I’m going to Uganda! Will you help me raise money for a toilet?

I’m going to Uganda! In a surprising twist, while I was planning my trip to the Netherlands to teach in November, a window of opportunity opened up and I can’t pass it up. 

As you may recall, for several years, I’ve been supporting a school in Uganda that was founded by my friend Nestar. About a dozen years ago, Nestar spent a year in Canada as the youth intern on the team I was leading at Canadian Foodgrains Bank and I loved getting to know her. Since then, Nestar moved to the Netherlands where she got her Masters degree and started a family, but she never let go of her dream of doing something meaningful for the community where she grew up. When her oldest son’s health made it difficult for her to move back to Uganda as she’d intended, she began directing her energy into creating a foundation to build a school in Kitgum region.

A thriving school has grown out of Nestar’s dream and I’ve been delighted to witness and support it from afar. I’ve long held a little dream of visiting that school and it seems that now is the time. Nestar and I will meet there and we’ll spend some time at the school together. The timing is perfect, because we get to be part of the graduation ceremony for the students who are leaving the school.

When Nestar and I started talking about the possibility of this trip (just a week ago), I asked “What’s the greatest need at the school right now? I’d like to invite my community to support it.” Her response was “Well, there are a few things but the most urgent of all is the sanitary facility. Due to the growing numbers of pupils, our current sanitary facility is not adequate. We would like to contract a new toilet block for the school.

So, my friends… would you help us ensure that the school has sufficient bathroom facilities to support their growth?

They need approximately $1800 CAD to complete this project. That’s not a lot of money, so I’d like to set the goal a little higher.

Will you help us raise at least $5000?

The school functions on a very tight budget and they’re growing, so I’d like to leave them with a little breathing room for paying teachers, buying books and furniture, etc.

This school is a special place and one of the reasons I’m so committed to it is because it was founded and is run by people from the region who know the needs of the region and care deeply for their own people. Far too many non-profits trying to “fix” things in Africa or other places in the world are doing so as outsiders trying to impose their own sense of what a region needs. That isn’t the case here. As a donor, I influence no decisions at the school and simply send them funds and trust that they know what is needed. They know their own needs and solutions and simply need some financial support in order to serve their own community.

Another thing that’s important is that the foundation has very low operating and administration costs (it’s run by Nestar and her husband as volunteers), and so 95% of your donation will go directly to supporting the school in Uganda.

If you’d like to help, use the donate button below and the money will go into my Paypal account. I will be transferring every dollar I receive (plus my own donation) to UKEF (and am happy to show an accounting of it, if anyone needs that assurance). If you feel more comfortable making a direct donation, you can do so at UKEF’s website.





If you’d like to hear a little more of the story, here’s an interview I did with Nestar back in 2014.

 

 





Conscientious Disruptor: What it means to grow up Mennonite

When I was a young teenager, our family arrived at our tiny rural church for a special evening service to find a sign on the door. “It is illegal to gather here,” was the essence of the message. “Those who worship here will be tried for heresy and sentenced to death.” 

A church member greeted us at the door and whispered something to us about a secret meeting place in the basement of a nearby church member’s home. With a little excitement and perhaps a little fear, we made our way to the alternative meeting space.

We weren’t really in danger. This was a re-enactment of the early days of the Mennonite faith in Europe, meant to give us a sense of what it was like when our ancestors were tortured and killed for their beliefs and for their defiance against the all-powerful Catholic Church.

There’s a deep thread of martyrdom in the Mennonite narrative. We grew up on stories of how courageous the early believers were, how many of them died and/or were tortured for their faith, and how we, too, should aspire to have such strong faith. Those things our forebears died for (adult baptism, pacifism, a flattened church heirarchy, and a belief that the water and wine of communion wasn’t literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ) became the most salient parts of our identity. A good Mennonite was one who clung to these beliefs on punishment of death.

So deeply runs the narrative of martyrdom that the second most popular book in Mennonite homes (after the Bible) is Martyrs Mirror, a dense book of more than 1500 pages full of the horror stories of our lineage. The full title of the book is The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians who baptized only upon confession of faith, and who suffered and died for the testimony of Jesus, their Saviour, from the time of Christ to the year A.D. 1660. (The word “defenseless” refers to the Anabaptist belief in non-resistance.) 

