“Try not to react when you see her. She doesn’t look good.” That’s what my former husband was telling family members outside of my hospital room before they entered. He was right – I was in rough shape.
Motherhood did not arrive gently at my doorstep. That moment didn’t look anything like those muted magazine photos of rapturous mothers in long flowing white eyelet dressing gowns leaning over equally white bassinettes where cherubic infants lay sleeping. My bloodshot eyes and haggard face wouldn’t be featured in any parenting magazines or diaper ads.
For the first two hours of motherhood, I was blind. Literally. Hours of hard pushing had strained my eye muscles so badly I was unable to see my newborn baby. Or anything else, for that matter.
And for the first two and a half weeks, I couldn’t pee without a catheter. Days of labour, followed by a delivery that involved cutting and forceps and an emergency visit from the only doctor in the city who knew how to flip the baby into the right position had left my internal organs so beat up that not only did I have no sensation telling me that it was time to pee, but I couldn’t force anything out no matter how hard I tried. It was like my body had just forgotten how to perform that function. Five days after birth, when my body still refused to cooperate, I was finally sent home with a glass catheter tube and instructions on how to drain my bladder. Every two or three hours, I gingerly bypassed the meat-raw zone of my birth canal and inserted the tube to relieve myself.
And that was only the labour and delivery part. Six months earlier, just as I was ending my first trimester, I sat down on the toilet and blood came gushing out. I was rushed to the hospital, sure that I was losing the baby. I didn’t, but after two nights in the hospital, I went home on high alert, worried that the wrong move or the right combination of stress and overwork would bring my pregnancy to an end.
Two months later, my then-husband tumbled into an emotional spiral, overwhelmed with the stress of a new job plus the weight of pending parenthood. After weeks of worry and multiple failed attempts at getting him help, including an overnight in a mental health facility, he got up one morning, kissed me good-bye, and disappeared. My mom and I spent the day looking for him, and later that evening, he checked his beat-up and bloodied self into the hospital after repeated attempts at suicide. Surgeons worked late into the night to repair the damage he’d done to his wrist, throat, and chest.
That was how I became a mother, twenty-five years ago this weekend. Struggle and Pain knocked on my door and said “Guess what? We’re the companions you didn’t know you were inviting in when you chose this path. We’ve brought along a few gifts for you, but you don’t get to open them unless you let us live with you.”
In the middle of my first night as a mother, I woke up in the hospital with the most potent ache of loneliness I’d ever felt. Everyone had left me so that I could finally get a full night’s sleep and my hospital room echoed with the emptiness of it. It was deeper than just the absence of my husband, mom, and siblings, though. The baby that had moved inside me for the last nine months was now somewhere down the hall, separate from me, and I hadn’t had a decent chance to see her yet because of my blindness and because they’d whisked her away for observation and antibiotics after she was born with a fever.
The lower half of my body felt like it had been torn open on an ancient torture machine, but I knew I needed to see my baby immediately or I might die from the ache of separation. I tried to wriggle close enough to the call button so that I could call the nurse, but it was just out of reach and the wriggling was agony. Failing that, I inched slowly and carefully to the edge of the bed, bracing myself for every stab of pain as I moved. After what felt like an hour of tiny movements, I could finally swing my legs over the edge of the bed, prop up my torso, and get my feet on the floor. Then came the even more agonizing effort of lifting my body off the bed.
The nurses were surprised to see me shuffling slowly down the hallway, leaning on the wall as I moved. “I have to see my baby,” I said, and they nodded and helped me to the nursery.
I stood over the incubator, staring at this tiny one who’d only hours before been inside me. She looked so helpless and set apart – no longer attached to my umbilical cord, lying their nearly naked with tubes and wires protruding from various places. I couldn’t even hold her; I could only touch her skin. I was her mother – the gravity of that nearly knocked me off my feet. Standing there with my body and heart ripped apart, I was the Velveteen Mother, made real by the violence of separation.
Nobody warned me that motherhood starts with the ache of loneliness and the avalanche of love the moment your baby is first torn away from you and you have to stumble down the hall.
If that moment made me into the Velveteen Mother, I wonder what kind of mother I became four and a half years later when I laboured for the third time and knew this time the baby would never breathe. Perhaps when you birth death, you become a Shadow Mother. Or a Ghost Mother. Or maybe some of your velveteen fur gets rubbed off to reveal that there’s not flesh but Steel underneath.
I have been shaped, far more times than I’d like to count, by time spent in hospital rooms. Perhaps that’s why my body still shudders when I walk through hospital doors – because I never seem to leave the hospital the same person.
