Ten years ago I was lost. I had just returned to work after my fourth and final maternity leave, and I was completely miserable. Not only was it hard to leave my baby every day, but I was in a job that didn’t sustain or inspire me. All it did was drain my energy every single day. In those days, it wasn’t unusual for tears to flow on the way home from work.
Five years earlier, I’d taken my first leadership job in the government and I took to it like a duck to water. I loved the challenge and I loved my team. I was inspired and energized by the opportunity to provide them guidance and unleash their creative potential. I had an eager and talented young staff and we worked together beautifully, finding creative ways to communicate and commemorate the sacrifices our veterans had made.
At the start, it was good, but then things started to go wrong. For one thing, I started to internalize some of the messaging I was hearing at leadership workshops and from leadership mentors. “Keep your feelings out of leadership.” “It’s about control and moderation, not about passion.” “Don’t let them see you vulnerable.” “Use your head and ignore your heart.”
For another thing, I stepped away from that first job to take one that offered higher pay and more security. Unfortunately, it was all wrong for me and the environment was toxic. It was a science environment where most of the leaders were in their roles because of their knowledge of science rather than their leadership abilities or their understanding of people. As a professional communicator, I was usually the only one at the management team table who didn’t have an advanced science degree. In an environment that valued left-brain logical thinking, there was little space for my right-brain, intuitive, heart-based approach to leadership.
I felt lost – like a foreigner in a foreign land. If this was what leadership entailed, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a leader anymore.
And then one day, I started to explore a new way of looking at leadership (that was much closer to the way I’d intuitively lead when I’d first started) and it felt like someone had offered me a lifeline. I can’t remember whose work I discovered first, but three writers started to show up on my radar screen – Christina Baldwin, David Irvine, and Margaret Wheatley. All three wrote about authentic, community-based, vulnerable leadership. They inspired me to lead from a place in the circle, live simply in a complex world, and turn to one another. (I am deeply grateful that in the years since then, I’ve had the opportunity to attend workshops with all three of these incredible teachers.)
Not long after that, I left the government for non-profit. It was a job I loved, but it was also one that challenged me in more ways than I’d ever been challenged before. Every leadership ability that I thought I’d gained and every principle I thought I valued was put to the test. I led a national team that was mostly full of fiercely independent people who didn’t really want to be lead. I was emotionally abused, I had a lawsuit filed against me by someone who felt she was wrongfully dismissed, I witnessed more than one emotional breakdown among my staff, and I had to deal with multiple conflicts and miscommunications between staff. It was a good place to work, but it was hard and I often felt very much alone. I was floundering and there was nobody to talk to about it. I searched for a circle of other leaders who might serve as my support system, but I found none. The best I could do was have regular coffee dates with my friend Susan who understood my challenges and was always a good listening ear.
When I finally left that job to become self-employed, I knew that one of the things I wanted to do was to serve women like me who knew they had a calling to be in leadership in some form or another (whether at the boardroom table or the kitchen table) and needed someone to support and guide them. I tried to do that from the beginning, and I briefly offered a program called “How to Lead with Your Paint Clothes On”, but there was something holding me back that I had to work through first.
The truth is, there were some failure stories that were getting in the way of my calling to support other emerging leaders. There was the story of my last year at the non-profit, when I was so burnt out that I was mostly ineffectual as a leader. There was the story of the ugliness of the lawsuit (that was never resolved, by the way), and the difficulties surrounding that relationship. There was the story of the pseudo-coach who’d blasted me for my unprofessionalism when I responded emotionally to a staff member’s suicide threat. There was the story of the many attempts I’d made to build a unified team out of independently-working people spread across the country.
Every time I’d think about offering a leadership program for women emerging into leadership, I’d get blocked by the gremlins that told me “you failed at leadership – what gives you the audacity to think you could teach people?”
And yet, the memory of the lifeline I’d been offered in my most lost place kept propelling me forward. I knew that the woman I was ten years ago desperately needed women like me to serve as her guide – women who’d been through the challenges, admitted her failures, had a few glorious moments, and learned from her mistakes. I knew that she needed someone who would encourage her without judging her. I knew she needed to be given permission to lead with her heart and not just her head. I knew – more than anything – that she needed someone to say “You’re okay. You’re enough. You’re on the right path. Don’t give up.”