My dad’s copy of Martyrs Mirror is on my bookshelf, though I’ll admit to an uneasy relationship with it.

I left the Mennonite church behind in my mid-twenties. Not only was I dating a Catholic, but I was having serious doubts about how much I could align myself with a Mennonite worldview and faith perspective. It wasn’t so much the early tenets of the faith that concerned me – it was the lifestyle restrictions it imposed (no drinking, card-playing etc.), the way it it seemed to sever my head from my body (by teaching that the body was the greatest portal through which sin entered, that dancing was wrong, etc.), and the belief that we had the true way to God and that others (even those who believed in the same God as we did) were headed toward damnation. 

I didn’t abandon faith entirely, but I sought a different version of God/dess – one that was less masculine, less exclusive about who had access, less restrictive, and more accessible to my LGBTQ+ friends. I also needed a faith that wasn’t so ruled by the fear of hell that we had to jeopardize relationships in order to save people’s souls.

It seemed backwards to me, this faith, and so I tucked it away and didn’t mention it often. There was some shame involved, I suppose, in the assumptions people automatically jumped to when I mentioned my Mennonite background. I could see in their eyes that their mental pictures of my childhood were that I’d been isolated in a Hutterite colony or that my family went to church in an Amish horse and buggy. None of those pictures were true for my background (we were of the variety of Mennonites that blended in and lived essentially the same as our neighbours, except for the no drinking/dancing/television part), but I got tired of having to explain the difference.

I left it behind and gave little thought to that part of my identity. I built a life around who I wanted to be in the world and largely ignored the part about how my lineage had shaped me.

It’s tricky to leave it behind entirely, though, because “Mennonite” is much more than just a religion. It’s a cultural identity, and, in some ways, an ethnicity. It’s the food we eat, the cultural practices we share, and the language we speak (ie. Low German, or “Plattdeutsch” – a derivative of German, Dutch, and English).

We’ve become a cultural group largely because our tormented history drew us together and turned us into nomads, moving from country to country in search of a place where we could live out our peace-loving, adult baptizing beliefs without fear of death. From Holland, Germany, and Switzerland, many Mennonites moved to the Ukraine and Poland (formerly part of Russia) when they were promised safety. But when the revolution rose up in Russia, they were tortured again and most left for North and South America. The nomadic nature of our past deepened the roots of tribalism and strengthened the cultural identity of what it meant to be Mennonite.

Whenever people ask about what nationality I am or where my family originated (as every settler in Canada is asked – because we all came from somewhere), I don’t know how to answer. Depending on who asks, I say some version of “I’m Mennonite, but I’m not sure what nationality I am. Likely a combination of Dutch and German, though we came to Canada via Russia.” Other than that, my roots were blurry.

Severed from my own sense of identity and rootedness, I became strangely fascinated with everyone else’s. I collected artifacts from the countries I traveled to, I visited other gatherings of faith and spirituality, and I practiced rituals that intrigued me. In a sense, I lived out the nomadic part of my heritage, wandering around and experiencing cultures and countries that were not my own.

Gradually, though, I became aware of a longing in myself that I hadn’t recognized before. I longed for a sense of belonging, a sense of my own indigeneity, a sense of place. I looked wistfully at those who had a strong sense of their lineage, and I wondered what that must be like. I attended cultural events and marvelled at the pride people had in the people and places they came from.

This longing showed up in my work too. As I deepened my understanding of what it means to hold space, I realized that there were other reasons why it was worthwhile to pursue a better understanding of who I was and where I was rooted.

First, I became more and more familiar with how trauma is rooted not only in one’s body but in one’s lineage. I learned about generational trauma and held space for friends and clients as they uncovered the trauma they’d inherited from parents who were residential school survivors or holocaust survivors. As I did so, I became increasingly curious about how centuries of trauma in the Mennonite people, as they ran from country to country to stay alive, might still be in our DNA as well. And I also wondered how that trauma had resulted in the strength, resilience, and resourcefulness that is part of what it means to be Mennonite.

Second, I became increasingly aware of how people who are not well rooted in their own indigeneity and spirituality, and do not have a strong sense of their relationship with the earth will culturally appropriate the rituals, artifacts, and spiritual practices of other people and will use spiritual bypassing to defend their actions. I saw signs of that in my own intrigue with other cultures and spirituality. 

