It seems appropriate and metaphorical that my journey to the Gather the Women event I was co-hosting was a long and arduous journey, and yet filled with moments of beauty and grace. The thirty-five hours I’d planned to spend on a train turned into forty-five and a half. I’d looked forward to the many hours of reading, writing, contemplation, and staring out the window (especially after the hard week before), but there’s only so much of that a person can take before the body begins to complain.
The moments, though, when I watched a moose run across a pond, or a great blue heron flap its mighty wings as it lifted itself out of the water, or a perfect circle of sunlight streaming out of a dark cloud, made the difficult journey bearable.
When I finally arrived in Peterborough, along with the other three members of the planning committee, I was weary but excited for what the next four days would bring. Forty-five women were gathering from across North America to sit in circle, share stories, and honour their feminine wisdom. I felt incredibly humbled to have the opportunity to host such a gathering. (Side note: I just realized that there was one woman for every hour I spent on the train! That thought makes me smile.)
The night before the gathering was to begin, I got bad news that almost convinced me to return home. The results of my Mom’s CT scan had come back. It was confirmed that the cancer she’d been treated for over the past year was still growing in her abdomen. Grief swept in and encompassed me. I didn’t know how I would make it through the rest of the week and do the job I needed to do.
I shared the news with the planning committee, and they surrounded me with love and community. “Go home if you need to,” they said. “We’ve got your back.”
The next morning, I decided I’d stay. Something told me that being part of this circle of women would help me have the courage to return home to what I needed to face.
It wasn’t easy. The details of gathering – putting together registration packets and gift bags, writing flip charts, and cutting string for my creative workshop – felt so trivial in light of what I was dealing with. At the same time, though, creating a space of comfort and inspiration for the women who were traveling many miles (literally and metaphorically) to be there was not trivial at all.
Before the opening circle began, I stepped into the room where creative women were preparing to sell their art in a small marketplace. Near the entrance was the beautiful art of Maia Heissler. She was in the midst of hanging her beautiful Forest Friends on a small hand-made tree when I stopped to chat with her.
“I’ve created these specially for the gathering,” she said. “They tell the stories of women gathering. This one is of a woman celebrating, surrounded by the women who love her. This one is of a woman who’s been dealt a basket of sorrows. Her community of women are helping her bear the burden.”
“That one,” I said. “I think I need to go home with that one. I AM that woman with the basket of sorrows.” I didn’t tell her what was in my basket, but I asked her to hold the piece until I’d decided whether I could afford to buy it.
On Thursday evening, there was levity and celebration in the opening celebration. I could hardly bear to be in the room. I spent most of the evening lying on my bed, alone in my room. I emerged only periodically to hear some of the stories that were being shared. Another woman shared how she, too, had taken the train and been subjected to lengthy delays.
Friday morning’s opening circle was beautiful and powerful. One by one we shared stories of how we’d come to be in this circle. Each of us placed a meaningful object in the centre of the circle and then added water we’d brought from our various homes into a collective bowl. When it came my turn to share, I added water that I’d brought from the graveyard where my son Matthew is buried and said that it felt like I was carrying a vial of tears with me. I said nothing about my mom. Something told me to hold that story close for the time being.
In the afternoon, I lead a workshop on storytelling, courage, and community. The women were invited to break into small circles of three to share stories of times in their lives when they’d had courage and times in their future when courage would be required of them. Out of those stories, they chose words and phrases to put onto prayer flags to take home and remind themselves of how the community supports their courage.
I didn’t participate in the story-sharing. Instead, I walked around with my camera, taking pictures of the beautiful faces as they softened and grew more vulnerable within the safe circles of trust.
Before the weekend ended, I bought the art piece of the woman with the basket of sorrows. Though it felt like more money than I could justify spending on myself, I knew I needed to take it home with me.
As the weekend progressed, I found my spirits lightening despite the heaviness in my chest. I was able to celebrate and dance and sing around the campfire. On Saturday afternoon, together with my delightful and spontaneous friend and mentor Diane, I went swimming in my clothes in the river that runs through the centre of Trent University. We convinced our new young friend Lindsay to join us. It was a lovely moment of lightness and joy.
As we drew nearer to the closing circle on Sunday morning, I contemplated whether or not to share the story of my Mom with the circle. I was a little conflicted. As one of the hosts of the gathering, I was somewhat reluctant to draw too much attention to myself, and yet as a member of the circle, it didn’t feel right to leave the circle without entrusting them with my pain. The beauty of the circle is that we all hold equal positions and one’s pain or joy is as important as another’s.