This summer, I had the privilege of co-hosting a beautiful circle of 44 women at the annual Gather the Women gathering, and I walked away inspired once again by the need this world has for more women to gather in circle and offer their hearts into the service of transformation. After asking the women to share stories of courage, I knew that the most courageous thing I could do would be to more boldly and confidently step into the role of guide for women emerging into leadership.
Finally, after two years of self-employment, I am ready to offer the thing that’s been tugging at my heart for years – a personal leadership program for women emerging as changemakers, artists, visionaries, storytellers, and edgewalkers.
First and foremost, it’s about redefining leadership. I believe what Margaret Wheatley says, that “a leader is anyone who is willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and takes the first step to influence that situation.”
This program is for you if you’re imagining a better future for yourself, your community, or the world. It’s for you if you feel something nudging you to step into your courage. It’s for you if you’re the lost young woman I was, stuck in a corporate world that’s eating away at your soul. It’s for you if you’ve been wounded by a patriarchal model of leadership and you need healing and encouragement. It’s for you if you need permission to follow your heart. It’s for you if you’ve been longing for a program that honours ALL of who you are – body, mind, and spirit.
I offer this humbly, admitting that I have made mistakes and that I still have much to learn in my journey. Because I still have much to learn, I have invited a number of wise, wild-hearted friends to share their stories and wisdom with the participants of the program as well. I’m honoured that a long list of willing guides (including some people who’ve been my own teachers) have stepped forward and agreed to have conversations with me that will be recorded and made available as part of the program. Follow the link to find out more.
I hope that you’ll consider joining me and/or share this with other women you know who might need it.
This morning, I had the sudden urge to watch the sun rise over Matthew’s grave. I’d been working on the re-write of my book and was thinking about him in the early hours of the morning. And so, before anyone else was awake, I headed to the graveyard.
Something caught my eye when I got there. A statue of a woman, only about 50 feet from Matthew’s grave. Though she stands about 15 feet high, I’d never really noticed her before.
I carried my camera across the snow and took a few pictures of her. I wasn’t sure who she was. Mary was my first thought, but then I puzzled over why she was holding a book and standing in front of a globe and a stack of books.
It wasn’t until I started walking away that I had a sudden realization… she’s holding a BOOK! I came here (like I’ve done many times) for guidance about a book. She’s holding MY book! Only, what came out of my mouth was…
“She’s holding MY FUCKING BOOK!” (Yes, I swore. It was one of those moments.)
What I wrote in my journal was: “Sophia God is holding my book. I guess I’d better trust her with it then.” And with that thought came a huge sense of release and comfort.
I don’t have to worry about my book, or about how I’ll get it published or whether people will want to buy it. It’s in God’s hands. All I have to do is show up and finish it.
I don’t know what the statue is meant to represent to other people who visit the grave, but I know what she means to me. And I can’t help but be amused at the way she remained hidden from me all these years, until now, when I’m standing on the precipice of finishing my book and getting it into print (my hope for 2012).
Sophia God has a sense of humour. And a lovely way of bringing surprise and wonder into our lives.
UPDATE: After I wrote this post, I opened my daily email from Fr. Richard Rohr. At first I skimmed it, thought it didn’t interest me, and ignored it. But then I opened another email from a friend who’d quoted Rohr’s email, so I re-opened it. Wouldn’t you know it… December 17th is the day associated with Sophia, feminine wisdom. Don’t you love synchronicity?
Today, December 17, (according to the Antiphons) begins with the letter S for sapientia. Wisdom—sophia in Greek, sapientia in Latin, sabiduria in Spanish—was the feminine metaphor for the Eternal Divine, as found especially in the books of Proverbs and Wisdom. One might partner or compare Sophia with Logos, which is the masculine metaphor for the Divine. It is interesting that Logos was used in John’s Gospel (1:9-14) and became the preferred tradition, but Sophia was seldom used outside of the monasteries. On December 17 we invoke the feminine image of God as Holy Wisdom. – Richard Rohr
something that makes things visible or affords illumination: All colors depend on light.
of little weight; not heavy: a light load.
