There’s a pedestrian tunnel I pass through regularly, in all seasons. In summer, I often cycle through, and in winter, I pass through on foot. The tunnel provides a safe passage under a busy freeway. It’s a connecting point between my sister’s house and mine, and it’s also along the best cycling route from my house to downtown.
(Note: There is a free resource at the bottom of this post.)
“Not only did she survive, but she kept rewriting her stories until she found enough space in them for all of the wounded to be held.”
I’ve embarked on a new project recently. I’m writing a collection of personal essays that will eventually become my next book.
This year, I’m spending time in an intentional liminal space, taking time to imagine the next part of my life. With no more dependents, no partner, and no parents still alive, I have no need to live in the house or city where I currently live and can make choices solely for myself. I’m asking myself what I value, what I no longer need, and what matters most to me. As I look around my house, I’m imagining what kind of space I want next, which of my furniture suited the old part of my life but isn’t needed in the next, and which things I love too much to ever part with.
This seems like a good time to also consider the non-tangible things I want to bring with me into the next part of my life. One by one, I’m excavating the stories that shaped me into who I am – the heartaches, the triumphs, the traumas, and the failures – and I’m holding them up to the light to see what new things they have to reveal, and which parts are no longer relevant. It’s a little like digging through the attic for the family’s antiques to see if they should be polished, repurposed, given away, or discarded.
This isn’t an entirely new process for me – I did something similar when I got divorced and was intentional about turning my home from the sometimes-unsafe place it had been into a sanctuary of healing for my daughters and myself. This time, though, I’m doing it largely for myself (with only a little consideration for what support my daughters still need) and feel more free to share pieces of that journey with you, my readers (if I choose to).
Already, only a short way into the process, the stories are shape-shifting and becoming things I didn’t expect them to be. Some are taking on more nuance, depth, and meaning, and some are revealing to me that I’ve been stubbornly hanging onto tired old versions of them that should have landed on the rubbish heap.
One thing that’s surprising me is that this process is not only changing my view of myself, but also my view of the other people in some of the stories. In some cases, I see them more clearly for who they have always been instead of the way I so badly wanted them to be, and that’s allowing me to be clearer about my boundaries. In other cases, I’m better able to see the whole picture instead of just my part of it, and that allows me to extend a little more mercy.
The first story I took on was in some ways the hardest and in some ways the easiest. It’s the story of how I was raped as a twenty-two-year-old by a stranger who climbed through my window. It’s the hardest because it was pivotal in my life and it’s heartbreaking to more clearly see the many layers of trauma that came from carrying that story forward into my life and marriage. But it’s easiest because the only other player in the story is a stranger and I don’t have to worry about hurting anyone else in my life by telling my version of the story.
The line at the top of this post is from that piece. I wrote it after wrestling for several days with the story, when I realized that the process of writing had allowed me to hold my rapist differently. In the end, as I witnessed my own triumph, courage, and resilience in that narrative, I was also able to more gently witness the brokenness and pain that my rapist must have been tormented with (and is likely still tormented with, if he is still alive). How much hatred and shame must one be carrying to climb through a stranger’s window to fulfill their own sexual desires? That’s a burden I would never want to carry.
I am reminded, as I work with this story, that “my liberation is tied up with his” (in the words of Lilla Watson). If I want to be truly liberated, no longer carrying the shame and pain of that narrative, than I have to release my rapist from the story so that he has the potential to be free of it too. (That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be justice or accountability for such a crime – simply that the justice should be restorative, and healing should be the goal.)
As I said in the above quote, the rewriting process is allowing me to find enough spaciousness in those stories and in my attachment to them for all of the wounded to be held. Whether or not they choose to heal is none of my business – I simply release them to their own choices and find my own healing that requires nothing of them.
I am now working on other stories – the ones in which there are people who played longer and more complicated roles in my narrative. I don’t know yet how those stories will shape-shift, but I will hold myself tenderly so that I have the strength to make space in the stories for their healing too. I will not gloss over the hard things or try to justify other people’s actions – I will simply try to tell the truth in a liberated way that isn’t weighed down with bitterness or a need for revenge.
Though this post focuses primarily on the writing and rewriting of these stories, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the words on a page only represent part of the process. While writing is my first love, it’s best when it doesn’t stand alone, especially as a path toward healing. I also have regular therapy sessions with a therapist who incorporates somatic healing practices. And, as I’ve learned from modalities such as Narrative Therapy and Family Systems Constellations, I sometimes practice rearranging the story with physical objects that represent the players in those stories. I am also fond of rituals that help me mark and energetically move through important moments and shifts, like when I burn something that represents an old version of a story I’m releasing. (Perhaps I’ll share more about those practices in another post.)
A year from now, when I have (hopefully) a clearer picture of what this next part of my journey will be, I want to be on the journey with more lightness and liberation. This is not a perfect process (stories have a way of popping back up long after I think I’ve let them go) but I’m okay with the imperfection of it. Whatever emerges from my imperfect process, I hope to share it with you.
