I’m writing this post poolside, at a beach hotel in Costa Rica. I feel like I’m in one of those commercials from the early days of smartphones, when the busy mom wouldn’t have time to take her kids to the beach because she had a meeting, but then she’d realize she could multi-task and take the meeting at the beach.
I’m not multi-tasking from the middle of a busy life, though. I’ve slowed down my life and reorganized my priorities, my business and my lifestyle so that I can work (and play) from anywhere while I travel. (I also no longer have to centre my children’s needs and desires in my choices.)
Moments ago, I was floating in the pool, blissfully alone, watching a hawk and a few butterflies drift through the sky above me while the palm leaves danced beside the pool. Floating – in a pool, the ocean, a river, or a float tank – brings me pleasure and peacefulness. The sound of the world is muted in my ears while the sound of my own breath is amplified. Time becomes irrelevant and my body feels light and carefree. Once I finish writing this post (or when I get stuck), I’ll be back in the water, floating again.
As I was floating, I was thinking about this journey I’ve been on – which I’ve dubbed my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. Since August, I’ve been wandering around the world with only a small suitcase, connecting with people, teaching in a few locations, and opening myself to whatever comes next in my life now that my daughters have all left home.
One of the questions that I held for myself as I walked away from the house I’d owned for twenty-four years was: “What if I more intentionally seek out what brings me joy?” I’ve been doing just that, trying to orient myself toward joy in all of the choices I make this year. Joy led me around Europe, brought me back to Canada to spend Christmas with my family and then brought me to Costa Rica. Later this week, I’m following it to other places in Central America.
It’s been a meaningful exploration. What I’ve discovered so far is that when I am more intentionally oriented toward joy, I make better decisions, I’m more able to be generous with other people, I’m more resilient, and I’m more creative. This past week, for example, I’ve written far more blog posts than I normally write in a week and I think it’s because I’ve been feeling grounded and joyful and can create from a place of abundance rather than scarcity.
A new awareness arrived for me as I floated in the pool just moments ago, and that’s why this blog post is showing up (even though I told Krista I wouldn’t write anymore this week). What I realized is that my quest for joy needs to be a holistic pursuit. I need to orient myself toward joy with ALL of me – my mind, my heart, and my body.
It’s taken the longest to bring my body fully into the quest. For many reasons (trauma, religion, social conditioning), I’ve spent a large part of my life cut off from my body, not loving it, not caring for it, and not listening to its wisdom. Being more fully in my body has been a work in progress, and, while I’ve come a long way, there is still work to do.
Despite my head and heart’s efforts, my body still has some discomfort with joy. In fact, the more I consider it, the more I feel like there is joy trapped in my body from years of having it shut down by a religion that told me that my body was sinful and that I shouldn’t dance or be sensuous or dress in ways that drew attention to myself or have sex before marriage or do most of the things that might allow embodied joy to find full expression.
My trauma tells me that embodied joy is not safe, and my body is hanging onto the vestiges of that belief system longer than the rest of me. My head and heart have worked through this with my therapist, but my body is still catching up.
Sometimes, when my head and heart feel joyful, I notice my body respond with fear signals or dissociation, as though it’s trying to pull my head and heart away from a dangerous precipice. One of my most familiar remaining “tells” is a tightening in my throat, lips, or tongue – almost as though my body is afraid it won’t be able to breathe if I lean fully into joy. (One of my trauma incidents involves being nearly choked to death, so the fear of losing breath remains present in my body.)
Fortunately, my mindfulness practice and my tenderness practices have brought me to greater and greater awareness of what’s going on in these moments, and, although I haven’t fully resolved this in my body to the point where it no longer happens, I know that I have resources to witness it, soothe it and sometimes even transform it. Sometimes it takes time, but I can usually bring myself back to a feeling of safety and, ultimately, embodied joy.
With every bit of healing I do, I am getting better and better at floating in joy the way I float in water. Whenever I float in the water, I have to give myself over completely to the water, trusting the water to hold my body up so that I still have access to the air that will fill my lungs. Unless I become anxious to the point of stiffening my body, or waves threaten to topple me, the water is always trustworthy in holding me there.