Last week, the word “light” kept showing up for me in what I thought at the time were two different streams. At first there was the stream of light that means the absence of darkness, and then there was the stream of light that means the absence of weight. (Of course, now that I write it down, it seems so obvious, but it took a week of processing for me to finally catch on that I was dealing with one and the same thing.)
The first time light appeared, I was listening to Yolanda Nokuri Hegngi talk about the two years she’d spent in darkness (a story she has written about in her new memoir “Treasures in Darkness”). Yolanda could just as easily have been telling my story. Full of many transitions, deaths, near-deaths, career shifts, and times of great pain, the past two years have taken me through quite a lot of darkness. Every time I thought I was emerging from the darkness, some new shadow would appear.
Yolanda ended her talk by saying “We need leaders who have learned to navigate in the dark.” Wow. I was sure she was speaking directly to me. I’ve learned more than I want to know about navigating in the dark. (Some of you may recall a related post about being called to light a candle for people stumbling in the darkness, just as others have done for me. Yes, callings like that have a way of showing up time and time again, especially when we’re stubborn.)
That afternoon in our leadership intensive, we were invited to write down some intention that we wanted to put our attention on throughout the course of the workshop. In response to Yolanda’s words, I wrote “I am putting my attention on trusting my gift to help people navigate in the dark.”
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” – Matthew 5: 14-15
The other stream of light started to appear around the same time. Our workshop held a significant focus on play – how play can transform otherwise dark circumstances and how we can use play in our leadership to engage people in deeper conversations and shifts. (To learn more about it, I encourage you to read the book Walk Out Walk On that the workshop was based on.) I’d signed up for the workshop partly because I have been yearning for more play in my life (it is, after all, the reason I chose the word “joy” as my intention for the year).
I long for more lightness. I want to carry less weight.
But… after Yolanda’s talk, all I wanted to do was cry. I struggled through the afternoon’s session of the workshop because I thought I’d chosen poorly. I wasn’t ready for play after all. I should probably be in the workshop Yolanda was leading – where tears and deep story-telling were more expected.
Quite frankly, I was fighting resentment and resistance. I wanted lightness, but here I was in a place of heaviness again. The year before, I’d gone to ALIA carrying a lot of pain in my broken heart, and I was SURE that this time would be different. This was SUPPOSED to be the year that pain was replaced with joy.
After the session, I went outside, leaned on a large sycamore tree I’d fondly dubbed “Grandmother Tree”, and I cried. I cried for the pain I was still carrying and I cried for the disappointment. I cried and I wrote, and I let the tree hold me up.
And then, still leaning on the tree, I spontaneously wrote the word “lightness” on my arm.
Shortly after that, when I returned to the main meeting room, I sat down on a meditation cushion next to my friend Brad. He looked at the heavy backpack I was carrying on my back, and at the look on my face, and asked “why are you carrying so much weight around?”
I laughed out loud, knowing the question was meant (intentionally or unintentionally) both literally and figuratively. In my backpack was the weight of all of the story-harvesting I love to do – a big camera with multiple lenses, a video camera, a journal, and various related items. On my face, at the same time, was the weight of my personal stories, heartache, and resentment.
“That’s a good question,” I said, “and it’s funny you should ask, because just now I wrote the word ‘lightness’ on my arm.” We shared a chuckle, and then I promised him that the next day I would show up with a lighter load. “You can feel free to bug me if you see me still carrying this weight.”
After the session that evening, I spent a long time wandering around the beautiful OSU campus looking for the other kind of light – the “absence of darkness” (and maybe the “absence of weight” at the same time). I found it reflected off the water, I found it gently falling on the path in front of me, I found blue versions of it shining from the safety phone posts, and I found it sparkling in the windows of old buildings full of stories.
And when I returned to the dorm, and settled into my room, light appeared there as well. This time, it was the “absence of weight” kind, when a spontaneous jam session started in the room I shared with my friend Ann. When someone with a guitar wandered past the door, I said “come in – nobody carrying a guitar is ever turned away”. And then, before I knew it, someone else showed up with a violin, and a third person pulled out a banjo. It was a beautiful light moment and I took great joy in the fact that I (and Ann) had attracted it into my space. (Light attracts light, perhaps?)