Third, I wondered how my lineage had shaped me and how it might be threaded into my work on holding space. I contemplated, for example, that my ability to sit with a person walking through the darkest shadows or expressing the deepest pain without looking away might be related to the courage of my ancestors as they faced the gallows or the fire. I also wondered whether a history of being “the other”, both in my personal history and the history of my lineage, might have contributed to the fact that I have a surprisingly large percentage of close friends who are from marginalized groups (Indigenous, Black, People of Colour, Muslim, LGBTQ+, etc.).

With all of those reasons for deeper inquiry, I started a quest, a few months ago, to find out more about my roots. Then, as though the universe were encouraging me to step onto this quest, I was offered two opportunities in the coming year to travel to Holland, where my ancestors likely originated. It also seems like no accident that the people I’ll be working with there are experts in family systems constellations, who understand how family stories are threaded through our lives. 

My quest started in earnest when I dug up a few of my Dad’s books – a Plett history book (which tells the story of my family since our arrival in Canada in 1875) and Martyrs Mirror. Then I joined ancestry.ca, ordered a DNA kit and stayed up almost all night tracking my family tree as far back as I could (to the early 1600s). I learned that one of my great-great grandfathers had abandoned the Mennonite church, moved away from the Ukraine and married a non-Mennonite wife. I also learned that there’s a likelihood that I have some British roots along with my Dutch/German roots. 

I became most hungry for the stories of the women in my lineage, though. Who were they? Had they been as strongly committed to their faith as their husbands and fathers, or had they learned submission at an early age and simply went along with what they’d been taught? Had they suffered at the hands of the torturers as well, or had they been left behind to care for the children and live through the trauma? The Plett history book gave little clues, so I turned to Martyrs Mirror.

Though the stories of male martyrs far outnumber the stories of women, I was surprised to find quite a few women accounted for. Not only were they equally courageous and defiant, but they were articulate and well educated. Included in the book is more than one letter penned by women in prison, written to encourage their families and/or fellow believers not to waver in their faith even if they were put to death. And there are several accounts of the last defiant words spoken by women before they were slaughtered – always refusing to denounce their faith or give up the names of others in their communities. 

A number of times, while flipping through the pages, looking for names of women, I found myself in tears. There was the woman whose mouth was stuffed with gunpowder before she was tossed into the flames, the two sisters who were drowned together, and the woman who refused to recant even after screws were applied to her thumbs, fingers, and hips. And then there was the woman who was pregnant when first apprehended and who was allowed to go home until the baby was born. “She did not flee, but boldly remained,” and when they came back for her, after the baby was born, she surrendered and was executed by the sword.

The one that brought the most tears, though, was Maeyken Wens, of the city of Antwerp, who was burned with a tongue screw in her mouth. Her fifteen-year-old son Adriean “could not stay away from the place of execution on the day on which his dear mother was offered up; hence he took his youngest little brother, named Hans (or Jan) Mattheus Wens, who was about three years old, upon his arm and went and stood with him somewhere upon a bench, not far from the stakes erected, to behold his mother’s death.” When they brought her out, though, Adriean lost consciousness and didn’t wake up until his mother was dead. Afterwards, he “hunted in the ashes, in which he found the screw with which her tongue had been screwed fast, which he kept in remembrance of her.”

I don’t know whether any of these women are in my direct lineage, but I know that they’re in my tribal lineage, and so I claim them as my ancestors. Their courage, as well as their trauma, has been passed down through the centuries and now resides in my body.

What I take from their stories is a strong sense of a moral compass, a willingness to stand against the authorities, and a belief that they answered to a higher authority than the government or the church that was sanctioned by the government. Theirs was the social justice struggle of the day, challenging the version of patriarchy and supremacy that existed in their time.

What does all of this mean for me? I don’t entirely know. I know that I will continue this quest for a deeper understanding. I know that when I am Holland this coming year, I will try to visit the land on which my lineage was once rooted. I know that I will do my best to live in a way that honours the courage and the stories that have been passed down through me. I know that I will continue to explore what parts of my faith history still matter to me and what parts need to be released. I know that I will inquire more deeply into the way that my head has been disconnected from my body as a result of the trauma and the religious beliefs. 