Are you currently in your own liminal space and want a tool that will help you? I’ve created a free resource that you can download (in PDF): Journal Prompts for the Liminal Space. (After you click on it, you can save it for future use.) And if you want even more, check out my online self-study program, Write for Love and Liberation.
They are all growing up and moving away from home. I’ve already written about my daughters leaving, but there’s more – it’s become a larger theme in this moment of my life.
My book is growing up and moving away too. Last Tuesday, we launched the Dutch version of the book. This baby that I spent years birthing is now being stewarded and lovingly held by people in another country, in another language. She’s got a life without me now. I can’t even read this new version of my own book, and that feels a little… hmmm… what’s the right word… weird? I have to trust that my book, like my babies, will have a good and meaningful life in a new place, across an ocean from where I am. The translators were recently interviewed on a podcast in Dutch about the book and I am struck by the realization that it doesn’t even need my voice to tell its story.
My business has grown up and morphed into something new this past year as well. What was, for years, a solitary endeavour has become a partnership. My business partner, Krista, now holds a lot of it on her shoulders and there are parts of it that, like my children, only visit me once in a while and no longer come to stay. This week, Krista has been working with our accountant on our balance sheets, and I have been largely oblivious to the process. There is freedom and also a little guilt in that.
The programs I’ve developed are being lovingly held by other people too. Last week, I participated in two calls for our Foundation Program, and I played only a secondary role on the calls (the “guardian”, in circle lingo) while a member of our team hosted each of the conversations. The same thing is beginning to happen in our Certification Program. A new community is growing around the work, and those who come are being expertly held by the Master Practitioners I’ve trained. I am largely a visiting teacher, dropping into the spaces they hold, offering wisdom and support when I can, but trusting them to hold primary responsibility for the container.
It’s all been a little puzzling and paradigm-shifting, this movement away from me, even though I orchestrated much of it and believe it to be next right thing. On the one hand, it’s gratifying to see that all of my love and hard work has supported babies and books and business in beginning to stand on their own feet. On the other hand, it’s a little scary to let go and to trust that they will be okay. On the one hand, it’s lovely to have this new spaciousness that their independence has granted me. On the other hand, it’s lonely to be the one left behind. On the one hand, there’s freedom in letting go. On the other hand, the ground feels wobbly when so many things that anchored me are being released all at once.
“Hold with an open hand,” I often tell people when I’m guiding them in an understanding of what it means to hold space. “When you hold too tightly, you’re at risk of hijacking space instead of holding it. An open bowl is about freedom and trust, a closed bowl is about control and fear.”
Now, here I am, after years of saying those words, learning this lesson in a new way.
It is all part of a paradox that has long challenged and intrigued me – the paradox of living at the intersection between attachment and non-attachment.
At some point in my life, perhaps in those fleeting moments when I held my stillborn son and knew he was never truly mine, this paradox took hold and wouldn’t let me go. Perhaps that’s why I’ve made many of the choices I’ve made – like letting go of much of my work and trusting others to hold it (when conventional wisdom would tell me to hang onto it and the money it brings in) – because I believe that a deeper understanding of this paradox is part of my soul’s purpose.
At the heart of the paradox are two seemingly inconsistent beliefs. Attachment theory teaches the importance of having secure attachments and tethering ourselves to each other, and yet Buddhism’s non-attachment (which is echoed in other spiritual traditions) teaches us to release our grip on people and things. These concepts seem so paradoxical, and cognitive dissonance rises up in me and tempts me to believe only one or the other can be true, and yet… both hold pieces of the truth.
Somewhat clumsily, I am finding my rhythm in this new version of the dance – between loving and letting go. I am learning new discernment about when it’s time to hold tightly and when it’s time to release my grip. I must allow them all – babies, books, and business – to seek out their own journeys, to stretch into their own autonomy, and to live their own truth, while I offer them love and a safe place to land. I must believe that they are wise enough, strong enough, brave enough and resilient enough to walk the paths that call them, even when those paths take them away from me.
I must trust the other people who now hold space for my people and my work, my babies, book and business, to do so with as much care and compassion as I have done.
Truthfully, though, there is no paradox in these teachings. It is only a limited, fearful mind that chooses to see the binary. A deeper exploration reveals that they are more like yin and yang – intertwined and each holding pieces of the other.
Secure attachment is not tethering yourself to another person – it is living side-by-side, connected but not chained. It is to offer what the nest offers the baby bird – a safe place to be comforted, and a brave space to launch from when it’s time.
Non-attachment is not about living an aloof and non-committed life – it is about resisting codependence with other people or things and becoming neither controlled nor controlling, manipulated nor manipulating. It is to love wholeheartedly but to release any illusions that you have control over the outcome of that love.
Both of these concepts invite us to live in such a way that we are both attached and non-attached, both connected and autonomous, both sovereign and interdependent.
Last week, I flew to where my youngest daughter now lives so that I could support her through yet another surgery in this long saga of chronic illness. Though she lives far away from me, she is still my baby. Though she is now independent, she still needs her mom. Though she left the nest, she still needs a safe place that she can sink into and know that she’ll be held – it’s what we all need, no matter how independent we become.