I want to trust joy the way my body trusts the water. I want to lean into it, relax all of the muscles in my body, and trust that it will hold me close to the surface so that I can always take another effortless breath.
The older I get, the more time I spend in a place called self-love.
It’s not a destination I have fully settled into yet, but at least I spend more time there than I used to. It’s not just a hotel that I visit a couple of times a year – it’s an apartment I’ve furnished with some of my favourite books, artwork and comfortable furniture.
There are moments when I want to stay in that apartment, but I get pulled back to old familiar locations, like self-criticism, self-doubt, body shame, insecurity and fear of abandonment. When I make a mistake that hurts someone, when someone criticizes me, when my old trauma is triggered, or when I haven’t been tending my membranes and I’ve extended myself to the point of exhaustion – those are all times when it’s harder to stay in my cozy apartment with my favourite things. That’s when I use my tenderness practices to soothe my body/mind/heart and eventually I find my way back.
Before I made tenderness an important part of my life, I used to go on self-defeating loops in my mind. First I’d get triggered into self-criticism and fear of abandonment. Then, because I’d read a lot of self-help books about the importance of self-love, I’d try to find my way back there. Because I was already in self-criticism mode, though, I’d start to blame myself for not being better at self-love. Of course, that loop never served me well because personal growth can not happen in a place of self-criticism.
When I interviewed her for Know Yourself, Free Yourself, my friend, psychologist Dr. Jo Unger told me that “we react to self-criticism with defensiveness, just as we would when receiving criticism from others. We try to protect ourselves and we defend our choices and behaviours.” In other words, we become our own worst enemies, creating a war within our own heads.
How do we get out of these loops, then? How do we find our way to self-love when the self-critical parts of us keep blocking the path? Once I started on this Liberation and Tenderness journey I’ve been on, I started to find a few answers to those questions.
Firstly, I learned about systems theory and began to realize that my own tendency toward self-criticism and fear of abandonment wasn’t just a personal failing but was designed into the systems I was born into. That was an important piece for me, because it meant that I was neither fully responsible for developing (or dismantling) the self-critical parts of myself, nor was I solely responsible for my lack of self-love. (It also meant that my family and community were not solely responsible – the systems were much bigger and more complex than that.)
Capitalism, for example (a meta-system that infiltrates every other layer), doesn’t want me to find genuine self-love because then I might stop buying things to try to compensate for the emptiness in my heart. Capitalism wants me to keep seeing my body as shameless, because then it can convince me to buy all the body-shaping clothes, all the age-defying creams, all the self-help books, all the beauty products, and all the diet plans. If I love myself too much, and everyone else does the same, we might stop feeding the growth that capitalism relies on to live.
Contrary to what some of the self-help books teach, self-criticism is not just an inside job. It’s been shaped by many forces, from our earliest days of life. Unless we understand that, it doesn’t matter how many self-help books we read. We might get better at self-care, and perhaps even self-acceptance, but genuine self-love will remain illusive.
Secondly, I learned that, though I’ve been shaped by systems and the systems are still alive in me (and I help shape systems), I still have the freedom to make choices. I am not a slave to the systems. I can choose to heal the trauma that has left me with a fear of abandonment. I can find community support instead of trying to face this challenge as an individual. I can choose to deconstruct the beliefs that the system has convinced me I can’t live without. I can choose to challenge the voices in my head that tell me I need to climb the ladder of acceptability to be worthy of safety and belonging and I can work with my community to co-create spaces where the ladder has no value.
As Sonya Renee Taylor teaches in The Body is Not an Apology, we can choose to collectively dismantle the ladder. “Divest from this ladder. It’s only real because we keep trying to climb it. We have no more use for it. When I don’t have the ladder to climb and I understand my natural birthrights, the ladder is imaginary. We already came here with everything we need to be destined to be who we came here for.”
Thirdly, I discovered that Tenderness was my path back to self-love (no matter how many times I get triggered into self-criticism or self-doubt). When I started to experience Tenderness as an external entity (as I wrote about in The House That Tenderness Built), something that was always available to me whenever I chose to receive it, I found I no longer had to rely solely on my own internal resources (resources that often got blocked by self-criticism) to get to self-love. I could simply trust in it, the same way I trust nature to hold me when I go for walks in the woods.