A few weeks ago, the term “conscientious disruptor” landed in my journal when I was writing about how I often feel a strong sense of calling to “speak truth to power” when I witness oppression and injustice. The moment I saw it written down I realized that it wasn’t a unique thought – instead it was a reflection of the lineage I carry. My Mennonite people have always been “conscientious objectors”, standing up for pacifism and refusing to join the military even when they were persecuted or banished from the country because of it. 

The mantel of “conscientious disruptor” does not sit lightly on my shoulders. It’s a bold and dangerous thing to be. But I know that the courage of my ancestors lives in me and I will do my best to serve our lineage well.

What came first – the trauma or the patriarchy?

Sometimes you don’t know that you know something until you hear the words come out of your mouth. That’s how it was when I said these words a few weeks ago, while teaching my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program

“Trauma is the soil in which the patriarchy has grown.”

I’ve thought a lot about trauma and I’ve thought a lot about patriarchy, and I’ve even thought about the links between them, but I hadn’t articulated this thought before. Even as I said it, I realized I was speaking something new into my awareness.

Now that I’ve thought about it more, I realize it’s a bit of a “chicken and egg” situation. Which came first – the trauma or the patriarchy? The patriarchy may also be the soil in which trauma has grown. One nourishes the other, which in turn nourishes the other, and so on, and so on. Did trauma happen to a group of people and so they rose up and began to dominate and create systems of domination to protect themselves? Or did people begin to dominate out of their own selfish ambition and need for power and soon learned that it was easier to dominate traumatized people? I don’t have a sufficient lens on history to analyze this.

Also, you can interchange the word “patriarchy” with any system of dominance (white supremacy, colonization, oppression, heteronormativity, kyriarchy, etc.) and the statement remains applicable. Trauma informs and supports them all.

Consider all of the ways that trauma is used as a tool to help dominant systems uphold their dominance. Indigenous children were ripped out of their families and forced into residential schools where they were stripped of their language and rituals. African people were rounded up, forced onto ships, and brutally enslaved in North and South America. Women are routinely raped in conflict situations. Jewish families were thrust into concentration camps and many were killed in gas chambers.

(Side note: I highly recommend the movie Indian Horse for a gripping story about how the trauma of colonization controls and destroys people.)

The stories go on and on throughout history, and these are just the most notable and horrific. There are so many more subtle ways that trauma is used as well. The #metoo movement, for example, is revealing the many ways in which sexual assault has been used to dominate women in the workforce, in the media, and at home.

None of these stories are “once and done” situations either. Every one of them not only traumatizes the generation most directly impacted, it plants the seeds of trauma into the family systems. The generations to come inherit the trauma of their parents and their grandparents, and so on, and so on. The result is often the kind of dysfunction, disempowerment and addiction that makes it difficult for them to rise up and challenge their oppressors. Trauma is so deeply (and invisibly) rooted in our bodies, that it can take generations to heal it, especially where it has not been named and faced.

Once you have implanted the seeds of trauma into a family system, it becomes easier and easier to dominate the people in that system. Traumatized people no longer need the original, horrific event to make them shrink in fear. All you have to do is offer a subtle reminder of the trauma, and they are triggered into their fight, flight or freeze reactivity (also known as “amygdala hijacking”), and in that state, they are easier to control and/or manipulate. An abused child, for example, will continue to flinch at a raised hand or raised voice long after the abuse is over and will continue to go to great measure to find protection against what they see as a dangerous world.

Sometimes it seems that we now have so much trauma running through our systems that there are fewer people WITHOUT trauma than WITH trauma (either direct or generationally inherited). It seems we’re all the walking wounded, trying to function in a world that triggers us on every front.

If you want to understand how trauma is used as a tool of domination, consider the treatment that Black people (particularly in the U.S., but also in Canada) have received from the police. Unlike white people, they can never assume that they are safe in the presence of the police, because they have seen too many people like them killed and/or unfairly arrested or brutalized by the police. In a traumatized system like that, you only have to bring a police officer into the environment to cause a state of panic in many people. That’s a system of dominance which not only traumatizes people, but gives those in power an excuse to continue to dominate. They assume that their experience of traumatized Black people (who might respond with belligerence, anger, resistance, etc., as a result of their fight/flight/freeze activation) is universal and even when Black people are calm and cooperative (as was the case in Starbucks recently), they assume the worst and arrest them needlessly. Dominance continues.