Here’s a little video I took lying on the floor in the middle of the musicians. Appropriately, mostly what you see are shadows, because there was very little of the “absence of darkness” kind of light in the room, but plenty of the other kind.
The next morning, as I dressed, I wondered what I could leave behind to make my load lighter. It was a hard decision, but nearly everything stayed in my room. I decided to trust the fact that others would be there with cameras and videocameras and I didn’t need to do as much documenting as I am inclined to do. (As a matter of fact, by then I’d already found at least one person who was taking exceptional photos and another person capturing great video. I could trust them to harvest as well as – or better than – I could and I knew that they would share.)
In an even bigger leap of faith, I decided to leave my journal behind and trust that something else would show up if there were things I wanted to capture (and doodle about). The only things I decided to take with me (besides the key to my room), were some coloured markers in a small colourful pouch I wore around my neck.
Sure enough, during the very first session, something else showed up for me to doodle on. My arm. I am a dedicated doodler (it’s how I process information), and before long, I was doodling all over my arm, surrounding the word “lightness” with all measure of shapes and wiggles and trees and random words I picked up in my listening.
And… I loved it! I may never go back to doodling in my journal again! You might find me with new doodles on my arm every day – signs that I have been doing some deep process work, connecting with my artistic mind and my beautiful body all at the same time. (Try it! And come back and tell me about it!)
It was a great way of celebrating lightness – by not taking myself too seriously and letting my inner child surface in the doodles on my skin.
Another fun thing that happens when you doodle on your arm is that people notice. And in a place like ALIA, where we are encouraged to be curious, vulnerable, and authentic, they tend to respond in positive ways. Several people asked if they could take pictures of my arm AND one person (whom I hadn’t met before) invited me to participate with her in doing graphic facilitation for the next day’s session. “Anyone who does that to their arm can be trusted to help me co-create at the front of the room.”
Yikes! A doodle on my arm was a catalyst for me doodling on a big piece of paper on the wall in front of 250 people! It was both terrifying and exciting – like nothing I’ve ever done before.
With my confidence heightened, I continued to use my doodling throughout the rest of the week, doodling a learning tree during a session I hosted on feminine wisdom, doodling graphics while I helped a new friend imagine a business opportunity, doing henna doodles on the hands of all of the participants in the workshop I was in to represent their intentions for the week, and doing a whole new doodle/mandala on my arm the next day (that now started with the word “clarity”).
The lightness of doodling transformed my week. (Ironically, it was also a doodle at last year’s ALIA that cracked a door wide open for me and helped me imagine Sophia Leadership. Are you spotting a trend? Now start doodling and see what shifts for you!)
There’s at least one more way that lightness showed up for me last week… During the course of the week, I found myself drawn to several young people who brought incredible energy, vitality and passion to the community. It was exciting to be in circles with them. These are the gifted young leaders we can trust our futures to.
Twice I had the pleasure of being in conversations with women in their early twenties who were wrestling with the big, heavy questions of “what should I do with the rest of my life?” and “how do I use these passions I have to transform the world?” In both conversations, my advice (when it was asked for), coming from a place that surprised me, was “Hold it all lightly. Don’t take your life or your decisions too seriously. Each decision you make will help shape you, but none of these decisions will be ultimate and unchanging. Find a thread you feel called to follow and hold it lightly.”
Wow. I heard myself say those things and I knew I needed to take my own advice as much as they did.
Hold it all lightly. Hold light lightly. Offer light. Pass the light along. Light the way. Welcome lightness. Be a light. Walk lightly on this earth. Don’t hide your light under a bushel.
Be a light. Be light.
That’s it. Light. That’s what I want, and that’s what I want to offer.
I used to think it was just about offering light in a dark place (because I’ve become so accustomed to the dark and because I tend to take the world too seriously), but now I recognize that it’s that other kind of light as well. The absence of weight. The ability to go through life without letting it weigh you down.
There’s just one more piece of the light puzzle that started coming together last week that I’d like to share…
During one session, I participated in a fascinating circle time in which Thomas Arthur shared his Elementals – photos he’s taken of beings in the world, in which all he does is mirror the image of what he sees to create fanciful creatures from nature that speak to him (and to those who have the pleasure of listening with him). He asked us to choose an image that most spoke to us.