When I write conversations with Tenderness in my journal, she teaches me how to treat myself and how to divest from the ladder. When I soothe my body with Tenderness practices, she reminds me how valuable, beautiful, and sensual my body is even if it doesn’t measure up to capitalist beauty standards. She reminds me again and again that I am worthy of love and she silences the voice of self-criticism.
“Everything is a candidate for inquiry,” says Gabor Maté, “even intensely negative experiences like self-loathing. Rather than admonishing ourselves for hating ourselves, we can be curious as to why self-hatred arrived on the scene in the first place. A question posed in that spirit often illuminates. When the beauty in us can compassionately accept the beast – allow it to ‘be our guest,’ if you will – the latter may transform into a handsome and loving companion; at the very least, it can relax and stop hounding us so ravenously.”
That brings me to some thoughts about what self-love really is. Last week, during a lunchtime conversation at Brave Earth, British-Chilean artist and activist Felipe Viveros shared that in mapudungun (the language of Mapuche people, an Indigenous tribe in Chile) there is no word for hate. “Ayün”, the word used for love, means that there is a special kind of light in your eyes and that I can see myself reflected in that light. The only way to understand hate, then, is to say that the light in your eyes has gone out and I am no longer able to see myself reflected.
Since that conversation, I’ve been thinking about that in relation to self-love. When I look in the mirror, I want to be able to see myself reflected back to me through the light of my own eyes. I want to stand in that light and nurture it for so long that it is never at risk of going out. I want that light to shine as brightly as it can so that everyone I meet can see themselves reflected.
Another conversation this week had a similar impact. My friend Michael was talking about wonder and awe, and how it’s easy to be in wonder and awe when we look at nature. It’s harder to do, though, when we look at ourselves. But if I am a part of nature (which I am), should I not be able to witness myself with wonder and awe? Since then, I’ve been trying to look at myself that way, witnessing myself as a beautiful and adaptable part of nature, the same way I look at the trees in the jungle on my daily walks here in Costa Rica (where I’ve been for a month).
A couple of weeks ago, I took a series of photos of the texture of leaves in the jungle. It was remarkable to place them all together in a collage and see how much variation in shape, size, colour and texture there was. Each leaf has adapted differently to its environment, doing its best to absorb whatever light is available to it in the jungle, to turn that light into energy. In a sense, the way the leaves respond to the light is just the way I want to respond to the light I see in my own eyes when I look in the mirror – to photosynthesize it into energy and to pass that energy down to the tree that holds me.
Since then, just the way I did with the leaves, I’ve been marvelling at my own body and the bodies of the people I encounter. What beautiful variations we all are! What wonderful ways our bodies have adapted to our environments! How remarkable it is to witness the ways we’ve all reached for the light, transformed it into energy, and helped to reflect it to others!
Today, as I write this in the shade of a circle of tall palm trees, I send a wish out to all of you, my readers. May you see the light in your own eyes and may you reflect it to all you meet.
I was walking through the jungle this morning, as I do nearly every morning when I stay at my friend Mary’s farm in Costa Rica, and I was noticing the beauty and variety of what has dropped onto the jungle floor. A couple of weeks ago, I photographed the endless variety of patterns in jungle leaves and, this morning, I turned my attention to what has fallen to the ground.
It was beautiful to witness the leaves, branches, fallen trees, and flower petals in various stages of decay. Some leaves were still green, some had turned various shades of orange, red, and yellow, and some were shades of brown. Those that had been on the ground the longest had deteriorated in shape and colour and were about to become one with the forest floor.
All that has fallen will serve as nourishment for the trees that continue to thrive and for those that have not yet sprouted. On some of the rotting branches and tree trunks, there were already the shoots of new plants sprouting from the decay.
Nature invites us to witness the cycles of life, and to recognize that death is built into the design. We don’t have growth without death. We don’t have new shoots without the rot of old leaves and branches to root themselves in.
Within many of our cultures, though, there is a great fear of death and a resistance to recognizing its inevitability. Our beauty industry sells us “anti-aging” products so that we can live in denial that our bodies are becoming wrinkled and worn, like some of the leaves on the forest floor. We turn away from conversations about death because we’d rather pretend it’s not going to happen to us. We sterilize the dying process and, if the body is visible at all, it is only when it’s been preserved so that it looks like the person hasn’t died that it’s acceptable.