But trauma doesn’t only impact those being dominated. When there’s trauma in a system, in impacts people at all levels of it. I think it’s interesting to note, in fact, that it’s often the people with seemingly the most power in a system who are the most reactionary when they’re triggered. Why, for example, if women have less power than men, is it usually men who commit acts of violence? I suspect it’s partly because they’ve had less reason to develop coping strategies and less encouragement to heal and name the trauma. (I was at a workshop recently, where men were doing some healing work and, in one particularly poignant moment, three men were at the centre of the circle weeping and holding each other. It was one of the most powerful and rare moments of healing I’ve ever witnessed and I wish that more men could find themselves there.)

A new concept came into my awareness lately – that of allostatic load. (Thanks Sam.) According to Wikipedia, “it’s ‘the wear and tear on the body’ that accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress. It represents the physiological consequences of chronic exposure to fluctuating or heightened neural or neuroendocrine response that results from repeated or chronic stress.” Here’s a simple Youtube video that explains it. And Roxanne Gay wrote about it recently in her New York Times column.

While anyone can suffer from allostatic load, I think it’s fair to assume that those who’d be most susceptible to it are those who’ve been most oppressed by systems of dominance. According to Wikipedia, “in environments of chronic or frequent activation of the stress response, such as exposure to violence or trauma, poverty, war, hypoxia, or low rank in a social hierarchy, the stress response constantly disrupts homeostasis resulting in overexertion of physiological systems.” When allostatic load is a factor, people’s bodies can shut down and their brains have less capacity for complex thought and solution-finding. That puts them at a serious disadvantage and makes them easier to dominate.

So… what should we do about this? Should we work at healing the trauma or work at dismantling the systems that created and utilize it? Again, it’s a chicken and egg situation. One informs the other and neither can be entirely isolated from the other. You can’t dismantle a system when all of the people involved in its dismantling have unaddressed trauma. And if you heal trauma without addressing the source of the trauma, you’ve only found a short-term solution – the trauma will rear its head somewhere else.

We need lots of healers and lots of dismantlers. We need people to deepen their understanding of trauma so that they can hold space for it without further contributing to it. We also need warriors who will challenge the systems so that the dominance stops.

As I said in my last article, we should all be in a quest for our own sovereignty, so that we can meet each other as whole and healthy people rather than damaged people who harm each other. But it’s nearly impossible to seek sovereignty when you haven’t worked first to heal trauma that took your sovereignty away. That is, after all, what’s happening when the dominant systems utilize trauma to keep people disempowered – they’re colonizing people and taking their sovereignty away. Because sovereign people are dangerous to those who want to dominate them.

But this is not the end of the story. All of us have the right to reclaim our sovereignty. All of us have the right to live free of trauma and domination.

If you are a traumatized individual, start with your own healing so that you don’t pass the trauma on to others. But don’t stop there. Look for ways of healing at a collective, systemic level. This is something I’m learning more and more about as I dive into healing methodology like family systems constellations (which I had the pleasure of studying with Francesca Mason Boring recently). If we don’t address the trauma rooted in our ancestral lineage and family systems, we fall short of what we need to do to change the future.

If we heal our traumatized systems (and ourselves) and claim our sovereignty, I believe we can become healthy and whole together.

p.s. This is a subject we cover in the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. Registration is now open for the session that starts in July. 