Elemental Goddess, by Thomas Arthur
I chose the image you see above. She drew me to her because of her sensuality and the sense that she is rising from some deep place with a smile on her face.
At first, it looked like she had a yoke across her shoulders, which was appropriate, for someone like me who’d been carrying a heavy backpack and lots of worries and old stories around with her early in the week.
When I looked closer, though, and added the purple shapes to the gold, the yoke was transformed into wings.
Like this beautiful Elemental, I want my yoke to be transformed into wings.
Be a light. Carry the world lightly.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. – Matthew 11: 29-30
I wish I could tell you what it feels like
to come to a place where you are understood
and deeply seen.
I wish I could tell you what it does to one’s heart
to know that your passions are shared, celebrated, and encouraged.
I wish I could tell you what it means
to share a space with 400 other women and men
and know that the feminine is truly honoured and welcomed in.
I wish I could tell you how energizing it is
to have conversations that ask for your
deepest questions and vulnerabilities.
I wish I could tell you how moving it is
to be reminded, by the way it is modeled,
that questions are the way to lead change.
I wish I could tell you how it makes your body come alive
when you move around the space with your tribe members
trusting that bodies hold wisdom our minds know nothing about.
I wish I could tell you how it transforms a space
when someone sits down on the floor with coloured markers
and begins to draw your questions and dreams.
I wish I could tell you about the feeling of power
when passionate people move into a circle
and there is no stronger position than the one you occupy.
I wish I could tell you about the tears that fill one’s eyes
when a truly passionate artist/performer
steps into his full beauty with driftwood and glass balls.
I wish I could tell you about the magic
of a brief after-dinner conversation
about stillborn babies and butterflies and our deep women’s stories.
I wish I could tell you all of these things.
But I can’t. Because words are only dim reflections of the truth.
(p.s. I am at ALIA Summer Institute, my watering hole, summer camp, tribal council, retreat, and learning journey all rolled into one.)
Beth & Diane after building a leaf labyrinth together
Back in October, I had the pleasure of spending 4 days in a circle of powerful, warm, funny, wise women. We listened to each others’ stories, built a labyrinth of leaves, cried together, laughed together, ate together, dreamed together, and plotted ways of changing the world. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I felt like I was wrapped in the warmest hug of feminine support.
Even though I’d never met any of the women before, we were able to create an incredibly loving and energizing environment. This circle of women continues to meet periodically to offer each other support over the phone lines. I feel very, very blessed to have them in my life.
This is not the kind of feminine relationships you hear most about in the corporate world. No, we’re more likely to hear of cat fights, gossip, and “bitches” who do anything to protect their own interest. Some of that is true, and some of it isn’t. I’ve experienced both sides of the coin. I believe that the part that is true is largely due to the fact that there is incongruence between corporate culture and the most instinctual way for women to relate to each other. We haven’t found a way to bring our feminine wisdom fully into the boardrooms and cubicles (and frankly, our feminine wisdom might very well abolish both boardrooms and cubicles).
One of the greatest beauties of the circle/story retreat I was at in October was the range of ages and life wisdom of the women in the room. The youngest was a medical doctor who hadn’t yet reached 30, and the oldest was into her 70s. We had all archetypes – maidens, mothers, and crones – represented in the room, and it was a beautiful thing that reminded me of the best kind of community.
It was a particular delight to me to have such beautiful older women present – women who fully embodied and embraced the “crone” archetype. Beth and Diane in the photo above are two of those women. Wow! These women are amazing! Their energy, wisdom and pure delight in the world continue to inspire me these many months later. They didn’t try to hide their ages behind layers of make-up or plastic surgery as the fashion industry has convinced many women to do. They celebrate who they were, dance in the leaves like phoenixes rising from the flames, and share their wisdom and strength in the most generous way I have ever seen.
How I wish they could live next door to me and I could sit at their kitchen table whenever I need a boost of courage!
Yesterday I had the pleasure of having a conversation with Diane (whose face you see above). Even over Skype, Diane sparkles with energy and love. I adore her. She teaches Reiki, leads women’s circles, has a labyrinth in her back yard, builds sweat lodges, and does all kinds of amazing things in support of other women. She has become one of my most treasured mentors. I can’t tell you what it means to have a cheerleader like Diane who absolutely believes that I am on the right path and will do anything she can to help me along that path. If she believes that I will succeed, how can I not?