Recently, I had the honour of walking alongside my friend Randy on his journey toward death. ALS was taking away his bodily functions and, in the end, he chose to leave his earthly body through medically assisted dying. In the year that I walked alongside him, I learned so much that I hope to someday write a book that contains the wisdom of that year. Randy was at peace with his dying and didn’t shy away from talking about it. Like the dying things on the forest floor, what Randy left behind will continue to nourish what can grow in me (and in others who were touched by his life) in the future.
This fear of death is not only a personal fear, it’s a collective fear, and we have embedded that fear into the systems we’ve developed and help to perpetuate. Within capitalism, for example, there is embedded a great denial that the system will ever need to die in order to serve as compost for the next system. We close our eyes to the destruction of a system that has completed its purpose and we pretend that it can continue to thrive and grow, because that seems safer for us to imagine. The death of capitalism seems too chaotic for us to consider, so we tolerate the harm it causes out of the fear of what is unknown.
As we all know, though, the kind of growth required to support our capitalist system is wreaking havoc on our planet and destroying many lives. It’s become a monster, swallowing up living beings in its hunger for perpetual growth.
I wonder what it would be like for us to lean into the wisdom that living systems need to die in order for new life to begin. I wonder how it would change us if we treated our systems like the trees in the forest, accepting death and decay as part of the process. I wonder what might grow if we stopped hanging onto the destructive, growth-hungry monsters that threaten to destroy us even as we feed them.
Perhaps, like Randy, we could even accept some form of “medically assisted dying” when we recognize that the purpose has been served, there has been joy in the lifetime of the system, and it’s time to let go. I don’t know what the future holds once we have allowed capitalism to die. Like everyone else, I am afraid of the chaos of the deconstruction process, and so I notice my own resistance rising up even as I write this.
Here’s what I do know, though… we are creative, resilient beings, living in a creative, regenerative world. We are not separate from that world. We are not set apart, better than, or worse than. We are in nature and nature is in us.
I also know that we have gained gifts from capitalism (just as I gained gifts from Randy) that will nourish us even as the system decays. It was not designed as an evil system, but as a system that sustained humans for many years. It was simply doing the job it was designed for.
AND I know that we need to resource ourselves so that we have the courage, strength and creativity needed for this great transition we’re entering. That’s why I’m committed to teaching people to hold space for discomfort, and why I have created the course Know Yourself, Free Yourself; self-exploration as a path to liberation and love (which starts in early March). I believe that embracing tenderness and liberation will help us find the resources we need in order to live through what could be a chaotic time.
It’s time for us all to imagine and co-create better ways of living together. I don’t know what those designs look like yet, but I know that we have the resources we need when we lean into our collective wisdom and courage. And I believe that there are clues on the jungle floor.
It’s been a year. I don’t quite know which adjective to put in front, so I’ll just say that – it’s been a year. A year in which the last of my daughters moved away from home, quickly following her two sisters. A year in which I sold my home, gave away most of my furniture and belongings, put my personal items into storage and intentionally stepped into the liminal space of homelessness. A year in which I set off on my “love and liberation tour”, starting with a few weeks across Canada and then three months in Europe. A year in which I journeyed with a dear friend toward his medically assisted death. A year in which I wrote the final chapters of a book of personal essays in Costa Rica and Spain and then sent it off to the publisher. A year in which I returned to teaching in-person workshops in two European countries after two and a half years of only online work during a global pandemic.
The personal growth and healing that happened this year felt monumental. I let go of some old beliefs, learned to be more and more tender with myself, practiced acceptance in a more profound way, and stretched myself into increased courage.