That particular time, when my third pregnancy went horribly wrong and a failed surgery left my baby vulnerable, with no membrane to protect him, I spent three weeks in a hospital room before he was born dead. Every day, twice a day, I got to watch him on the ultrasound screen. For twenty minutes each time, we’d sit and watch him wiggle around on the fuzzy black screen. Twenty minutes is the normal time it takes for a baby to empty its bladder inside the womb –we’d wait and watch for that to happen so that we’d know his internal organs were still functioning the way they should.
Nobody warned me how much a mother can bond with a baby when she watches him pee on a TV screen approximately forty times over a three-week period. (Probably nobody before me ever knew to tell me. I may have a unique angle on that.)
And then one morning, when I went downstairs for the first ultrasound of the day, the nurse turned the screen away from me, mumbled something, and rushed out of the room to get the doctor. I knew, by the look on her face, that this wasn’t going to end the way we’d hoped it would.
This time, the ache of loneliness that accompanied the birth was as deep as the ocean and as wide as the sky. This time, I didn’t get to shuffle down the hallway to find the baby in the nursery once he’d made his way into the world outside of me. The pain of childbirth was still part of my Becoming, after the ultrasound showed that his heart had stopped, but this time I had to go home with empty arms and a broken heart.
The cruelest moment came two days later when my breasts betrayed me and filled with milk. My body knew only that a baby had been born and not that the baby hadn’t lived. My body was still focused on the Becoming and didn’t know how to adapt to the Loss.
You expect that Becoming a Mother happens only once, but the truth is much more complicated than that. At the beginning, you are only mother to an infant. But then you become a Mother to a Toddler. Then a Preschooler. Then a School-age Child, then a Pre-teen, and so on and so on, and every stage has a whole new Becoming.
Each time, you learn to navigate a brand new landscape, with different emotional needs, different tantrum triggers, different learning edges, different boundaries, and a hundred different ways to fill you with self-doubt. Just when you think you have it figured out, the child morphs in front of your eyes and you have to become a whole Different Mother to meet the new terrain. And gradually, through all of these changes, the child pulls away from you and sometimes even turns on you and you learn the ache of loneliness in a whole new way you didn’t see coming and you feel like you’re still shuffling down the hallway trying to find her.
Nobody warns you how much pain a child can cause with just a few careless words tossed in a mother’s direction. And nobody tells you about the sleepless nights when you’re pretty sure you’re doing it wrong and you agonize over the ways you’ve ruined the child you so painfully yet lovingly brought into the world. (And if they DID tell you, would you really listen anyway?)
And then you become a parent of multiple children and you discover that you are actually Three Different Mothers navigating three separate hallways all at the same time. Each child comes with her own set of needs and her own pace of emotional development and… you stand there in the middle completely befuddled because what worked with the first one is most certainly not working with the second and nobody gave you a roadmap for this and maybe you’re messing up three different children in three different ways.
My first two came in quick succession, and they quickly let me know that they had vastly different personalities. Even in the womb, I knew they were different, when one never stopped moving and one caused concern because she didn’t move enough. One was more introverted, the other was more extroverted. One wanted to walk as quickly and as often as possible, the other took her time and wanted to stay in the stroller long after she could reasonably fit in it. One wanted to be held long into the night, the other didn’t want anyone touching her once it was time to sleep.
Because the first two were so different, I made the mistake of believing I’d covered the spectrum of parenting and expected the third (or fourth, depending on how you count) to come out like one or the other of her sisters. She quickly proved me wrong when she revealed that there was a third way to be the “opposite”.
Even now, as I am learning, at this new stage, to be Three Different Mothers to Three Different Adults, I continue to discover that there is new terrain that I haven’t yet learned to navigate and there are still ways that I can mess up. Throw in neurodivergence and mental illness and disability and… what looked like three straight hallways have suddenly become three complicated mazes. Plus I know that there’s a whole new kind of lonely ache ahead of me as they prepare to move away from me into their own lives and I’ll be left standing alone in the hallway.
In many ways I also, mistakenly, took on the mantle of Motherhood in my marriage. Nothing could prepare me for the emotional labour that would be required of me as I navigated that particular landscape, and I thought I had no other choice but to accept it.
When he needed coaxing to get his GED and start university, when he wasn’t confident enough to hand in a university paper without me editing it first, when he competed with our children for my attention and comfort, and whenever he plummeted into anxiety and depression… there were so many ways I took on more weight than a wife should. And then there were the hard years when he fought with our teenagers like he was a teenager himself and I was forced into the role of Peacekeeper.
Nobody told me that a Mother/Wife is allowed to have boundaries. Nobody told me that a Mother/Wife doesn’t have to hold all of the weight of the world on her shoulders. Every training I’d ever received and every modeling I’d ever witnessed taught me that Becoming a Mother means that you show up when you’re needed NO MATTER WHAT and you don’t say no, especially to your partner. And you don’t get angry. And you don’t walk away.