Just before the closing circle, one of the women with whom I hadn’t spoken much approached me. “You are a gifted woman, and you give so much to the group,” she said. “And yet there’s a sadness in your eyes. I want to honour whatever it is that gives you sadness.” At that moment, I knew I needed to share.
It took quite awhile for the talking piece to make its way to me. As it traveled, I listened deeply to the stories that were shared. So many women were going home with renewed courage and hope and strength after being part of the circle. It was a beautiful thing to behold.
When it came my turn, I began by saying that I felt like I’d just been held in the arms of the Great Mother. “I am conflicted,” I said. “It is always so exciting for me to come to an event like this, because I know that this is my calling – to be in places like this, and to teach more people about storytelling, circles, courage, and community. I want to go home and do big things – teach, write and speak. And yet I have received a new calling this weekend – one that I am much more reluctant to follow.”
And then I shared the news I’d gotten – that my own mother might not be with me much longer. “My calling now,” I said, “is not to do big things, but to do small things – to sit in circle with my mother and be with her as she journeys toward the end of her life here with us.”
I held my water vial up and said “before we meet again, there will be many more tears in this vial.” I looked around the room and saw that nearly every woman in the circle had tears in her eyes. My pain had become their pain.
What an incredibly moving thing it is to know that you don’t cry alone! I am surrounded, in that circle and in the circles I returned to when I came back home, with so much love and community.
Yes, I am a woman who has been dealt a basket of sorrows (as is my mom, my sister, my mom’s sister, my sisters-in-law, and the other women who surround my mom – and of course there are many men in that circle too), but I know that I don’t have to carry it alone, and for that I am immensely grateful.
On Monday, the day after Gather the Women ended, my sister and I went to see the oncologist with my Mom and her husband. There we were told that Mom may be with us for six months or more, but probably less than a year. She has the option of taking more chemo treatments, but that will merely prolong her life somewhat and not stop the growth of the cancer. In the coming months, we need to prepare for her journey into the next life.
I didn’t take the train home on the return trip, and yet I know that there is a long and arduous journey ahead of me in the coming months. I also know that that journey will have intermittent moments of peace, beauty, and grace, just like my train ride did.
This I know – we are surrounded by love and we are held in the arms of the Great Mother/Father. May I continue to trust in that.
Mom and me
I love Easter. There is so much good in it. There’s something about the resurrection story, and the many little reminders nature offers us at this time of year of how new things are born out of last year’s death that keeps me coming back to faith.
By the end of almost every Easter weekend, after the Easter services, the time with family, the great food, and the easter egg hunts, I’m in a happy, contemplative mood.
Almost every year… except last year.
Last Easter was horrible. Epically horrible.
On Maunday Thursday – my mom’s birthday – we received confirmation that my mom had cancer. A fairly serious kind in her internal organs that had way too many unknowns for our comfort.
Three days later, on Easter Sunday, my 18 year marriage unraveled. On the way home from an Easter “celebration” with my family, I told my husband that it was either time for us to live apart, or else we’d need to find someone who could help us overhaul our severely broken relationship. It just wasn’t working anymore. We’d forgotten how to communicate and I was tired of feeling angry, hurt, and lost.
I did a lot of crying in the weeks after Easter.
Ironically, a month before Easter, I’d started a series on my blog called “Let go of the Ground“, about how we are all called to surrender – to the Mystery, to the God of our understanding, to our calling, to Love. The premise was that – like the caterpillar who must surrender to the cocoon and enter the difficult transformation process before becoming a butterfly – we too must surrender and learn to trust what is emerging for us. I interviewed a bunch of wise people about their own surrender stories, and I was preparing to create an e-course on the subject. It felt like important work and I knew I had some wisdom to share, having experienced groundlessness and transformation many times in my life.
But then… Easter came, and groundlessness wasn’t just a topic for a blog post. I was living it all over again, and not by choice. The ground had been whipped out from under me and I was plunging through space without a parachute.
It’s easy to talk about surrender when you’re on the far side of transformation and you know what it feels like to fly. It’s another thing entirely when you’re in the messy, gooey chrysalis stage, you’re hanging by a fragile thread, and you have no idea when and how you will emerge.