Tips for social media engagement

Not sure how to engage in healthy conversations online? Here are some tips:

  1. If they didn’t ask for advice or fixing, don’t assume that they want it.
  2. If you don’t want advice or fixing, go ahead and say you don’t want it.
  3. If you weren’t there, don’t assume you know what happened or how to interpret what happened. And don’t assume your opinion is needed.
  4. You don’t belong in every conversation. Choose wisely and respect other people’s boundaries.
  5. If someone has strong feelings about something, don’t tell them how they ‘should’ be feeling.
  6. If you start a conversation, take responsibility for how people are treated in that conversation stream (and shut it down if necessary), but don’t take responsibility for their feelings about it.
  7. If a person who’s more marginalized (or abused, ostracized, etc.) than you shares a story of their marginalization, believe them, even if it implicates people like you.
  8. If you are triggered by something, resist the urge to respond out of a fight/flight/freeze/tend&befriend mindset. Walk away and (if necessary) return when you’re more grounded.
  9. When you make a mistake, admit it, make reparations, apologize if necessary, but don’t over-explain or justify your actions. And don’t delete your mistake if there is learning to be had from the conversation around it.
  10. If someone exhibits the kind of behaviour you wouldn’t allow in your home, you don’t need to allow them in your social media stream.
  11. It’s not your job to convince people of the truth as you see it. If they’re intent on arguing, but the argument exhausts you, walk away.
  12. Consider it a general rule-of-thumb that if the privacy of something is set at “public” it’s shareable, and if it’s “friends only” it’s not. 
  13. If someone regularly shares selfies, photos of their food, or other things you think are trivial, just stop following them instead of offering your opinion. 
  14. If you need comfort or support, go ahead and ask for it, but if you’re feeling really vulnerable or raw, consider asking in a smaller container (ie. a private group) rather than out in public. 
  15. Comments like “not ALL white people” or “not ALL men” are defensive and never helpful in a conversation. If that’s all you have to offer, step away from the conversation.
  16. If you don’t want Mark Zuckerberg to share your personal information with the Russians, don’t post it online.
  17. Just because you’ve known someone since kindergarten, doesn’t mean you have to accept their friend request.
  18. Tend your own heart first, then tend the hearts of those closest to you. If you still have energy after that, tend those who have the fewest protectors or supporters.
  19. If someone shares something relevant to their culture, race, gender, etc., and it’s outside of your experience, ask questions respectfully (if it seems the right place for it), but don’t offer judgement or critique.
  20. When in doubt, be kind.

Resources for good people who want to do better

I am far from an expert in issues related to diversity, inclusion, or decolonization but because my work involves holding space for increasingly complex conversations in increasingly complex environments, I make it my mission to learn as much as I can in order to do better and to serve better (and to pick myself up after my mistakes). Especially as someone who has (largely) benefited from a colonial system that has harmed others, I take it as my responsibility to face my own discomfort in order to work toward a better future. A lot of damage can be done in a space where we have unexamined privilege and power imbalances, combined with a conversation host who has not done some work in facing her own unconscious bias, so I am trying (with as much humility as I can) to decolonize myself and the spaces where I work.

A couple of years ago, I set an intention to spend a year decolonizing my bookshelf and centring marginalized voices by reading only books written by writers who were not from the dominant culture. (This year, I’m trying to do the same with courses, workshops, and conferences I attend.) I wasn’t entirely successful (I wrote about that here), but I was, nonetheless, radically changed by the experience. My worldview was expanded, I became much more aware of my own unconscious biases, and my ability to hold space for brave conversations was considerably stretched. AND… I discovered that I actually loved this shift. Now I find myself gravitating toward these writers because they inspire and challenge me and bring a lot of richness to my life. In the two years since this pledge, I still rarely seek out the most common writers from within the dominant culture, but instead, seek out those working at the edges in more complex spaces (whose ideas are less amplified by mass media, publishing houses, etc.).

People often ask me to provide them with resources that will help them stretch their worldviews, decolonize themselves, and hold space for more complexity and diversity, so I’ve put together the following list of books, articles, and videos that have influenced me in recent years. Most of the voices on this list are from non-dominant groups. (I left fiction off this list, simply because the possibilities for that list felt too endless.)

Before I go there, though, I highly recommend that you also seek out teachers from within these groups that you can PAY FOR what you’re learning. A good place to start is the online course Diversity is an Asset, or a deeper version, Social Justice Intensive, by my friends Desiree Adaway and Ericka Hines. (I participated in Diversity is an Asset the first time they offered it, and because I know that they are both life-long learners with insatiable hunger for evolving ideas, I know that the content has grown even better since then.)

(Note: This list is in no particular order. And there are things missing from it that I simply forgot to save links for.)