I’m in a rented apartment back in Winnipeg where my daughters (who live in cities spread out across the country) and I have gathered to close off the year together. My daughters are still all asleep and I’ve put the kettle on for tea as I sit here reflecting on some of the things I’ve learned and relearned this year. Here are some of those things:
Spend time with dying people. Few things in my life have impacted my growth more than time spent with dying people (see my viral blog post about my mom’s death) and this year I had the indescribable gift of walking with my friend Randy along his journey with ALS and toward his death. Our weekly Zoom calls and my two trips to visit him softened me, stretched me, challenged me, and grew me. Sometimes I watched him wrestle with the frustration of what he was losing as his body deteriorated, but mostly I witnessed the grace and acceptance as he chose to spend his final year in joy and connection. On the day that Randy was dying (with medical assistance), I was in Brussels, serendipitously traveling with my friend Brenda who is living with cancer that will likely kill her, and she was able to hold space for me in a special way because she has her own relationship with death. As I become more and more intimate with death, I am learning to be more fully alive.
Accept the fly. In my last visit with Randy, this was one of the final teachings he offered me. ALS had ravaged his body and he had little movement left. He told me about the time he’d been lying in his bed waiting to be moved into the chair where he spent his days, and a fly kept landing on his face. He had no ability to chase the fly away, so he turned it into a spiritual practice. “Can I accept the fly?” he asked himself, and then he practiced simply being present with the fly instead of being irritated by it. I have repeated that question to myself many times since, whenever something or someone is irritating me. “Can I simply accept and co-exist with this person/situation/challenge/inconvenience/etc.?”
Be tender with yourself. The tenderness practice that I started in 2021 has grown into one of the most meaningful things in my life. Being intentionally tender with myself has helped me learn to love and accept myself in ways I didn’t think were possible. It’s helped me cope with anxiety, course correct when I start spiraling into self-doubt and shame, and pause when I’m slipping into the Three P’s – perfectionism, performance measurement, and punishment. You can learn more about it in my free webinar, in the upcoming course Know Yourself, Free Yourself, or in retreat with me in Costa Rica.
“Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” After I listed my house for sale and prepared to embark on my liberation and tenderness tour in the Spring, I got the above line from the Mary Oliver poem, Wild Geese, tattooed on my arm. I wanted a daily reminder to honour what my body most wants and needs, to choose my own body’s version of love, and to let go of the social conditioning that taught me to shame, punish, restrict and ignore my own body while looking after everyone else’s needs before my own.
Let go of things and give them to people who need them more than you do. When we were nearing the end of our packing and purging process, just before transferring ownership of the house to strangers, my daughters and I lined up all the things we didn’t know what to do with along the sidewalk in front of our house, put a “free stuff” sign on it and posted it on Facebook marketplace. In our brief conversations with the many people who came, we heard stories of refugees who’d fled war in their countries, single moms on fixed incomes trying to create home for their kids, and international students setting up apartments for the first time. It felt meaningful to be able to support so many people in creating a sense of home even as I was dismantling the one that had meant so much to me for twenty-four years.
Be honest with yourself. As I transition into this new era, with no dependent daughters living with me, I am asking myself a lot of questions about what I most want and need, what makes me happy, which relationships matter the most, and how I want to live. I am learning to be more and more honest with myself, honouring myself in ways I didn’t know how to in the past. Sometimes this new honesty surprises me and sometimes the choices that come with it don’t make sense to other people, so there is growth and some discomfort involved, but in the end, I believe it’s all worth it. “Tell the truth to yourself,” sing the Avett Brothers, “and the rest will fall in place.”
Wonder, wonder, wander. This is a personal practice I wrote about a couple of years ago and I put it into even more practice in the latter part of this year. First, wonder as a noun… “a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.” Second, wonder as a verb… “desire or be curious to know something.” And third, wander… “walk or move in a leisurely, casual, or aimless way.” (Read more about it here.) I did a lot of wandering in Europe, for hours at a time in several countries, and all the wandering helped me find myself in new and meaningful ways. It also helped my body find its equilibrium.
Stay a little longer in the places where your body feels ease. When I was in Sitges, Spain, a beautiful seaside town that’s one of the most queer-friendly places in Europe, I felt my body relax into the kind of ease I hadn’t felt in quite some time. There’s something about large bodies of water that almost always soothes my nervous system while also making my body feel more alive and vital. Add that to the welcoming, safe feeling of the town, and I noticed a perceptible difference in the unsettled feeling I’d been experiencing since the move out of my house in the summer. Instead of moving on to my next destination, I gave my body the gift of a few more days by the sea.