The months after Easter continued to be hard. Mom started chemo, lost all of her hair, got continually sicker, went for surgery in the summer, and then spent a few more months in chemo. Normally an energetic, young-for-her-age woman who takes delight in climbing trees with her grandchildren and being the fastest one (and sometimes the only one) up the climbing wall when she goes to seniors’ camp in the summer, Mom could hardly handle the many hours she was forced to spend sitting or lying around. I could see her muscles twitch when someone else was in HER kitchen making food for her.
As for my marriage… we agreed that it was best for the kids if we stayed in the same house while we tried to repair what was broken. Like a couple of brick-layers trying to rebuild after a tsunami has wiped out the village, we gathered the pieces that still looked like viable relationship-building bricks, added a few new ones, and started piecing them together slowly but surely. Fortunately, we found a counsellor who was good at helping us do that.
Now it’s a year later, and I’d be lying if I told you I feel like a butterfly with freshly dried wings, fluttering effortlessly through the air. No, there’s lots of effort still involved, and lots of unknowns. I still feel pretty groundless.
But things are changing, and Spring has come again. When we rake away the dead leaves of last year, we see the tiny shoots poking their way out of the dirt built from many deaths in seasons past.
My mom started baking buns again last week, a sure sign that some of her energy is coming back. (When she starts distributing them to everyone in the neighbourhood who could use some nourishment, we’ll know she’s truly back.) Her chemo is finished, and it appears that the cancer has been halted for now. She cooked us a big meal for Easter and we celebrated together. True to form, she’s headed off on a trip with her husband later this week, headed to places where tulips bloom in rows and rows of wild and glorious colour.
Though it’s not perfect, my marriage feels much more stable than it did a year ago. We’re finding new ways of being truthful with each other and we’re working on rebuilding our trust. It feels hopeful, like there’s something worth fighting for. There are enough salvageable bricks that we can build a relationship that is better but still carries with it the stories of the old one.
It’s because of these stories that I continue to believe in the resurrection. Life comes out of death. Hope emerges out of darkness. Beauty follows surrender. God makes good things grow when we let our egos die.
There are many, many people who will try to tell you otherwise. They’ll try to sell you magic. They’ll try to tell you that life can be easy if you have enough positive thoughts and you surround yourself with people who are always happy, happy, happy. They’ll insist that if you attract good things, you won’t have to suffer.
I’m here to tell you that those people are telling you half-truths. Don’t get caught up in their deception no matter how convincing they are. They’re snake oil salespeople trying to make a quick buck out of your desire for an easy life.
Easiness is not the path to true happiness. Surrender is.
It’s not that I don’t believe in miracles – I do. I’ve seen them happen many, many times.
But the best kind of miracles are those that show up in the middle of the grit and suffering and messiness of life. The best kind of miracles are the hugs from friends when you need it most, the breathtaking sunset that brings tears to your eyes, the offering of support when you feel like you’ll crumble, the first crocus of the season – blooming despite the threat of frost, the fresh baked buns after a year of cancer, the tender touch of a loved one after you’ve regained trust, and the butterfly that flutters past when you’re lost in the woods.
The best kind of miracles don’t take you out of the suffering or make you immune to it, they simply help you bear it.
We need the suffering if we’re going to get to true beauty. We need the dying compost if we’re going to get crocuses in the Spring. We need the gooey chrysalis if we’re going to learn to fly.
Without the death, we wouldn’t get to celebrate the resurrection.
It was Saturday morning and I was sitting alone on the couch, sobbing. Everyone else was still in bed. I had to get up early to facilitate a leadership workshop on “inspiring a shared vision”, and instead of doing anything productive to prepare for the workshop, all I could do was cry.
As the tears flowed, my thought process went something like this: “How can I lead a workshop on vision, when I’m in the middle of feeling like every vision I’ve ever had has disintegrated into a puddle at my feet? How can I teach people about inspiring others with their vision, when I don’t really know how it’s done myself?”
There have been a lot of discouragements lately. The big one that was sitting on my heart Saturday morning was the fact that I really haven’t managed to create a viable business in the six months I’ve been trying. Back when I quit my job in the Fall, I’d told myself that if I wasn’t making a reasonable living at it by the time my birthday rolled around, I’d have to go looking for a full time job again. That was about all the time I could afford not to be making decent money. My birthday was on Friday. Despite all of my effort and good ideas and wonderful connections with people, I’m barely making any money at this yet.
Part of me knows I need to be realistic, that business-building takes time, but part of me is starting to feel desperate because there are bills to pay, kids to feed… you know the story.