More than once, before and after her surgery, when we were curled up on either ends of the couch, our feet found each other in the middle. This is something we have long done, touched feet in the expanse between us, to remind ourselves that we are still connected. It started in that tumultuous time after the divorce, when she was beginning to return to me after months of non-communication in her anger over the disruption of our family. Sleepily, she would crawl into my bed before getting ready for school, and though she wasn’t yet ready to cuddle with me, she would let my foot brush up against hers – at first only briefly, and then for longer and longer. The day that it began to be her foot reaching for mine, I knew that we would be okay. We were, and continue to be, both attached and non-attached – sovereign individuals living interdependent lives.
On the Foundation Program calls last week, I mentioned to those who’ve come to learn about what it means to hold space, that these lessons they are learning on the pages of my book might not land fully for them until life and nature teach them more deeply. “When you feel confused about a concept,” I said, “hold it lightly and trust that you will understand it more deeply when life offers the lesson. The pages of a book – and even a rich conversation like this with other learners – will never fully offer you the depth of wisdom that your own life will someday offer.”
This continues to be true for me, their teacher. Though I have written for years about what it means to hold space, life still has much to teach me. These days, I am learning the grace of letting go. And I am learning to hold myself in this grief when the letting go feels hard. And I am learning to experiment with this new freedom the letting go offers.
Today, as I settle more deeply into this learning, I find myself wondering whether the mother bird, after she has watched her baby birds leave the nest, must learn a new kind of flight when her flight’s purpose is no longer about finding food to bring back to her babies. Perhaps she, too, needs to launch herself from the nest she has built, into the unknown spaces beyond, trusting that she, too, will find places to perch and be held when she is weary from the flight.
And maybe, in this new flight, as she learns the paradox of loving and letting go, she will also learn, on an even deeper level than she has before, that grief and joy can be held simultaneously and that they are not entirely different emotions. And she will be reminded that every new liminal space she enters will bring the promise of a new story.
I love slow mornings. Though I usually wake fairly early (on my own body-clock, not with an alarm), I take my time getting out of bed, sometimes reaching for my journal or a book first. Once I’m finally out from under the covers, I go from there to the bathtub where I also take my time (with a bath that sometimes includes Epsom salts). Eventually I end up in the kitchen, where I boil water for my tea and then have a late breakfast of yoghurt, fruit, and granola. Only after all of that do I open emails and my calendar and start to figure out what the day will require of me.
This is one of the many perks of working from home and owning my own business, where I get to decide when/if I start my workday.
I used to have lots of stories about how this makes me a lazy person and how I should be more disciplined and productive and how those people with strict morning routines (especially those that include rigorous workouts) are probably better people, but then I realized that those are stories I don’t need to carry anymore. They’re stories that I’ve been taught to carry by a capitalist system with an industrial mindset that elevates the value of grind culture and being obedient and “disciplined” workers. I don’t want that to be part of my life or the culture of my business, so I get to make my own rules. I’m always going to choose the “rules” that honour my humanity, my needs, and my own internal rhythms. (I put disciplined in quotation marks, because there are lots of other ways to bring discipline to your work without being attached to an arbitrary time clock.)
The further I get from a traditional workplace (it’s been ten years now), the more attuned I’ve become to my own natural rhythms and ways of working. As a writer/thinker/creator, I need lots of quiet time to process ideas and get lost in contemplation. I need slow mornings and long walks and/or bike rides to let my mind wrap itself around new ideas. Sometimes I need to check out of social media for awhile and be in conversation only with the voices in my own head (or with the squirrel currently perched on the branch outside my window). That’s not “wasted” time the way my socially conditioned inner critic sometimes tries to convince me it is. It’s actually very productive time, because it’s where my ideas are generated and played with before they end up on the page or in a workshop.
Because I intentionally carve out these times for myself, and I spend lots of time playing with ideas before sharing them with my readers or students, I also have rather remarkable capacity for high-intensity production when the ideas land in their more fully formed shape. That’s when it’s time to engage another of my favourite practices… I go away for a week, to a cabin or a place loaned to me by a friend, and I create a surprising volume of content – often working for twelve-hour days. That’s how I’ve written my book and created most of my courses – in short, intense, and focused bursts (that follow long, slow, meandering times of contemplation).
I have learned that these ways of functioning likely mean that I am on the spectrum for ADHD. As some have said, “attention deficit” is probably a misnomer and it should instead be called “attention dysregulation” – because people with ADHD might have a deficit of attention at times, when they’re doing things they don’t love to do, but then they become hyper-focused when they’re doing something that they love to do (as when I’m alone with my ideas in a cabin in the woods, or I’m building something with wood).
I feel privileged in that I have the opportunity to craft a life that works well with my own internal rhythm and the way my brain works. It not only serves me well, but it allows me to serve other people well. I have more capacity to hold space for other people because I am well-resourced and in a rhythm that fits me. And I have the capacity to adjust the rhythm of my days so that I can do things like meet my family’s needs and spend time with friends during times when they are available.