Fly across the country for a friend who matters. My friend Randy lived on the east coast, thousands of kilometres away from me, but when he told me he was dying last year, I made it a priority to visit him (once in the Spring and once in the Fall just before leaving for Europe) and those are trips I will never regret spending money on. Friendships that are worth flying across the country for are immeasurable treasures and I will NEVER take them for granted. One of the things I appreciated most about Randy was the way that he showed his delight in people, showering them with a special kind of love, and I was glad that I could give that love back to my dear friend in his dying year. Invest in friendships and hold onto the people who delight in you. Those are friendships that help you see your own beauty.
Witness the world through the eyes of someone losing their sight. When I was in the Netherlands, I spent a few days with my friend Cath, a visual artist who is losing her eyesight. Cath is a reflective person (and grief therapist) who’s learning to witness the world differently as her eyesight declines and incorporate that into her art. My time with her helped me to be more aware of both the gift and the limitations of living with and navigating the world with a disability. Cath regularly shares images of the textures and colours that she sees on her walks through the city on social media, and it’s changed my perspective on the world and on what it means to live in a disabled body.
Talk to your inner child. Part of my tenderness practice involves witnessing the younger versions of myself that show up when I am triggered, anxious, disconnected, or overwhelmed. I’ve learned to pause to give that younger version of myself a voice, to allow her to express her concerns and needs, and to give her what she didn’t know how to (or wasn’t allowed to) ask for. Sometimes I sit on a park bench with my journal writing conversations with a younger version of myself or writing letters to her. It’s been a healing and empowering practice, integrating all parts of myself into who I am and who I’m becoming.
Talk to your emotions. Another part of my tenderness practice is to have conversations with my emotions. When I feel afraid, for example, I ask my fear what it is trying to tell me. When I am excited, I let that excitement have a voice rather than trying to dampen it with “grown-up” sensibility. (You can read more about this in The House that Tenderness Built.) I’m learning to feel more safe with any emotion when it arises and to course correct when my trauma wants to send me into dissociation.
Ask for what you need. This goes along with the above practices about being more honest with myself and witnessing my inner child. I’m learning (and relearning) how to honour my own needs and to ask other people to help fill them when necessary (without becoming too attached to an expectation that they do so). It’s brought up some discomfort and has forced me to confront some of the social conditioning I have about what it means to be a “good woman” who minimizes herself in service to others, AND it’s also helped me to have healthier boundaries and to be more tender with myself. Just last week, when the first AirBnB I’d rented for my daughters and I was a sad and dirty place, I practiced asking for what I needed by requesting a refund and finding a better place.
Stop trying to change people. This is one of those life-long learning things that didn’t just land in 2022, but seemed to gain more clarity this year. Perhaps it had something to do with my daughters all setting off into lives of their own while I supported each of them in making choices that were best for them. This year, I practiced internalizing a mantra I’ve heard my friend Michael say many times: “Nobody and nothing has to change.” When I let go of the expectations that other people would show up in the way I wanted them to show up and leaned further into an acceptance of just who they were, I became more resilient in the face of their inability to meet my needs AND I learned to turn elsewhere to have the needs met that they weren’t able to meet.
Let go of beliefs that don’t serve you. Again, this is lifelong stuff that gained increased clarity in 2022. I spent quite a bit of time this year interrogating my belief systems and asking myself which of my beliefs were genuinely mine and which ones belonged to my parents, my culture, my lineage, my trauma, etc. (There will be lots more about this in the book I’ll be publishing in the coming year. It’s also an important part of Know Yourself, Free Yourself, a course I’ll be offering again in March – registration opening soon.) Some of the beliefs seemed worth hanging onto, some seemed like they were holding me back in my evolution into the next part of my life, and some I continue to wrestle with. This is all part of the “liberation” that I’m referencing when I say I’m on my “liberation and tenderness tour”, and it will be part of the upcoming retreat in Costa Rica. (Join us at the end of January – there are still spots available.)