And that’s where vision comes in. When I walked away from my job, I had a grand vision- lots of them actually – of the way I’d pour my heart into the things I’d love to do, and people would show up hungry for what I had to offer and I’d be able to make a decent living. It really felt like a calling – the place I was meant to be at this stage of my life. But, the reality is there’s not a lot happening behind the wizard’s curtain. Or – I should qualify that – not a lot that translates into money. (And, sadly, at the end of the day, that’s the primary measurement in the world of business and bill-paying.) It’s discouraging. I meet with a lot of people, have a lot of great conversations, and then when it comes to signing on the dotted line, I’ve gotten a lot of “love what you do, would love to work with you… maybe in six months…” And then I never hear from them. It feels like a lot of wheels spinning and not a lot of traction happening.
That’s where I was on Saturday morning – the day after my birthday, sobbing on my couch because the dream hasn’t come to fruition the way I’d hoped and I may need to brush up my resume. (And I know that, by admitting all of this to you, I may in fact be further jeopardizing my ability to be taken seriously as a confident business person, but being authentic is what I do, so here’s the truth – this is really, really hard sometimes.)
I checked the mirror before I left to make sure there were no tell-tale signs that I’d spent the morning crying. I didn’t have any clue how I’d manage to deliver the workshop without bursting into tears, but at least it was a small group that I’d met with before, so I didn’t have to worry as much about first impressions.
I had no idea how the workshop would go. I’ve done this workshop a few times before, so I had an outline and lots of exercises and handouts, but the day before, when I’d been reviewing the material, nothing was working for me. Usually we talk about visionary leaders who inspire us or who’ve changed the world with their big dreams. Sometimes we play Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. In the end, participants usually emerge with some version of a personal vision statement that they’re meant to take with them into their leadership roles. But none of that was working for me this time. It all felt flat and useless and mostly irrelevent.
So I went to the workshop feeling lost and broken. And that’s the place I started from.
“I want you to sit for a moment with the word vision,” I said at the beginning, partly because I needed some time to gather my thoughts and contemplate which of my notes held relevance for this particular group. “Sit quietly – perhaps even close your eyes – and contemplate your response to the word. What does it do to you? Does it excite you? Fill you with fear? Make you feel inadequate? Bring up old stories of failure or discouragement?”
And then, in that safe place, stories started coming. Stories of dreams and failures, hopes and disappointments.
Instead of talking about grand visions, we talked about blurry vision – the kind that keeps you believing in something better, but never looks clear along the path. Instead of talking about charismatic and visionary leaders like Martin Luther King, we talked about people like Rosa Parks – real people who never delivered grand speeches, but simply made deliberate choices each day to stand up for what they believe in. Some people talked about their children, who dared to be seen as a little quirky at school in order to live out their authentic personalities. Others talked about simple visions like knowing how they wanted their garden to look, but accepting, in the end, that plants have their own way of developing and there is only so much under our control.
Vision, we decided, is like the curvy trail that winds up a mountain. You may never actually see the top while you’re on the path, and many, many times it feels like you’re heading in the wrong direction, or a curve makes you feel like you’ve failed and now need to back-track, but slowly but surely you’re reaching the top of that mountain.
Vision is also like that tiny ladybug crawling across a tapestry. All she can see is a few threads just in front of her. She never gets the grand God’s-eye-view of the whole piece, but she keeps crawling across and marvelling at how the threads change in their colour and texture.
Sometimes, we all agreed, our ideas end up failing, even if we think they’re led by vision or calling. But if we follow the lessons of nature and see the death of those ideas as the compost that provides nourishment for new ideas to grow, we’ll learn to recognize the importance of even the failure.
At the end of the session, instead of trying to articulate vision statementw, we worked on vision boards, cutting out the images that drew us in and told us stories of vague and blurry visions that kept calling us up the winding path to the top of the mountain.
In the end, the workshop was the perfect example of blurry vision. I had an outline and a sense of how the workshop should go, but when it came time to deliver it, I had to let go, trust that it would work out, and then let it unfold the way that it needed to for the learning the participants (and I) needed. The beautiful thing was that throughout the workshop, I saw the most wonderful a-ha moments flash across the faces of every single one of the participants. That happened not because I carefully followed an agenda, but because I let go of my plans and trusted the wisdom of the circle.
In the end, vision – that winding path up the mountain – looks something like this: Dream. Plan. Pray. Surrender. Trust. Try again.