Articles and blog posts:

 

Podcasts and Videos:

 

Non-Fiction/Teaching Books:

 

Memoirs:

 

Poetry:

  • Femme in Public, by Alok Vaid-Menon (powerful poems about being brown and gender non-conforming)
  • Calling Down the Sky, by Rosanna Deerchild (about her mother’s experiences in residential school)

Meet me in the space of “I don’t know”

Two days before the end, I sat on a stool next to the armchair where Mom lay. When she leaned toward me, I leaned in too, afraid I’d miss what she’d say with her disappearing voice.

“I don’t know how to do this,” she said, looking at me with eyes that were searching but unfocused. My own words worked their way past a lump in my throat. “I don’t know how to do this either,” I said. And then we just sat there and breathed together, our foreheads nearly touching as we imagined this great gaping space in front of us that neither of us knew how to navigate.

She was soon to cross over into the afterlife. I was soon to cross over into the land of motherless daughters. Neither of us had any idea how we would make the journey. Neither of us had any advice or platitudes or ways of fixing this. Neither of us could offer to go on that journey with the other. All we had was this empty space… this liminal space… where we could sit together and fix our gaze upon each other and find an anchor in each other’s eyes.

Looking back over our 46 years together, that moment was quite possibly the most honest and sacred moment we ever shared. We had no expectations of each other. We had no reason to pretend we were anyone other than exactly who we were. There was no point in acting like we had wisdom or answers the other didn’t have, and no point in clinging to old hurts or misunderstandings that had never been (and would never be) resolved. All of that was stripped away and all we had was this moment… this meeting at the intersection of who we were and who we were about to become.

All we had was the space of “I don’t know.” And in that moment, it was the most painfully beautiful place to be.

I’ve come to believe that is the most potent space we can meet people in our relationships… the space of “I don’t know”. It’s the place where we shed our expectations and pretences. It’s the place where we reveal ourselves to each other and admit that much of what we think we know is simply smoke and mirrors. It’s the place where we seek no heroes or answers, where we ask only to be anchored by each other’s presence.

It’s the place where the true work of holding space can happen.

It’s not often that we find ourselves in this space with other people. It’s not often that we are both strong enough and vulnerable enough to offer that kind of space to each other. It goes against every instinct to protect ourselves and to prove ourselves. It takes effort and courage and a whole lot of trust. For those of us who’ve been wounded, marginalized, and oppressed, it’s even more difficult than for those who walk in the world with privilege and more assurance of safety. Perhaps, in fact, it’s the kind of space that some of us only enter in our final days on earth, when we have nothing left to lose.

Imagine, though, if more of our relationships found us in such a place. Imagine if you could trust people in your life to hold you and offer you an anchor no matter how much you’ve failed them or betrayed them in the past. Imagine if you could enter more conversations with people without having to posture and protect yourself.

We may never find perfection in our quest for this kind of space, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it more often. I like to imagine, for example, what it would be like to intentionally seek to enter that kind of space when there are people working through conflict or reconciliation. What if, for example, those of us who are settlers in this country, could drop our baggage at the door and seek to show up with our Indigenous brothers and sisters in that kind of way, admitting that we don’t know what to do and showing our willingness to seek answers from the liminal space? And what if those who govern our country – our politicians – were willing to stop their posturing in order to sit in that space with each other, people from all sides of the political spectrum admitting that they don’t know the way forward but are willing to plant seeds for the future together? And what if we could do that with our own children? Or our parents? Or our communities?

Recently, my friend Beth and I have been practicing sitting in that space together. We have some parallel stories (ie. we’ve both recently ended a 20+ year marriage and we’re raising children around the same age). Plus we’ve both had an increasing awareness of our need, as settlers in Canada, to decolonize ourselves and we’ve had a recent experience together that heightened that awareness. In addition, we’ve been navigating some challenges in a community that is close to both of our hearts. So there is a liminal space element to both of our lives lately, as we evolve in the way in which we show up in our work, our families, and our communities.

Beth and I have long conversations over Zoom, where we just talk with little expectation of outcome or even clarity. One of us will text “can we circle up?” and we’ll find time to hold space for each other in a little virtual circle on our computer screens. Often our conversations end on a similar note as we began – still confused as to a way forward. In the middle of it, though, we each find an anchor with which to ground our wobbly selves.