And then there was the second time he attempted suicide, when our oldest two daughters were just starting high school and I had to navigate the psych ward and the soccer field simultaneously, putting on a brave front in both places because I knew I had to be The Dependable One. There’s something about a psych ward hallway that looks particularly dark and interminable, especially when they lock the door behind you.
Becoming a Single Mother was yet another landscape I had to learn to navigate. Again, I had no roadmap, and this time I was even more alone than I’d been before, without even a mother of my own to help me survive the road bumps. Once again, I fumbled my way down the hallway, pretty sure I must have found a whole new way to mess up and get lost. It took me five years to end the marriage because every time I got close, I kept convincing myself that my daughters were better off in a two-parent home and that I would fail them if I chose otherwise.
My greatest fear, though, in the dark lonely hours of the night, especially in those years when the two teenagers triggered the wounded teenager in my husband, was that if the girls were parented half of the time in a separate home, I wouldn’t be there to be the Peacekeeper.
But finally, when the cracks were bigger than the marriage, I knew that I had to take a chance and believe that the separation would be better than the alternative.
The night we told our daughters that their dad was moving out, the three girls were true to form and reacted in three entirely different ways. One got angry and disappeared into her room, one got emotional and blamed herself, and one was relieved that it was finally over.
There were no “stages” in the grief – everything showed up simultaneously and, once again, I stood in the middle befuddled and unsure of which hallway to stumble down first to try to meet the needs.
Weeks earlier, when I’d said I was finished and wanted the marriage to end, my then-husband asked me to visit his therapist with him to talk about it where he’d have her as a support person. I told the therapist “I feel like I’ve been angry for five years.” And she said “you don’t look angry.” Oh… I thought… so this is one of those places where I’m supposed to “show my work”, like an elementary school math quiz? But what if I don’t know how because I’ve spent the last twenty-two years doing my best to erase it?
Moments later, when my then-husband talked about how and when and where to move and I stepped in to help him navigate that decision, the therapist stopped me and said, “you’re going to let him figure that out himself this time.”
In just a few simple statements, without knowing she was doing it, she spelled out my entire training on Becoming a Mother. 1. Never show your anger. 2. Always help out. Never let the fact that your body has been torn apart keep you from stumbling down the hallway to be with The One Who Needs You. Swallow your pain and offer up kindness. Eat nails and spit out candy. Be The Dependable One to the end of your live-long days.
Sometimes I look down at my hands and wonder when my hands became my mother’s hands. When did they get that saggy skin around the knuckles? When did they lose their smoothness and develop these tiny lines and ridges? And then I realize that I am the age my mother was when all of her children were already grown up and moved away and I remember that I thought back then that she must already know everything there was to know about Becoming a Mother.
And suddenly I think… “Hold up, slow down, WAIT…How can I be this old already? How can I have reached THIS stage when there are still so many things I haven’t figured out and so many moments I still feel blind and beat up? And why didn’t I give my mother a bit more of a break for the ways she still really didn’t know how to parent me up until the day she died?”
Days before she died, when her mind had started slipping in and out of focus, my mom leaned toward me and whispered “I don’t know how to do this.” I replied “I don’t know how to do this either.” And it was the truest thing either of us ever said to each other.
Of course I couldn’t have known, back when my mother’s hands looked like mine do now, how the Becoming goes on and on and on until one day it’s the Mother torn away from the child. And the child is the one stumbling down the hallway trying to find her way through the Ache of Loneliness to the place where at least skin can touch against skin and maybe it will be alright after all.
Twenty-five years ago, I entered motherhood blind and beat up. At every new stage of Becoming, there is, again, a time when I am both blind and beat up. And then, after Struggle and Pain have had their way with me and have retired, satisfied, back into their private wing of the house, I settle in to unpack the poorly wrapped gifts they’ve left behind.
Fortunately, there always comes the day, after Struggle and Pain have left their mark, when Joy and Ease pop out of their rooms in the house and say “Remember us? We’re here too. We haven’t abandoned you to those bullies.” And when they bring the light back into the room, I look up at my three unique daughters with wonder and awe, and I watch them navigate this new terrain of Becoming Adults, and I feel both dumbfounded and lucky that I get to be on this journey with them and that I’ve always managed to find them down at the end of the hallway.
As blind and beat up as I may have been at every stage, I can’t help but look back and see all of the ways that I have risen to the occasion, that I have, again and again, stumbled down the hallway, that I have shuddered my may through hospital doors, that I have navigated new terrain, and that I have learned to persevere through Struggle and Pain until Joy and Ease came back into the room. And I have, above all else, begun to practice a new story of what it means to Become a Mother – one with more truth-telling and less martyrdom and cultural baggage – so that my daughters might, hopefully, have a new script to help them, should they find themselves here someday themselves.