Many others are forced to live with rhythms, rules, and structures that don’t fit them nearly as well. Sometimes, in fact, there’s a certain violence to the way we try to force humans to fit into mechanized structures – especially when those humans are neurodivergent or disabled or otherwise disadvantaged by those structures. Our systems lose their humanity and begin to assume that we are all machines that need to function in a prescribed way in order to keep the system functioning well. And when we don’t function that way, the system creates narratives that shame us into thinking we are deficient and have less value because of it.
I wonder what it would look like to build systems and workplaces that do a better job of honouring human rhythms, capacity and needs. I wonder what we’d need to change in order to value people as they ARE rather than as we EXPECT them to be. I realize that in certain industries it might not work, but far too many workplaces still function as though every workplace is a factory that produce widgets rather than a place focused on serving the needs of real and complex humans.
As Krista and I build the Centre for Holding Space, we are doing our best to keep humanity at the centre of our organization and to disrupt any of the old patterns that have been normalized by capitalism but that might not serve us well. Sometimes we have to dig deeply and do some uncomfortable work to uncover our own social conditioning about the “right” ways to do things, and sometimes it’s easier to just accept “the way things have always been done”. But we know that change doesn’t come without some measure of disruption, and so we’re doing our best to walk our talk.
I encourage you to consider how your life might have been unknowingly structured by systems that don’t put your humanity at the centre. Perhaps you’ve bought into a lifestyle that doesn’t match your rhythm or capacity? Maybe you’re inadvertently doing violence to yourself because of the social conditioning that’s taught you to assume there is no other way?
I believe that this is one of the gifts of this pandemic. It has allowed us to re-imagine workplaces and expectations around how and when people will work. If we pay attention, and open ourselves to change, perhaps we’ll find ourselves moving into more human-centred environments.
Even if you’re not in a position to change how, when, and where you work, perhaps there are changes you can make to your life to honour yourself more? Maybe it’s a simple matter of accepting that you have a different rhythm than other people and that doesn’t make you wrong? Maybe you need to wake up later (or earlier), move more (or less), slow down (or speed up), spend more (or less) time alone, be in nature more, and/or find new ways to engage your creative energy?
I was once sharing a room at a retreat with a high-functioning businesswoman who was holding a lot on her shoulders. Each evening, after our sessions ended, I’d hear her on the phone talking with her husband about their clients and business operations. Though she was on retreat, she couldn’t stop working because so many clients (and her husband) depended on her.
When she got off the phone one evening, I commented about how much capacity she had, and then I asked, “Do you ever get to fall apart? Do you ever get to just be weak and not be the capable one in the room? And do you have anyone in your life capable of holding you when you fall apart?”
She paused a moment, and I could see by the look on her face that the question had touched a deep and well-guarded place in her heart. In a voice that was quieter and more tender than I’d heard before, she admitted that she didn’t ever let herself fall apart and that she trusted nobody to be able to hold her if she did. When we dug a little deeper, she talked about how losing her mom at a young age had forced her to grow up too quickly and become “the competent one”. Now she didn’t know how to step out of that persona and was afraid of what would happen if she did.
I encounter a lot of people just like her in this work. People who hold space for others are very often “the competent ones” who hold other people but don’t let themselves fall apart. And, I admit, I have those same tendencies myself. I knew to ask her the question partly because I saw myself in her – I know what it feels like to try to hold the whole world together for the people who matter most to us.
Unfortunately, most people are uncomfortable with human frailty, and seeing other people fall apart makes them feel disoriented and uncertain about how to respond. That’s especially true when the person falling apart is a person they rely on to provide stability and strength so that they feel safe in the world. Those of us who are “the competent ones” know that it will cause discomfort and fear in other people if we falter, so we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to hold ourselves together. As a marriage counsellor once defined my role in my former marriage, we go a step beyond competent into the unhealthy zone of “the over-functioning ones”.
To live balanced and emotionally healthy lives, though, even strong ones need to be able to give themselves permission to be weak without needing to protect the people around them. But in order to do so, we need to find the right containers where we won’t have to worry about other people’s reactions to our weakness. (It’s when we take too much responsibility for other people’s reactivity that we begin to over-function.)
This past week, I’ve been revisiting the manuscript of a memoir that I had nearly ready for publication three years ago (but put on hold in order to write The Art of Holding Space). In the memoir, I share a story of a time when I had a fairly spectacular falling apart and it scared a lot of people, including myself.
I was in the hospital at the time (twenty-one years ago), trying to prolong my third pregnancy after a botched surgery put it into jeopardy. Because my doctor was afraid I’d go into labour too soon, I was given steroids to speed up the baby’s development. What I didn’t expect was the way that steroids can mess with a person’s mind.
For the first two weeks of my hospital stay, I was doing remarkably well and people were amazed at how calm and strong I was. I was so calm and strong, in fact, that people started coming to sit with me when they needed someone to talk to. Friends, nurses, other patients, nurses’ aides, even doctors – a surprising number of people dropped in to visit my room for no reason other than to sit and chat with me because they found me to be a peaceful and supportive presence. Many of them opened up to me about their fears and struggles. I believe it’s when I first learned I had the capacity to hold space for people (though I didn’t yet have the language).