We are meeting in the space of “I don’t know”. As we do so, we have to regularly renew our commitment and intention to keep laying down our pretences and instincts toward self-protection. This is not a natural space to be in with another person – it takes effort and humility. We want to impress each other, to prove our value, and we want to make sure we’re safe before we fully trust each other. We have to fight those inclinations in order to offer our vulnerability in such a space. We have too many stories of betrayed trust in the past to rush into an unguarded relationship like this.

I am lucky enough to have a few other friendships on similar journeys, and each one of them takes similar commitment and practice. The space of “I don’t know” can never be taken lightly – it is a great privilege that must be fostered and nurtured before it can grow into a plant that bears fruit. But once you taste of that fruit, you find yourself craving more and more of it, and relationships without it become less and less tolerable. And when you lose it, there is a deep grief and a hard journey back to that level of trust once again.

Sometimes I find it especially challenging to enter into this space because I am, in more and more of the spaces in which I find myself, a teacher/mentor/coach/facilitator who is expected to know things. People look to me with expectation and hope that I will help them find clarity and purpose, and I don’t want to let them down. I find myself becoming guarded sometimes, wanting to prove myself and not let people see me vulnerable. And yet… often it serves my students and clients well if I am willing to enter the space of “I don’t know” with them, to be humble enough to be in the learning with them, to show up willing to be shaped by our collective experience in the liminal space. (It’s a fine line to navigate and I don’t always get it right.)

The culture most of us live in has conditioned us to resist the space of “I don’t know.” Especially in North America (and I suspect in Europe as well, though my experience is limited), we have attempted to eradicate all chaos and insecurity from our culture. Out of our fear of uncertainty, we turn toward authoritarian leadership that, we believe, will keep us safe and always know how to make the path clear in front of us. We want assurances and safety and so we surround ourselves with people who look like us and talk like us. We resist the risk of engaging in spaces that make us feel like we don’t know what we’re doing, and so we marginalize those people who potentially bring that kind of risk into our lives.

But we can never live fully secure lives. We can never fully eradicate chaos. Every one of us will face illness, loss, death, and political instability. It’s simply a part of life. And the more we practice becoming comfortable in the space of “I don’t know” the more resilient we’ll become and the more expansive and beautiful our lives will be.

I believe (though I am far from an expert on such matters) that there are Indigenous cultures that understand how to navigate this space much more comfortably than those of us from European decent. Having sat in sweat lodges and other ceremonies and conversations with Indigenous people here and in other parts of the world, I have witnessed this invitation to sit in the liminal space, to release our baggage and false sense of our own importance. I have heard words spoken to me in Maori, Cree, and Choctaw that explain these concepts better than any English words I know.

As I learn to decolonize myself, I am learning how to receive the wisdom they have to offer without appropriating it or pretending I know something I’ve only recently begun to explore. Inherent in many of these traditions is a deep connection with the earth, which teaches us to be patient in the fallow seasons, to trust the unfurling or dying when the seasons shift, and to surrender ourselves to the mystery of it all. In New Zealand, for example, I was recently taught about the Maori concept of “a te wa” – “when the time is right” – that teaches us patience in the discomfort of waiting. I seek to trust the wisdom of “a te wa.”

In the liminal space, we need that kind of patience. We need the ceremonies and rituals that allow us to stay present for the discomfort. We need the teachers who can model how to stay present. And we need the relationships that anchor us there. 

I don’t know how to fix much of the political mess in the world. I don’t know how to eradicate poverty or racism or prejudice of any kind. I don’t know how to help a friend whose life has been deeply altered by time spent in prison. I don’t know how to ensure that women can walk in the world without fearing sexual assault. I don’t know how to parent a child with the kind of anxiety I’ve never navigated in my life. I don’t know how to repair the damage when trust has been lost in a community. I don’t know how to navigate the world as a single mom when my children begin to move out of our home. I don’t know how to hold space for a friend or family member whose lives have suddenly been threatened by gang members. I don’t know how to repair the damage that has been done by settlers in my lineage who took what wasn’t theirs to take.

There are so many things I don’t know. And I don’t want you to give me the answers. I simply want you to meet me there… in the space of “I don’t know.”

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Note: This is similar to the content I teach in my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. The next offering starts in June 2018.

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