And in the end, I have discovered that the Ache of Loneliness is only a true companion when you have also known the Comfort of Connection. And that’s what it means to be a Velveteen Mother.
of or resembling a nebula or nebulae in deep space; nebular
When the lockdown is over, I will go back to the float spa. When I climb into that white pod, turn off the lights and music, and lie down to float in the warm saltwater, I will drift away into a nebulous field where there are no edges, no beginning and no end, no division between water, air and body. I will be, once again, an astronaut who’s climbed out of the spaceship and is floating in zero gravity. Sometimes, as I float into semi-consciousness, I wonder if the umbilical cord that tethers astronaut to ship is still holding me or if I’m floating in the ether alone, without it. Surprisingly, it’s never an anxious thought, just a curiosity. The floating feels good and safe and free.
My life became less and less tethered this year. I am beginning to float more. My youngest daughter graduated from high school. My oldest graduated from university. All three are perched on the edge of the nest, ready to fly off into broader spaces. They are loosening their tethers to the mothership. They make plans, they speak of new lives in new cities, for when the pandemic no longer holds them here. And in the meantime, my relationship with them shapeshifts into something new.
What happens, I wonder, to the mothership when the astronauts no longer need the tether? When they have found other people, other places in which to anchor? Does the mothership take flight too? Does she become young again, and drift off into unexplored territory, waving at her children as she passes? Or does she simply become one with the void?
My body of work is finding ways to become less tethered to me as well. A new business partner is tending to many of the threads that keep the work grounded. She waves me along as I float further and further away from the ground, into new spaces, new ideas. “Go. Explore,” she says, as I put on my spacesuit and open the spaceship door. My teaching work, too, holds me down less and less. New teachers come in behind me, they hold the space I once held, and they infuse it with new energy and new wisdom. My voice, while still needed, is now part of a chorus and no longer a solo act. I have new freedom to float into uncharted territory.
My book, too, has untethered itself from me. Like cells splitting to grow into organisms, the words that once belonged to me and were only on my screen replicated themselves thousands of times, in digital and print form, and landed in homes and hearts and classrooms and libraries all over the world. Those replicated versions pass from hand to hand without me, untethered to me, living lives of their own. They hold a memory of me, the stories of me, but grow into other things, plant seeds for new ideas, without me. Some even in languages I don’t speak. “Go. Explore,” they say, as I climb out of the spaceship door.
I wonder about this virus. Tiny. Invisible. Floating through the air from body to body. Untethered and free to roam. No umbilical cord holding it in place. If we could anthropomorphize it, give it a mind, a voice, and a purpose, what would it tell us? “I want to kill you.” Or “I want to wake you up.” Or “I want to thrive.” Probably, simply, “I’m just doing what I’m meant to do – find ways to live.”
Would it teach us how to live? Teach us how to thrive? Teach us how to be present and mindful and connected and interdependent? Would it teach us how to protect each other, to be less selfish, to work together toward a common purpose? Or would it scoff at us for the many ways we refuse to change, and the many ways we give it easy access to bodies in which to grow and pathways in which to travel?
I find myself drawn to the darkness this winter. I go for long walks on snow-covered paths, long after the sun has set, after all of the neighbours have headed indoors. I walk quiet streets and venture further and further into shadowy parks and unlit paths through the woods. The darkness feeds me, nourishes me, wakens me, grounds me.
The deer are shadowy ghosts on the frozen river, and one night a nebulous shape moves toward me through the darkness on a quiet street. Is it a dog? A large cat? I don’t see clearly until our eyes meet. It is a coyote, darting from shadow to shadow at the edge of the road, claiming the neighbourhood when the people are gone. I stand, still and breathless, and watch the trickster until he disappears into the grey at the edge of my sight. This feels like gift sent from the mothership. A thin place, where the veil between heaven and earth dissolves. But only for a moment.
At the beginning of this pandemic, I was in the Netherlands. Many late nights on ancestry.com had given me the names of the towns where my ancestors lived centuries ago. Back before the torture began and they had to flee to Germany, to Russia and then to Canada, always just a breath ahead of their oppressors. Back before they became pariahs, before the establishment declared them to be dangerous for their beliefs and the genocidal agenda began.
I stood there, on those narrow cobblestone streets in little Dutch towns, and I sensed them there with me, behind me, holding me, reminding me. Their DNA, still alive in me. Their stories, their trauma, waking up in my body after a long slumber. I wondered what it was like to be a refugee, an exile, an outcast. I wondered what it was like to lose your homeland, to become untethered from the place that once nurtured you. I wondered, and yet somehow I also knew.