Learn to love your own company. As I’ve grown older, I’ve grown increasingly comfortable with solitude. In fact, I crave it whenever I’ve been with people for too long. I spent much of my time in Europe (especially the last month, after the teaching portion was finished) in solitude and I genuinely loved it. Many people assume that traveling solo is second best when you can’t find anyone to travel with you, but I love it just as much as I love traveling with friends or family. (I’m happy to have a mix of both.) I like making choices that are solely focused on my own comfort and delight. I like exploring places by myself. I like being alone with my thoughts for hours and hours. Most importantly, I like ME.
Go on a quest to find the version of you that wants to evolve next. This year when my daughters left, I stepped into an intentional liminal space that felt like a vision quest. I let go of familiarity, let go of home, let go of routine, and let go of my comfort zone. I wandered into unknown places to meet myself in a new way, I asked important questions of myself, I followed my curiosity, I sat with discomfort, and I played with new ideas and possibilities. I called it my “liberation and tenderness tour” because I was liberating myself of old baggage and old stories and learning to be increasingly tender with myself. It has already been life-changing and it’s not over yet (I leave for Costa Rica next week). I would highly recommend some version of this for anyone who’s going through an important transition, especially for those whose children are moving into their adult lives.
Thank you for journeying with me in 2022 in whatever way you have, even if you’ve just discovered my writings recently. I hope that what I have offered will inspire you to live with more courage, intention, liberation, tenderness, and ease as we step across the threshold into 2023.
“Can the liminal space also be joyful?” Someone asked me that recently, at the end of a talk I gave to facilitators of Deep Democracy in Belgium.
“Yes, definitely!” I said. “I’m in such a liminal space right now!”
If you’ve read my book or taken my courses, you know that when I talk about liminal space, I usually talk about emotions like confusion, fear, loneliness, and grief as part of the journey out of an old story and into a new one. As this person pointed out, though, the liminal space can also be a time of joy. In fact, it can be a time when we prioritize our joy as the guide that leads us into the new story.
As I write this, I’m in a cozy little apartment on the western coast of Italy. After I finish writing, I will likely walk down to the water for a while and, if it’s warm enough, I may sit at an outdoor café with a cappuccino for a few moments before I join a Zoom call this afternoon. It’s a good life I’m living, in the middle of this liminal season.
At the end of August, I stepped into the liminal when I walked away from the house I’d lived in for twenty-two years, gave away all of my furniture, packed my personal items into a storage unit, and started living out of a small suitcase. I’m calling it my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. I could also call it my Prioritizing my Own Joy Tour.
When I ask myself why I did this – why I gave away so much and walked away from a home I’d poured a lot of love and care into – I come up with a few answers. For one thing, I no longer felt a strong pull to live in Winnipeg, especially since none of my daughters live there anymore and neither of my parents are alive, but I wasn’t sure where I wanted to live next. For another thing, I crave adventure and I love to travel, so when a few invitations to teach in Europe lined up, it seemed a good time to have a longer visit here. And for a third thing… I wanted a lighter and more agile life, with less attachment to things and less need to worry about the maintenance of a house.
But there’s something else too – something deeper. I think I knew, intuitively – like the caterpillar knows when she crawls up into a tree and surrenders to the process of metamorphosis – that it was time for change. There was a growing restlessness – a sense of something new wanting to be born in me.
Like a vision quest, or even like a gap year where students go away for a while to figure out who they are, I felt the need to re-explore my own identity and discover the ways in which I am being reshaped. For one thing, my relationship with my daughters is being reconfigured, now that they are all adults living away from me, and I need to explore who I am when less of me is shaped by motherhood. For another thing, my relationship with my work has been reconfigured, now that I am in a business partnership and we have a teaching team running our online programs. And for a third thing, I’ve completed my next book which will take my work in a slightly new direction and which is an even more deep dive into my personal stories than I’ve shared in the past.
Where does joy enter into all of this? Well… it became more and more clear to me in recent years (especially as I was writing my new book), that, in whatever ways I was going to reconfigure my life at this pivotal moment, I wanted to be more intentional about placing joy at the centre. As I talk about in the book (which will come out next year), there is a deep vein of martyrdom and unworthiness living in my body, inherited through my lineage and the systems I’m part of, and I wanted to be intentional about disrupting that narrative and living into a new story. Like the girl in the Velcro dress, I wanted to strip away the things I was carrying that weren’t mine to carry.
