat lodge. I was carrying something bigger than myself.
And then, in between the body-wrenching sobs, there was something else. An invitation. A calling. A longing.
There was a whisper in the steam and the drumming and the tears. “It’s time,” it said. “It’s your turn to step forward and become a warrior. It’s your turn to be brave, to be fierce, and to be strong. The earth that you sit on needs you to be. The people you gather in circle need you to be. Your racism-scarred city needs you to be. Everyone is waiting for you to be a warrior.
“But first you have to face this fear. First you have to hold this grief. First you have to prove to yourself that you are strong enough for what this work will require of you.”
That’s why I spent the next few days in silence. Because the sweat lodge is asking much of me.
This is the first piece of writing that emerged, two days after the experience.
Invitation from a sweat lodge
Can you carry the sadness of the world
in your tattered basket
without being pulled in
and smothered by its hungry hands?
Can you hold the container for others,
tenderly weaving the edges so they hold fast,
while trusting that you are held
by invisible hands?
Can you create the space
where hard secrets and ancient tears
are shed like old snake skin
and left at your feet like an offering?
Can you enter the story
without the story consuming you?
Can you walk through the door
without losing your Self?
Can you crack open your heart
and let the tears flow
when the basket becomes too heavy
and the sadness needs to spill out through you?
Can you hold the inherited ache
of your burning sisters
and silenced mothers
without wounding your growing daughters?
Can you sit on the earth,
feel Her deep pain and betrayal
and let it vibrate through your body
without letting it shatter you?
Can you be the storycatcher,
without being consumed by the flames?
Though I spent quite a bit of time in solitary silence after the sweat, I knew enough about this kind of deep journey work to know that I needed support. I sent a message to four people who would hold me from afar – an Indigenous elder, a reiki healer, a soulsister/mentor, and a co-host in conversations about trauma and grief. As soon as I shared it with them, I felt lighter and more able to move forward.
Those four women created a container to hold what I was going through. They prayed, they sent messages to check on me, and they cheered me on from afar.
Once again, I am reminded of how important these circles of support are. We need our communities. We need to serve as each other’s containers when we go through difficult journeys. We need to stand side-by-side as we do hard work. We need to find the people with whom, as the quote at the top of the page says, “we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors.”
I can become a warrior because I stand shoulder to shoulder with other warriors.
If you are on a similar journey, going deeper into your own calling, excavating the depths of your most authentic self, I want to help create a container for your growth. That’s why I’ve re-opened Pathfinder Circle. This feels like urgent work. We need more changemakers to stand shoulder to shoulder, holding each other when we are weak and cheering each other when we triumph.
It is my hope that six people who want to do deep work, to tap into their own longings and calling, will come together in a virtual space and support, challenge, and encourage each other. Will you be one of them?
A few nights ago, I was reading in bed when my husband turned to me and said “It must be a good book. You haven’t taken your nose out of it all evening.” He was right – it IS a good book. It’s called Pilgrimage of Desire: An Explorer’s Journey Through the Labyrinths of Life by Alison Gresik. Reading it was like getting cozy in front of the fire with a glass of wine and an old friend who knows your thoughts before you even speak them. Let’s just say Alison and I have a LOT in common.
I was delighted when Alison got in touch with me (because she saw the parallels between her book and The Spiral Path). We arranged a Skype chat and then decided to interview each other on our blogs. I love her answers to my questions, because even though we think alike and both gravitate toward labyrinths and the Feminine Divine, we both bring something fresh to the narrative that helps us see things in new ways.
1. Tell me about your discovery of the labyrinth and how it helped you reframe your life’s journey.
My first memorable experience with the labyrinth was at a women’s retreat just before I turned 30. I was feeling quite anxious, depressed, and alone — I had been reading some feminist spirituality, Sue Monk Kidd and Carol Christ, and I felt like my image of God had been pulled out from under me.
We walked the labyrinth outside, as the evening was moving toward dusk. I had written down an intention to carry with me to the centre — I wanted God to give me a new name for herself, one that captured her feminine aspect but that also connected to the God of my youth. I was quite fearful that nothing would happen, but I actually had a powerful experience of meeting the Divine there, and receiving a name to call her: Amma.
The ritual around the labyrinth — the pattern marked on the grass, the lanterns, the women walking with me and holding the space outside — provided a strong and visible support for the encounter I had. Actually, I was so freaked out by how powerful the labyrinth experience was that it was a long time before I walked one again — I certainly didn’t make it a habit early on!
I didn’t come to see the labyrinth as a way of understanding my life’s journey until I wrote my memoir. Our year of travel had come to an early unexpected end, and we had settled in Vancouver, BC, where my husband took a job. And I was having a terrible time getting my bearings. It was one of the first major life decisions we’d made without months and years of preparation and choice, and even though it was a good place to be, I felt lost.
I had made several aborted attempts to walk labyrinths when we were in Europe during our year of travel, but something always kept going wrong. And finally, after a year in Vancouver, I was able to walk the Labyrinth of Light on Winter Solstice, which gave me a chance to say goodbye to everything that I’d left behind, to leave a totem of my grief in the centre (actually a lot of snot and tears on my sweater sleeve), and to emerge into this new phase of my life with a lightened heart.
Writing about the last ten years helped me see and make sense of the recurring patterns, the reversals and progress. The geometry of the labyrinth comforted and bolstered me in very tangible ways – physically and metaphorically.