But then one day, I fell apart – quite spectacularly. Nobody was certain whether it was caused by stress, steroids, or a combination of the two, but I had an unexpected psychotic break (that started with a panic attack) and for twenty-four hours, I was not in my right mind. To anyone watching, I was speaking complete gibberish (though it made sense to me and much of it still does – but that’s a story for the memoir). I was acting irrationally and completely out of character for the calm and strong person they’d come to assume I was.
Witnessing me that way was scary and baffling for the staff who had gotten to know me quite well during those two weeks. After the psychosis was over, they treated me very differently from how they had before. I felt like I’d become a pariah. None of the staff dropped in for casual conversations anymore and when they had to enter my room, they completed their tasks quickly, with little conversation, and left just as quickly. After a few days, a few began to trust me again and came back for conversations, but many never did.
It’s experiences like that that remind me how much discomfort we have with human frailty. Even health care workers, who see people under all kinds of stress, come unmoored in the presence of a psychotic break, especially in someone they deem to be competent and reliable. It’s a scary thing to witness and you desperately want to fix it so that the world feels safe again. But you don’t know what to do in response, so you get a little frozen and, more often than not, avoid it entirely. Just ask anyone who’s been through a tragedy and they will tell you that some of their friends and family had no idea how to show up, so they disappeared. It’s quite common, sadly, to lose friends when you are at your most broken.
The experience was shame-inducing, and even now, when I talk about it, I sometimes feel the grip of shame closing my throat. Despite the shame, though, I believe that it was good for me. It’s good to be reminded of our own human frailty now and then, to be brought face-to-face with our weakness. As a person who has built an identity around competence, I needed the reminder that even I can fall apart under the right set of circumstances – and that doesn’t mean that I stay broken or that the brokenness defines me. It helps me to stay humble and to get out of my ego, to accept the ebb and flow of life and to have more compassion for my own and other people’s brokenness. I’ve had a few broken-open moments since then (on a less spectacular scale) and know that I can survive them.
So… what do we do with human frailty? How do we let ourselves be frail when we’re feeling broken? And when we see brokenness in other people, how do we keep ourselves from running away?
For one thing, as I said to my roommate at that retreat, we need to find the right people who can hold us when we break. Not just anyone has the courage, and fortitude to stick around in the face of frailty, so we need to seek out those people who do. They need to be self-reflective, emotionally mature and compassionate people who don’t let their own fears and baggage get in the way. Many of us only ever find one or two people who have that kind of capacity and sometimes we have to hire someone (a therapist or coach, for example).
For another thing, we have to learn to hold ourselves in our own brokenness first so that we can hold other people in their brokenness. If we are afraid to be broken, if we shame ourselves when we are most frail, then we’ll treat other people the same way. In fact, if you want to know how well a person will be able to hold space for you, pay attention to the way they treat themselves when they fail or make a mistake. Do they take responsibility for it and treat themselves with kindness and forgiveness, or do they deflect blame and/or treat themselves harshly?
For a third thing, we have to let go of delusions and perfectionism. We can’t expect ourselves (or others) to be strong all of the time and we can’t expect the world to be safe and stable all of the time. That’s the kind of fantasy that’s sold to us by a capitalist system that wants us to believe if we just invest in the right botox or fancy car or training program or self-help book, we can create bubbles of protection and happiness around ourselves and we can always “be our best selves”. That’s all just smoke and mirrors though, and we deserve better.
We have to let go of the delusion and learn to practice radical acceptance of imperfection, flaws, weakness, and fumbling – in ourselves and in each other. When we see brokenness, we need to replace judgement with lovingkindness. When we do, we discover that acceptance is a much more peaceful, contented way of living. We put less pressure on ourselves and we offer forgiveness more easily.
Because every single one of us is going to fall apart sometimes – even the competent ones. And if we can hold that brokenness in ourselves, then we can hold it in each other.
Want to learn more about how to hold space for yourself and others in times of brokenness? Join us for the Holding Space Foundation Program, starting the week of October 25th.
It all starts months ago. Whenever I consider that two of my daughters are planning to move out at the same time (each to cities more than 2000 kilometres away in opposite directions), I find myself dissolving into minor panic attacks. My throat closes, my brain starts to buzz, and suddenly I’m gasping for air and fighting tears. And then I soothe myself by slipping into denial, because… really… could this ACTUALLY happen, especially in a pandemic when we’ve all become so accustomed to hunkering down and barely leaving the house? My mama-heart does everything it can to try to shield me from the thoughts my mama-brain is trying to have about this sudden upcoming transition from too-full nest to nearly-empty nest. “Nope,” I tell myself, “It likely won’t happen. The fourth wave will come, their universities will shut down, or… maybe one of them will change their mind?”