When I returned home from my ancestors’ homeland, I dug for pieces of me in old boxes in my basement. Threads connecting me to my past. There, buried in the boxes, on journal pages and letters home to her mother, was the traumatized twenty-two-year-old, lonely and unprotected on her bed as the rapist climbed through the window and violated her body. I cried for her as she poured herself out onto those pages, trying to heal, trying to find wholeness, trying not to be crushed under the weight of what had been done to her. I cried for her shame, her innocence, and the poison she took into her body and tried to disgorge onto the page. I cried for the way she had never been told that her body was worthy, that sex wasn’t meant to hurt, that men didn’t get to take things from her that she didn’t want to give. I ached for the way she’d become untethered, unmoored, ungrounded.
Is she still me? Am I still her? Where are the edges between her and I? Where is the line between her trauma and my healing? Or is it all nebulous, without shape, without edges, without beginning or end? When does one give way to the other? Is there a moment when trauma loosens its hold and begins to seep out of a body that wants to heal?
I like starry nights, but my favourites, right now, are the cloudy nights when the snow-covered city is held in a pinkish-grey dome. I can walk forever on those nights, navigating the nebulous landscape, venturing into parks and woodlands that hold too much darkness on starry nights. On the unlit trails between the cathedral spires of leaf-less trees, I can’t see clearly enough to know where the path ends and the deep snow begins. I lean into trust and memory and plant one foot in front of the other, hoping my foot won’t sink deeply into untrodden snow. And sometimes, when it’s snowing and I return the way I arrived, my half-hour-old footprints are already obliterated. Was I ever there, or was it just an illusion? Do I hold enough substance to even make a mark?
I am mostly alone on my night-time pilgrimages, but one night I meet a couple carrying flashlights that lend glaring light to the ten feet in front of them but make the void beyond them even darker. I want to ask those people why they spoil the gentle darkness with the light, but I stay silent. I don’t want to spoil the gentle stillness with my voice. Instead, I carry on past them, deeper into the woods, and my eyes readjust to the darkness. Once again, I recognize the nebulous shapes around me as my sturdy and reliable friends, the trees. And sometimes a deer.
People ask me if I’m not scared, out there alone in the dark. I say “My safety was taken away from me at home, in my own bed. Out there in the woods is not where my demons live.”
I am in a new relationship now. No, not new… evolved. Shapeshifted. Once a friendship, now… more. Intimacy. Care. Intention. Listening. Exploration. Holding. Touching… but only for fleeting moments. We are hundreds of miles apart, and there is a pandemic in the gap between us, so we cancel plans to spend time together, and instead we grow a relationship in the nebulous digital spaces where there is no third dimension. Only flat video images and words on a screen. We long for more shape, less nebulousness, but the pandemic stands as a sentry at the gate, guarding the gap between us. We each stay tethered to our own cities.
What is the shape of love when bodies can’t collide? How do you become tethered when there is no touch and miles of space between you? What does this make us? What do we call ourselves?
In my basement is a large canvas. At the beginning of the pandemic, when fear and confusion and overwhelm and grief were the ingredients of the soup we were all swimming in, I threw paint at the void of that canvas and then dove in with my hands, smearing the paint around in swirls and nebulous shapes. Waves of emotion came through me as I painted, layer upon layer of paint applied only with my hands. Catharsis. Release. Deconstruction.
In the months since, that canvas calls me back, again and again. I layer on more and more paint, always obliterating whatever took shape the last time I stood in front of it. Each time I visit it, it evolves into something different than it was before. The canvas receives it all – my anger, my disappointment, my sadness, my joy, my fear, my love – and it blends it all together in swirls of colour. I am reminded that there are only blurred lines between my emotions and no single feeling speaks of only one truth.
My identity is reshaping itself in this nebulous time. Author. Business partner. I add those, like layers of paint on the canvas, to the evolving shape of who I am, who I was, and who I am becoming. I wonder if my ancestors knew, when I stood on their land at the beginning of this year, the shape of who I’d be, centuries after they died. I wonder how their identity is still alive in me, how I am tethered to them, how they witness me, if they do, from the beyond, on the other side of the thin place.
I wonder what stories DNA would tell, if we could give them voices too, like the virus. Would they sing ancestral songs of triumph and resilience? Would they chant laments in memory of the pain? Would they whisper to us, as they shape us into who we are, the secrets of the hard-won wisdom woven into them by those they shaped before us?
My son once floated in the nebulous space in my womb, tethered to the mothership, nourished through my umbilical cord. I wonder what he thought while he floated. Did he feel safe, like I do in the float tank? Did he dream of the day the cord would loosen and allow him to begin to explore the world? Or did he want to stay in there where he was safe, for as long as he could, with me?