That’s why, on this season of liminality, I am leaning into joy to help guide me into the new story. I am being intentional about noticing what gives me joy each day and what steals my joy. Each day is different – sometimes I find joy in solitude, sometimes I find joy in companionship, sometimes I need hours of walking, and sometimes I need a day spent in bed. I’m trying not to judge those needs or desires – I’m being mindful of them and responding in the best way I can.
(It should be mentioned here that prioritizing joy does not mean that it is ALL joy. I haven’t banished any of the other emotions that pop up – especially when my dear friend Randy died in October. I let myself feel the complexity of emotions and do my best to turn my face back toward joy.)
Back in the Spring, when I was in the process of selling my house, I got the following line from a Mary Oliver poem tattooed on my arm: “…let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”. I’m paying attention to what the soft animal of my body loves and I’m trying to give her more of that.
In the past, I might have read a post like this and dismissed it as the empty pursuit of hedonism (especially since I was raised with a great deal of consciousness around sin), but that’s not what I’m talking about. This isn’t the blind pursuit of pleasure that obscures the needs of others and the injustices around me. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
What I’ve been learning, as I explore the themes of liberation and tenderness on this trip, is that an honest pursuit of joy that includes a disruption of the narratives around martyrdom and unworthiness, can be the most radical act of defiance against the oppressive systems that cause the injustices we’re all surrounded by. To love ourselves, to free ourselves, to live joyfully, and to treat ourselves and each other with tenderness is to dare to create alternatives to those systems that seek to bind us in their trauma and oppression.
We have been raised in systems that teach us to measure our own bodies against other bodies in order to prove our own worth. We’ve been taught by our schools how to measure our intellect and our athletic ability. We’ve been told by the media and by our institutions which bodies have more merit and which ones deserve punishment. We’ve been taught by capitalism how to determine our worth based on our productivity, wealth and status.
Performance measurement, perfectionism, and punishment… those are the themes that run deeply in these systems of hierarchy and oppression. All three are rooted in trauma and we pass that trauma from generation to generation, upholding the systems as we do so. We learned these patterns in our infancy and they’ve been so present all of our lives that we don’t even notice the ways we’ve internalized them. We are largely blind to the ways that they inform our own relationships with our bodies.
Diet culture is one of the ways we punish our own bodies and measure our performance. (For more on this, read Reclaiming Body Trust, by Hilary Kinavey & Dana Sturtevant.) Grind culture is one of the ways we sacrifice our bodies on the altar of capitalism and we internalize the perfectionism of that system. (For more on this, read Rest is Resistance, by Tricia Hersey.)
I’m no longer going to willingly participate in things like diet culture or grind culture. I’m intentionally choosing to liberate myself from those patterns of harm and I’m seeking a new path. I’m treating my body with tenderness and challenging myself every time I hear a voice in my head telling me I’m not worthy of that tenderness. I’m being tender with my fat belly, my crooked teeth, and my fussy feet that can only wear the most functional of footwear. I’m prioritizing rest and play. I’m letting my inner child speak the things that she wasn’t allowed to say. I’m honouring the longings that I’ve so studiously silenced in the past. I’m pulling away from social media whenever it sparks feelings of “not-enoughness”. I’m being especially kind to myself whenever I fumble.
I let go of a lot of physical baggage in August when I moved out of my house, and, in the months since, I’ve been working to let go of a lot of psychic baggage. I am carrying less martyrdom, less unworthiness, less self-criticism, less anxiety, and less trauma. Just as I hoped, I am living with more lightness and agility, in more ways than one.
I’ve been inspired by the writings of many wise teachers on this journey toward more liberation and tenderness. Here’s a list of some of the books that have especially inspired me:
If you, too, have a growing awareness that it’s time to liberate yourself from some of the patterns you’ve learned from your lineage and the systems you’re part of, and it’s time to treat yourself with more tenderness, perhaps you’d like to join me in Costa Rica in January for Liberation & Tenderness: A Gathering for Seekers, Lovers, and Dreamers? It will be a special time in a beautiful setting when we’ll collectively explore the burdens we no longer need to carry so that we can ALL live with more lightness and agility. We’ll do our best to put joy at the centre of our circle, while also honouring all of the feelings that might surface in the process.