Then August arrives, as it insists on doing every year, and… “Shit,” my mama-brain starts to say. “I think it’s actually going to happen.” And then mama-heart and mama-brain try to work things out between the two of them, brain trying to console heart while both prepare for the inevitable. “We’ll be okay,” brain says. “We’re strong. And besides… millions of parents before us have gotten through this – why wouldn’t we?” “But…” heart moans in a weaker moment, “has anyone in history ever had to do this, as a single, self-employed mom, when she’s spent over a year gathering her daughters close because they were scared of a deadly virus and especially nervous about protecting the disabled and immune-compromised member of the family? And has anyone had to face this so soon after all the combined surgeries those two daughters have had in the last year? AND the same year two of three daughters were diagnosed with ADHD, and we started a new business and launched a new book? I DON’T THINK SO!” (Mama-heart is well-practiced at slipping into victim mode.)
At some point, though, brain always cuts in and waxes eloquence about how we’d always hoped to raise independent daughters who would find things they were passionate about and do brave things in pursuit of those passions… and… now that they’re about to do just that, why would we get in the way?
Whew – the internal dialogue floors me with its intensity and I get sucked in again and again.
A week before I’m set to leave for the first trip to deliver my oldest daughter, my body dives into the internal dialogue and registers a solid dose of resistance. In a freak accident involving a bucket and a kiddie-pool, I wrench my back so badly I can barely move. For a week, I’m in so much pain, I don’t know how I’ll sit in a car for the three-day drive to Toronto, help my daughter move her belongings up two flights of stairs, and then make the trip back again. I try everything I can to resolve it – physiotherapy, chiropractor, massage, acupuncture.
By the time we’re set to leave, the pain is close to manageable. I drive with the sticky-pads of a TENS machine attached to my back as my physiotherapist suggests, flicking the switch to send little electrical jolts into my muscles when the pain flares up. By the time we’re in Toronto, my back is strong enough that I can carry boxes up to her third-floor room. It’s a good thing because she is still recovering from knee surgery and has limited mobility herself.
I spend four days in Toronto, getting used to the idea that I will leave my oldest daughter behind in the middle of this big busy city, and she will begin a life without me near. She will learn to navigate this city on her own, and when I come back to visit, my status as “well-traveled expert” will have diminished, and she will know these streets better than I do. It’s a shift I’ve been working on getting used to over the past few years – accepting the times when my daughters pass the threshold into territory I know nothing about.
We make multiple trips to Wal-mart and IKEA until her small room is fully stocked with the things that will be harder to attain when she doesn’t have access to a car. I watch her make decisions on cleaning products and bed sheets and sometimes she turns to ask my opinion. I pause before giving it, wondering whether this is a moment when she needs a mom’s expertise, or she needs to choose for herself. Maybe she asks my opinion just to make me feel useful in this moment when my usefulness seems to be waning. Or maybe she’s overwhelmed with the multitude of tiny decisions that come with a big move and she needs me to take this one off her hands. I give opinions tentatively, knowing whatever she buys will all belong in a home that is not mine to manage or care for. Mostly, I just provide the transportation.
One evening while I’m still in Toronto, we both have a moment when the immensity of it all washes over us and neither of us can express how that feels in words that have any meaning. As introverts we both know, without saying it out loud, that we each need space after these intense days together. I drive to the beach, walk on the sand and put my feet in the water. She crawls into her new bed under her new blanket and has a nap. Later, I bring her a carton of greasy poutine and we curl up together watching Twilight, a movie that reminds her of easier times when she was a teenager and lived in the safety of her mom’s home and didn’t have to make so many decisions.
A friend flies to Toronto to make the long drive back to the prairies with me. When she’d first offered, a month earlier, I was hesitant to accept the offer, not sure I’d know how to be with somebody in those first days of this new liminal space. My heart feels protective of this moment that feels so uniquely solitary, and a part of me wants the solitary hours in the car to process and prepare for this new aloneness. I have always done my best crying alone. I accept her offer, though, trusting what I teach others – that we get through things better when we trust others to hold space for us.
The first night in a hotel room on the long drive home, after a FaceTime call with my daughter, I melt down with the weight of all of my sadness, and my friend sits with me as I cry. She doesn’t say much. She, too, has left a daughter behind in Toronto, a few years earlier, so she knows this is simply a moment I have to pass through.
I worry about who will hold space for my daughter when she cries, in a city where she knows no-one. For twenty-five years, for many melt-down moments, I have been her person.
A week after arriving home, I am ready to set out again – this time heading west, to Vancouver, where I will leave my youngest daughter. We pack the car one more time and this time my middle daughter will make the trip with me. After this is all over, she will be the only one who will return home with me.
On the way through the mountains, my friend Lenore is never far from my mind. In Banff, we stop to see the house where Lenore and I lived with three other young women the summer I turned nineteen. My nineteen-year-old daughter, now on her own way to a place where she will live with roommates like I once lived with Lenore, snaps a picture of me in front of the house. I tell her how hard it was to live there even though the mountains around me were so beautiful. I cleaned hotel rooms for a living, with a mean boss who yelled at me for moving too slowly, and it was the hardest job I’ve ever had.