But then, before his body had grown enough to support his journey outside of me, the membrane that held that space for him was violently torn by a doctor trying to protect him, and he was left exposed. The fluid that he’d floated in drained from my body, like a leak in the float tank. He tried to survive, and for weeks he did, but then one night, a tiny bacteria (harmless in me but dangerous in him), as tiny as the virus that is now killing thousands, entered his once-protected space and snuffed out his unborn life.
I wonder where he is now. Is he with the ancestors, on the other side of the thin place, watching, witnessing, floating? And is he telling them about the shape of me, from the inside where he once lived? I wonder what secrets his DNA whispered into my body before he floated away.
And now, perhaps something else uncovered in the shape of who I am… neurodivergent? My daughters, both diagnosed with ADHD, point toward me and say “you too, mom.” They see the patterns I don’t yet see, they point to the ways my brain works like theirs, they witness the places I fumble, forget, and get distracted. And they also see the ways I triumph, adapt and fight to thrive. They guide me into seeing myself anew. Who am I if I have ADHD? And what does it change in me if I fit into this unknown and yet familiar shape?
And there is one more layer of paint emerging in this nebulous year. Or perhaps an old layer, once submerged, now being revealed. My new relationship… it’s with a woman. She sits on the other side of my video screen, tethered to her city, separated by miles and a pandemic. Who does this make me now? Lesbian? Bi-sexual? Queer? Shapeshifter? Who was I then and who am I now? Or am I simply floating in the ether, searching for a new tether that offers the safety and belonging I wasn’t sure I’d know? Does it matter what I call myself? Or her? Do I need my identity tethered to a word? (Perhaps I do, if only to acknowledge the courage and resilience of those who came before and cleared the way so that I could float here now, in a safer place.)
I am finding that I want to play with words the way I play with paint on the canvas. I want to swirl them around with my hands, squish them with my fingers, blur them together, and make nebulous shapes in the chaos. After long months of arranging words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters, chapters into a book – and all of it into meaning, I want to remove the boxes. Remove the form. Remove even the meaning. Let the words float.
And what am I left with then, if the words flow like the paint from my hands onto blank pages? What do I hold, if there is no shape, if there are no answers, if there is no meaning, if it is all nebulous?
And perhaps this is what the pandemic offers. This nebulous space in which to float. This way of being that is less tethered to doing and completing and resolving. These long, solitary walks in shadowy places that change the shape of who we are, that blur the edges of who we encounter, that give us new identity and new connection to the spaces we’re in. This liminal landscape that allows us to transform, to shapeshift, to blur the edges, to become something new, to reclaim something old, to be reminded of who we already are.
Perhaps this is what the virus would say, if it could. “Just be.”
If you find that you, too, are being reshaped in these nebulous times, you might want to join my exploration by signing up for 52 Weeks of Holding Space.
On New Year’s Eve, I was contacted by a local radio station to do an interview on how to prepare for the new year. I didn’t get back to them soon enough, so they found someone else. Later that day, on my way to the grocery store, I happened to hear the interview with the life coach they interviewed instead, and while I was sorry to miss the interview opportunity, I realized I wasn’t quite the kind of voice they wanted to hear anyway. I know that I wouldn’t have been able to give the kinds of pithy, coach-y answers they were looking for. They wanted to hear about things like intentions or resolutions for the new year, gratitude journals, vision boards or tips for setting achievable goals.
These can all be good and helpful things, and I might have talked about them myself if I’d done the interview ten years ago, but none of them feel like they’re good enough for us anymore, especially when we’re in the middle of a pandemic and white supremacy is threatening to destroy democracy in the U.S..
Because so much of our narrative around New Year’s resolutions (and all of the trendy alternatives) are rooted in the “you are the master of your own domain” narrative that assumes we can control our own destiny – a belief that’s primarily rooted in privilege. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it has shown us how little control we have over the outcome of our year. And then (especially for those living at the margins of the dominant culture) there are all of those other things that get in the way, like systemic oppression, discrimination, abuse of power, lack of health care, poverty, etc. Yes, we have to take responsibility for our own choices and behaviour, and our plans and intentions can be valuable, but we also have to be honest about the ways in which we are part of a system that privileges some and oppresses others.
Because sometimes our “good intentions” can have harmful impact on other people, and to focus solely on individual intentions is to potentially overlook our commitment to the collective. This is another lesson of the pandemic – to make choices rooted in your individual rights and needs may have a devastating impact on people around you.
Because when we focus too much on plans and resolutions and fail to talk about how we’ll grow our resilience and adapt to change, we can set ourselves up for disappointment and distress when disruption comes.