2. Your book is called Pilgrimage of Desire: An Explorer’s Journey Through the Labyrinths of Life (which sounds a LOT like something I’d write, by the way). Can you tell me about the relationship between labyrinth journeys and desire? What does the labyrinth teach us about desire?
I think that desire is what moves us through the labyrinth. There must be something that compels us, draws us forward or pushes us on, and I believe that is desire, a deep urge to go from one place to another. If we don’t want something — if our heart doesn’t want to beat, if our lungs don’t want air — then we’re not alive. And the labyrinth channels and directs that movement, that desire, in its mysterious unfolding path.
Just today I was reading a quotation from Goethe that says, “Desire is the presentiment of our inner abilities, and the forerunner of our ultimate accomplishments.” In other words, desire is our drive to unfold to our full potential. So while the object of our desire might take the shape of something material — a career, a lover, a child, a creative work, a travel destination — underneath it’s a desire to become what we can become.
And the labyrinth helps us trust and follow that desire. It holds our faith and helps us feel safe in a process that can be terrifying.
3. In the book, you mention the concept of “containers of meaning” (correct me if I got the term wrong). I haven’t heard that term before and it intrigues me. It seems to me that both you and I see the labyrinth as a “container of meaning” in our lives. First, explain the term, and then talk about how the labyrinth serves as a container of meaning.
“Meaning container” is a term I learned from Eric Maisel, and essentially it’s anything — an activity, a relationship, a project — that we designate to hold meaning for us. What we do and what we have assume greater significance because they are poured into a meaning container, captured and gathering weight rather than draining away.
I love the labyrinth as a meaning container, because it’s not a static bucket — it’s got flow and change. The labyrinth’s cycles can embrace the meaning of one hour, one day, and an entire life. So for me, the labyrinth holds the significance of that first walk and my connection with Amma, and now it holds my memoir and the story of living and writing it, and it also holds the whole history and symbolism of the feminine. The labyrinth shows me synchronicity — like you and I discovering each other! It’s like a code that communicates volumes in a single image. I feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what the labyrinth can mean to me.
4. One of the other things you and I have in common is an evolving relationship with the Divine, starting with the traditional Christian view we were raised with and emerging into something different. How did your journey to the feminine Divine change your faith?
In practice, maybe not too much. I still attend an Anglican church, I sing in the choir, and I talk to God in my journal and in my head. I love being part of a community with traditions that celebrate the seasons of the year.
What did change was the tenor of my relationship with God, when she revealed herself as Amma. Leaving behind the judgmental image of a patriarchal God and identifying with Amma as female and as a mother helped me know myself as loved in a way that I hadn’t before. I never felt the need to please Amma, I just knew she thought I was perfect and wanted the best for me. And of course it wasn’t God who changed, just my perception of her. I was able to let her in and be vulnerable with her.
I found this passage in my journal from just before meeting Amma: “I have a fear of exploring being a woman, that I don’t deserve to. That I might be a usurper. Why should I get to enjoy the healing that feminism can provide, if I haven’t been wounded by the patriarchy? Or am I afraid that if I look to closely, I will find those wounds? And even if I find them, wouldn’t other women laugh at them and say, that’s not nearly as bad as what I’ve been through. Those feelings of undeservedness and fear tell me that there’s definitely something up with this feminism thing for me. To think that I’m undeserving of it means I think it’s a good thing. To fear it means that I see it as powerful and life-changing. So those are reasons to keep an open mind, keep reading, and look for the Goddess.”
So coming to Amma was an initiation into the tribe of women that I’d never seen myself as a part of, and that encounter made me care a lot more about the ways gender affects our lives as humans.
5. In the book, you share a very personal account of the complexity of your relationship with your mom and your own experience of the “mother wound” (something that I was wrestling with as I watched my own mom die). Tell me about the experience of writing that so honestly and then taking the courageous step to share it with the world (including your family).
I knew from the beginning that my relationship with my mother was a very important part of the story I wanted to tell about claiming my right to be a writer. And I gave myself permission in the beginning to put everything I wanted to in the book and then sort out all the details later. I had the confidence to do this because I had a wonderful editor (Brenda Leifso) who I really trusted to help me walk the line between what served the story and what was just petty and unkind.
But honestly, when some of the events of our trip were happening as I was writing about it, particularly this conflict with my mom when we were in Detroit, I thought, never in a million will I write about this. I could never expose myself and her like that. And then the process of writing the book showed me what those events meant, and how they connected to what had happened in the past, and I could see they were part of the whole cloth of the story – I couldn’t cut them out.
I already had my parent’s blessing to write about the more ancient history in our family, particularly because we all saw the book as a means of helping others with similar struggles. So we built on that foundation when it came to working through more current events. In fact, the method we arrived at was that I would read them a chapter a week over a video call, because hearing it in my voice and seeing my emotion helped them process it better. Then they would respond, offer their perspective on events, correct my memory in places.
The saving grace, I think, is that my parents know we all have our own take on what happened, and they believe I’m entitled to tell my version. I feel very lucky that they can be that generous.
(By the way, if you want to read a pair of books that get even deeper into the workings of writing about one’s parents, I can highly recommend Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother?)
In the end I suppose I get my nerve to publish from the belief that this book wanted to be a thing. Pilgrimage of Desire came knocking and I signed on for the ride. I’m just beginning to see the impact the book has on its readers, and I already know that it’s been worth it.
Alison’s book, Pilgrimage of Desire, is now available to order. Go buy it! Trust me on this – you won’t regret it!
Also, go check out Alison’s post where the tables were turned and she interviewed me.