Almost exactly seven years before this trip with my daughters, Lenore died in these mountains, on her way to drive her own daughter to B.C. for university. She, too, had three daughters, born a few years sooner than mine. The parallels feel eerily prescient. She died in the passenger seat of the car when it went off the road, just after her daughter had taken over as driver. I don’t tell my daughters about this on our trip, not wanting to spook them, but I also don’t let my daughter drive. I stay vigilant and pray that we will make it through the mountains intact.
In B.C. we pass places where forest fires are still burning and we watch helicopters dropping water from the sky. The grief of a burning world threatens to consume me, but I push the thought away, knowing I only have enough capacity to hold the grief that’s right in front of me. I worry for my daughter, though, so primed to pay attention to the grief and fear of climate change that she became an activist two years earlier. How will she be able to hold all of that as she dives deeper into studies that could sometimes overwhelm her with the doom of an uncertain future? She jokes that her time at university will be short because the planet will be destroyed soon, but under her sardonic humour is anxiety and grief.
In Vancouver, I make the same trips to Wal-mart and IKEA for bedsheets and cleaning products, and it feels like déjà vu. Once again, I try to withhold my opinions until they’re requested. Once again, I listen to the complaints about how expensive it is to buy all the essentials and how annoying it is to buy toilet paper just to flush it down the drain. My oldest daughter sends texts from Toronto into the family chat about how it bugs her to have to pay to do laundry, and they commiserate with each other about the frustrations and expenses of becoming adults. I chuckle as their awareness grows about how much I provided and they took for granted.
While they complain and make jokes, I marvel at their capacity and adaptability. I watch them each do things I didn’t know they’d become capable of. I begin to relax the tension in my neck and chest and I tell myself “You have done all that you could to help them prepare for adulthood. They will be fine without you.” And yet… there is still a part of me that stresses about the things I should have taught them when they were still under my roof. Did I miss some critical parts of their education? Will they bump up against things that surprise them because I forgot to warn them?
When the morning of our departure arrives, I wonder, for the second time, about how much emotion I should reveal and how much I should hold back, to release when I am alone later. Should I let them know how empty the house will feel, or should I focus on the fact that I will be fine, and I’ll soon find ways to fill the empty spaces in my life and home? Will my tears let them know how much they are valued, or will they make them feel guilty for leaving me behind? If, on the other hand, I am too stoic, will they think they don’t matter to me?
My own mother had a way of making her grief other people’s burden. When my siblings and I grew up and left home, her loneliness became our guilt. She rarely missed an opportunity to say how much she wished we’d call her more often and how she was afraid her life no longer mattered to anyone. Determined not to let that family pattern pass on to the next generation, I try to ensure my daughters that they have my unconditional support in these big, brave moves they’re making.
Before her sister and I leave, my daughter jokes that now would be the time to say something toxic, to try to coerce her into coming home. “No,” I say. “I will not be responsible for you changing your mind about something you want. I don’t want to be the person you blame in therapy ten years from now for ruining your life.” She turns to her sister, who’s feeling the grief of this moment as much as I am, and says “How about you? Do you want to say something toxic?” Her sister’s response is similar to mine. As much as we want her home with us, we want her to follow her dreams more.
We say good-bye, and we all cry.
It’s hard to leave my baby in Vancouver, but it’s especially hard after the last eighteen months we’ve had together. Just before the pandemic hit, she was diagnosed with a rare disease that keeps closing her trachea and making it hard for her to breathe. Since then, she’s had surgery each time her trachea closes again. Nine times I’ve taken her to the hospital for surgery, and for seven of those trips, since the pandemic rules changed things, I’ve had to leave her at the front door. I couldn’t stay with her as her advocate in the healthcare system and I couldn’t be at her bedside when she woke up. Two of those times, while I was at home waiting, I got a call from the surgeon saying that her oxygen levels had dropped suddenly after surgery, and they’d had to revive her.
About a year after the first diagnosis, after she switched specialists because the first one wasn’t very proactive, she saw a third specialist and received a second diagnosis for a rare and scary auto-immune disorder that is likely at the root of the problem with her trachea and could possibly cause other problems. They began treating her with immune-suppressing meds with a long list of side effects. A team of specialists began working on her behalf. Meanwhile, the family lived with the anxiety that there was a deadly virus lurking just outside our door that would likely be especially deadly to her. We were all extra careful not to expose ourselves, lest we expose her, and all of us got vaccinated as quickly as we could.
Now I need to leave her behind, in a new city, where she’ll need to meet with new specialists and learn to navigate a whole new healthcare system. Alone. When I think of the enormity of that, I am filled with both panic and admiration. This is a brave thing my girl is choosing to do. I assure her I will be available for conference calls with specialists and can fly to Vancouver for surgeries, but that’s the best I can do. This is the part of the letting go process that nobody warns you about when you hold a tiny, dependent baby in your arms.
Before setting off for home, my middle daughter and I take a ferry to Victoria for a short holiday. On a whim, because we’re both feeling sad and want to do something nice for ourselves, we decide to splurge on a whale watching tour. The zodiac ride out into the open ocean is exhilarating and breathtaking. I decide, even before we see whales, that this is the perfect way to release some of the big emotions bottled up inside me. Just like in Toronto, when I went to the beach, I have found my way to water. In the fast-moving boat, with water splashing all around us, nobody can tell my tears from salt-spray.