Because many of us are just trying to survive right now, and too much talk about vision and hopes and resolutions and planning can be shaming to those who can barely get out of bed because of depression, who can barely pay the bills because the pandemic has taken away their income, who have difficulty planning because they’re neurodivergent, or who are deep in grief because the pandemic has taken away someone they love.
Because if you believe you can “manifest good things”, it’s a good sign you’ve been the beneficiary of privilege and don’t know what it’s like to be denied those good things because of your skin colour, race, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, etc.
None of these things are related solely to New Year’s Eve – they’re present in all of the self-help industry and much of the coaching world. They are concepts that have been sold to us by those who know how to leverage our insecurities, our longing, our weakness, our self-doubt, and our shame. They exist because capitalism functions best when people are convinced they need more trinkets, more validation, more courses, more gurus, and more self-improvement to convince themselves of their own worthiness.
I think it’s time for the self-help industry to grow up. I think (to quote the Bible) it’s time to “put away childish things” and evolve into something that offers more meaning, more grit, and more contribution to the good of the collective.
The self-help industry is like the teenager of the personal/collective development family – it’s focused mostly on its own interests, it prefers shiny and pretty to gritty and robust, it tends to see the world (and all the people around it) as a vehicle to get its own needs met, it doesn’t like to clean up its own mess, it’s easily influenced by attractive and charismatic influencers, and it isn’t grounded or mature enough yet to withstand the manipulative forces of those spouting propaganda and conspiracy theories.
(I love teenagers, by the way, and mostly really enjoyed raising three of them. They have plenty of positive traits beyond what I mentioned above. But the fact is, nobody’s brain has fully developed in the teen years and they’re meant to continue evolving.)
What might it look like if the self-help industry grew up?
We would talk less about self-care and more about community-care. We would recognize that we are interdependent and that we have much more capacity for growth and healing when we do it together. Our bookstores would have “community-help” sections that would grow past the size of the “self-help” section.
Those with mental illness and those who are neurodivergent would be more fully integrated into our communities and wouldn’t be shamed for the ways they function differently. We would value their unique insights and we would recognize that when their needs are met and their voices are heard, it’s good for the collective and not just the individual.
We’d elevate the voices of those saying challenging and meaningful things rather than those who have the shiniest social media presence who promote aspirational but empty ideas. There would be space for those pushed to the margins by the dominant culture to be heard.
We would talk just as much about grief and trauma as we do about joy and desire. We would recognize that our lives are richer and fuller when we allow ourselves the full breadth of human experience and we’d let go of harmful ideas about how “positive thoughts attract positive things”.
We would learn to be in messy conversations with each other. We’d learn the transformational potential of conflict and we’d resist the urge to run away from it. We would listen to each other even when that meant we’d need to be confronted with our own mistakes and biases.
We’d quit trying to reach some unattainable standard of perfection and we’d give ourselves more grace for the ways we fumble and the times we need rest. We’d stop buying magazines or signing up for classes or watching movies that make us feel unworthy.
We’d wrestle with our own biases, our privilege, and our access to power and we wouldn’t assume that what we have access to is what we’ve “earned”. We wouldn’t let our fragility get in the way of our growth and contribution to the evolution of the collective.
We wouldn’t need to talk as much about worthiness anymore because we would have silenced the voices of those making money from our unworthiness. Our communities would evolve to value all kinds of contributions, so we wouldn’t have as much need to measure ourselves on arbitrary yard sticks of productivity or value.
We’d see that much of what we’ve been taught is spiritual bypassing that’s about avoiding the messiness in life and trying to transcend the pain. We’d recognize the harm done by that kind of belief system to ourselves and to the people whose pain we’ve ignored or shamed because of it.
We’d stop buying so many things in our efforts to fill the void. Instead, we’d spend time in nature, we’d rest, and we’d spend more time with people who challenge and nurture us. We’d learn from the natural world and we’d live in ways that are less destructive to the environment.
We would see that we are imbedded in systems and that personal growth is only part of what is necessary for our culture (and ourselves) to evolve. We’d recognize the need to invest in systemic change and to challenge systemic imbalances, and we’d give ourselves grace when our behaviour and choices are deeply rooted in the social conditioning we’ve received from the systems we’re part of.
Several years ago, a friend shared a graphic he’d made about his life. It was a timeline that showed the kinds of books he’d read at various stages of his life. It was particularly focused on the evolution of his spiritual life, moving from those ideas that he was fed by his family and community in his childhood, through his questioning and awakening phase, to a much more open-minded, complex, and non-dual spirituality. I appreciate what his timeline reflected – that there is a time and a place for every stage of growth and that what we explored in our younger years provided the platform for what we are ready to explore in our later years.