Qualla with her birthday cupcake
On the other side of the coin, I too have had the pleasure of becoming a mentor to a younger woman who sparkles with energy and love. Last year, when I was at ALIA, I met Qualla Parlman. We spent her nineteenth birthday kayaking off the coast of Nova Scotia, followed by a delicious barbecue on the dock. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with her at ALIA (as we weren’t in the same sessions), but since then we’ve gotten to know each other better online and I absolutely adore Qualla and I would do anything to help her succeed. She is an emerging young leader who’s learning to trust her feminine wisdom and I just know she will do big things in the world. I am honoured to be a companion on her journey.
It’s the way of women, isn’t it? The true, natural, instinctual way of women – not the way we have been socialized to become (or to believe we are). We are meant to support each other through the generations and across the generations. We are meant to find wise women who will teach us the ways of the world, and then we are meant to BE those wise women and offer our wisdom generously and without apology to others who need it.
Who are your wise women, and to whom are you offering your wisdom?
“The purse strings of the planet are held by men. The greatest expenditure: global military spending at $900 billion. In 2003, according to the Women’s Environmental and Development Organization, the estimated funds needed to look after basic human needs were as follows: to provide shelter, $21 billion; to eliminate starvation and malnutrition, $19 billion; to provide clean safe water, $10 billion; to eliminate nuclear weapons, $7 billion; to eliminate landmines, $4 billion; to eliminate illiteracy, $5 billion; to provide refugee relief, $5 billion; to stabilize population, $10.5 billion; to prevent soil erosion, $24 billion. The estimated annual total budget for human needs, $105.5 billion vs. the actual global military spending, $900 billion. Imagine how differently women with maternal concern might manage the “family budget” now spent by the nations of the world.” – Jean Shinoda Bolen, Urgent Message from Mother
It’s time, women (and men who embrace their feminine wisdom).
Time to stop letting our leaders spend so much money on weapons when what we really believe in is caring for Mother Earth and her children.
Time to stop letting it be okay for little boys to grow up socialized to fight and win and never show their emotions.
Time to say “it is NOT okay to run through the streets of our cities and destroy things because your favourite team lost a game that has become much too violent and leads you to believe that violence as a response is okay.”
Time to tell our politicians to start building communities instead of polarized enemy camps.
Time to honour sustainable growth over excessive production and consumption that rapes our earth.
Time to let kindness become as important in the corporate world as competition.
Time to rise up and be leaders and stop letting old leadership paradigms hold us captive.
Time to quit apologizing for our wisdom and ideas.
Time to let our fierce love change the planet.
Time for courage.
Time to place some of the power of the purse-strings into women’s hands.
In micro-credit programs in developing countries, it’s a well known fact that if the money is placed into the hands of the women, there is a much greater probability that the children will get fed, the community will be looked after, and the money will be paid back when the loan is due. What if we extrapolated that wisdom and did the same with the $900 billion currently invested in military spending?
We’ve waited long enough. We’ve watched too many things break our hearts. We’ve seen too many of our sons and brothers die in needless battles. We’ve let too much oil spill into our oceans. We’ve been patient with too many testosterone-driven government decisions. We’ve cried over too many little girls sold into sex slavery.
I’m fed up. You’re fed up too, I know it. It’s time to act. Time to make bold moves.
Time for Sophia leadership.
Note: I feel a fire burning in my veins, and I know I need to act. This is my calling – to serve as a catalyst for emerging leaders learning to trust their feminine wisdom – and I need to start doing more about it. This is urgent. We can’t sit around waiting for someone else to right these wrongs and shift the balance. We ALL need to act. With this in mind, I’m planning to offer something I’ve been meaning to launch for quite some time now – a Sophia circle. It will be a gathering place for women who feel their fierce feminine rising up and calling them to claim the name “leader”. If this feels like the right fit for you, leave a comment or send me an email with any ideas or thoughts you might have on it. I’ll be unrolling the details in a few weeks, when I come home from ALIA.