We find a pod of killer whales and our skipper tells us what he knows about them. It’s a family of four, two males and two females, who’ve been together for many years. The best guess is that it is three generations of whales – a grandmother, a mother, and two sons (though the females may also be sisters). The oldest female is believed to have been born before 1955 and the second before 1965. That means they’ve been together since just before I was born. The sons were likely born in 1995 and 2001, around the time I was having babies.
I marvel at this family that has stayed together all these years, and my longing makes me jealous. I have never wanted to be a killer whale before this moment.
We leave the whales behind before I’m ready to say good-bye. When we’re back on the dock, the skipper pulls me aside to offer me and my daughter a free trip the next time we come, because there were noisy kids on the boat and he worried that they were rather distracting when we should have been able to watch the whales in silence. (Perhaps he’d noticed my tears after all.) I wasn’t bothered by the kids, but I accept his offer anyway, promising myself I’ll be back next year to spend more time with the whales.
Maybe the mama-whales can teach me what it means to swim wild in big waters and still hold your family close. Maybe they can teach me how to use echolocation to reach through the water for my faraway daughters.
On the way back through the mountains, we’re stopped on the highway by a construction truck. The sign on the side of the road says that blasting is currently taking place up ahead. We sit and wait for the boom. Up on the cliff beside the road ahead of us, there’s a large black object that looks like machinery. When the blast comes, the black object flies into the air and I realize it isn’t machinery after all. It’s a stack of blankets made of thick black rubber that contains the blast and keeps the rubble from hurting anyone or spilling all over the road. A few minutes later, the construction vehicle moves, and we are allowed to pass.
It makes me think about how we hold space for our big emotions – still letting them happen but doing our best to contain and regulate them so that the blast doesn’t destroy anyone. I make a mental note to gather the rubber blankets I might need in the coming weeks to help me contain the blasts of this big grief.
Back home, I wander around the house feeling lost and untethered. I begin to turn one of my daughters’ empty bedrooms into a much-needed office for myself and I cry as I do so. Some moments I am fine and I look forward to the spaciousness that will now be mine, and some moments I dissolve into a puddle of tears.
I feel more untethered and ungrounded than I can ever remember feeling. With the only daughter still at home set to leave at any moment herself, I no longer need to provide a home for anyone other than myself. With no partner, no parents still alive and no in-laws, I am not tethered to any family commitments and don’t need to provide care to anyone who’s aging. With a business that is portable, I can work from anywhere and don’t need to stay in any one place. I am tethered to neither place nor people, neither work nor obligations. Nobody needs me to put their needs at the centre of my plans.
I know that there will be a time when this will feel like freedom, but that time is not now. Now it feels too liminal.
Ten days after we get home, my middle daughter, the only one still at home, goes for long-anticipated (and oft-delayed) elective surgery. It seems routine and there is little risk, but my body remembers the stress of this last year, and my body also knows, because it has birthed a stillborn son, that children can die. While she is in surgery, I find it impossible to focus on anything else. I go for a long drive and stand by the river, returning to water once again. Some of the grief comes out and because there is nobody around who might get hurt by the blast, I don’t bother with the rubber blankets.
It takes too long to hear from her after she should have been out of surgery and I can’t relax until I know she’s breathing and alive. I call to find out and am told she’s fine. When I pick her up, I want to wrap my arms around her and tell her she can never leave me, but I resist.
I know that she too will make choices that will take her away from me. And I know that I will grieve all over again.
Gradually, my daughters and I begin to find our new groove as a spread-out family. We text about inane things and we send each other pictures of ordinary moments in our ordinary days. We try to have a meal together over FaceTime, but the spread of four time zones makes finding a time for all of us to eat a little challenging. I hear the loneliness in their voices, but I also hear the hope and anticipation. “I LOVE Toronto!” one says, and the other responds with “Can you believe I live this close to the ocean AND the mountains?” I send them pictures of my new office, and though my images aren’t as interesting as theirs of the CN tower or the mountains, they ooh and aah anyway. We are all moving forward into new landscapes.
I trust that they are doing alright on this new solitary journey and they trust that I am too.
After painting and hanging special things on the walls, I begin to settle into my new space and I notice how different the light looks in here. When my desk was in my bedroom, I looked out an east-facing window and got the morning sun on my face. Now that my desk is in the room across the hall, I look out a west-facing window and get the evening sun. I wonder how this will shift my perspective on the world.
As I adjust to the new light, and a new pattern of movement between bedroom and office, I begin to plan for the new year that opens up ahead of me. When a wave of grief comes, I sit for a moment and let it pass. I comfort myself with all of the things I’ve learned about liminal space and how necessary it is for transformation.
Then I carry on. And I trust that my daughters are doing the same, wherever they are, in the midst of their own journeys through liminal space.
Note: We are all holding space for so much these days. If you would like to learn more with me, consider joining the next offering of the Holding Space Foundation Program which starts in October.
P.S. Whenever I share stories that involve my daughters, they’re always given a chance to read them first.