The biggest a-ha moment was (of course) my own. That’s the best part about being a teacher – you get to learn SO much.
When I left the workshop, I didn’t necessarily have any more clarity about my own business or what the next step needs to be, but I at least felt more content and sure that what I’ve been doing is the right thing even if it fails. Even if I only manage to touch a few people in each workshop I do, or you, my beautiful readers who offer me such encouragement and hope, then I am doing the right thing and I need to keep doing it. Trusting that the money will come is excruciating, but somehow it will work out (even if I end up in a full-time job again) and I’ll make my way up that curvy (and sometimes back-tracking) trail to the top of the mountain.
At the end of the workshop, I shared this quote:
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not. – Dr. Seuss, The Lorax
Okay, I’ll admit it. I’ve been doing a lot of striving lately. Striving to make my business work, striving to make my relationships work, striving to make my life not seem like a colossal waste of time.
What do I mean by “striving”? Well, for me that’s the word that best describes the panicky, desperate, clawing-for-success effort I put into things when I feel like I’m losing my grip. Striving is all about spinning-my-wheels, addicted-to-action effort, that usually has little to do with what’s in my heart. Striving is the opposite of trusting.
Striving is the space I’m in when I think “if only I could figure out the magic to online marketing like so-and-so, I’ll be able to sell more copies of How to Lead with your Paint Clothes on“.
Or “maybe if I create a few ‘cheap and easy‘ e-courses and sell those first, I’ll be able to generate more of an audience for the ‘hard and soulful’ stuff that’s closer to my heart”.
Or “perhaps I’m not tweeting enough, engaging enough, marketing enough, hanging out with the cool kids enough… etc., etc.”
Or “maybe if I could just get an endorsement from So-and-So-Bigshot I’d have hoardes of people flooding my blog.”
Or “I’m just not going to the right events, meeting the right people, doing the right dance, singing the right songs.”
Or, in the relationship realm, “something’s broken and if I don’t bend over backwards to FIX IT NOW, then I’ll be a failure, the relationship will be a failure, everything will suck, and it will all be MY FAULT.”
Honestly? Striving sucks. It sucks big time. It sucks all of the energy and creativity out of my soul and leaves me depleted and feeling lost.
Striving is the stuff I do when I’m not being true to myself. Striving is the stuff that takes me far from my authentic self, far from my heart, far from the path I feel called to.
Striving is almost always about comparing myself to other people and finding myself lacking.
And the truth is, striving never works. Striving takes me down a dead-end-road every single time. Maybe not right away (sometimes there are momentary rewards that make it seem worthwhile), but in the end, it’s always the same – failure.
Whenever I’ve attempted any kind of suck-out-my-soul marketing, or paste-a-cheery-face-on networking, I fail. I can’t lie to my heart. I can’t “fake it”. I can’t cozy up to So-and-So-Bigshot or market like Big-Shiny-Expert – I just can’t. It’s not me and it never will be.
I’m learning the same about relationships. When I’m giving away pieces of my heart that don’t feel right to give away, or participating in things that feel like betrayal to my heart, I’m losing and the relationship isn’t really working (even though it may temporarily seemed fixed because of my actions).
If I can’t sell the things that are true to my heart, that evolve out of my deepest truths, then I might as well go get that job as a postal carrier that I’ve been tempted to get. Because at least walking the neighbourhood delivering people’s mail feels authentic and honest and doesn’t turn me into a big fat self-loathing fraud.
Authenticity is the only way I know how to live. I mean REALLY live, not just “get by”.
A meditation teacher once taught me “When you’re sitting in meditation, and a thought enters your mind, don’t try to judge it or chase it away. Just label it ‘thinking’ and let it pass. And then when the next thought comes, do the same with it.”
I’ve started to apply that teaching to my temptation to strive. Whenever I sense myself doing that inauthentic, desperate-for-sucess striving, I simply label it “striving” and then let it pass. Once it is past, I try once more to lean into trust.
Because trust is the only thing that can replace striving. Trust in God. Trust in my own authentic heart. Trust that even if I fail, I will be okay and my failings don’t define me as a failure. Trust that Sophia God is calling me down this path for a reason, even if that reason seems blurry these days. Trust that there is goodness and abundance available for me.
Trust that the best thing I can offer the world is not a reasonable facsimile of Big-Shiny-Expert, but authentic, beautiful, flawed, honest me.