There’s a good chance, if you’re reading this post, that you’ve gone through a phase in your life when self-help books were valuable in helping you begin your self-discovery, healing, and personal growth work. That is certainly true for me and for most of the people I know.
But I encourage you to consider that there is a limit to how far those ideas can take you, and if you cling to them, your growth may become stunted. It would be like a toddler who refused to give up pablum for solid food. That toddler’s bones and muscles wouldn’t grow strong enough to carry them into adulthood.
It may be time to put away childish things and to look beyond the self-help industry for your next level of growth and healing.
It feels a little disingenuous to promote something at the bottom of a post in which I critique the way the self-help industry makes money, so you can feel free to ignore this next bit. However, if you’re looking for a way to go deeper in 2021, to move beyond the messages you’ve been fed by the self-help industry, you might want to sign up for 52 Weeks of Holding Space. It will challenge and stretch you while also reminding you that you are enough.
“Is there empirical evidence that backs up your holding space concepts?”
I’ve heard some version of this question a few times in recent months. Sometimes it comes from people who are simply curious, sometimes they want to include my work in an academic paper and need to be able to prove its merit to their academic advisors, and sometimes they’re a little suspicious of what I teach and want to know if they can trust it.
I understand and appreciate the question. I value the rigor of science and research and believe it’s important to do due diligence when we’re presenting ideas that might challenge our behaviour or disrupt our communities. I’ve spent a lot of time digging into research papers and quantitative studies over the years, and have always been deeply appreciative of those who make it their life’s work to design good research projects that give us important information about ourselves and the world we live in.
The answer to their question, though, is no. There have been no academic researchers who have applied the rigor of scientific methodology to my work. Perhaps someday there will be (and there is at least one study in Australia that has done some research about the value of holding space for new moms that’s not directly related to my work), but for now, it is rooted in my observation, my own years of study and teaching and research, and my capacity for meaning-making and storytelling. Scientific research is not my particular area of expertise – I am a teacher, storyteller, wisdom-seeker, idea-synthesizer, and sometimes poet.
The purpose of this post, though, is less about defending my expertise and more about interrogating something that I believe is, at least some of the time, underneath that line of questioning. It’s about whether or not we can only trust a scientific way of knowing.
Is a concept only worth believing in and pursuing if it’s been proven by an academically rigorous research process? Is that the gold standard of our “knowing”? And if that is the gold standard, then what kind of wisdom are we missing because of it? Do we treat the wisdom of the storytellers, poets, artists, philosophers, mystics, culture-watchers and edgewalkers as only second rate?
One of my greatest sources of inspiration in navigating this question recently has been Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass and Gathering Moss. She’s a professor with a PhD in plant ecology and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. In addition to her scientific training, she is deeply rooted in Indigenous spirituality and plant knowledge, and she has the heart of a poet. In her books, she weaves the scientific way of understanding plants and the natural world with a more spiritual and intuitive Indigenous way of knowing.
“Native scholar Greg Cajete has written that in indigenous ways of knowing, we understand a thing only when we understand it with all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, and spirit. I came to understand quite sharply when I began my training as a scientist that science privileges only one, possibly two, of those ways of knowing: mind and body. As a young person wanting to know everything about plants, I did not question this. But it is a whole human being who finds the beautiful path.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer
In a recent interview, Robin Wall Kimmerer talked about the journey she had to take to get to the place where she felt confident enough to trust in her Indigenous way of knowing and was able to hold it alongside the scientific way she was being trained in within the academic system. With time, she developed the “language of resistance” to push back against those academics who were dismissive and she now weaves all ways of knowing into her work.
There’s a deep resonance for me in this integrated way of knowing that honours mind, body, emotion, and spirit. It adds so many layers of richness to our knowledge and our inquiries into the world and into humanity. It allows space for the poets, the mystics, the storytellers, and the Indigenous wisdom keepers alongside the academics and the scientists. It’s like looking at the earth from all sides and recognizing that it is multi-dimensional instead of flat.
Not only should we weave other ways of knowing into our collective consciousness, we should also recognize that those people rooted in what we think of as “alternative” ways of knowing are often the forerunners and explorers, leading the way into new territory that the scientists and academics have not yet entered. Poets and storytellers and philosophers have a certain way of seeing the culture and the natural world in ways that many academics do not and they’re able to shine lights into new places and witness the emergence of new ideas and trends. Scientists should, in fact, be grateful for their vision and be willing to follow behind with the relevant research, when it adds to the knowledge.
In the last chapter of my book, I talked about my conversations with my friend TuBears, a shaman and elder of the Choctaw nation. She offered me a unique perspective on holding space, one that she’d learned from her many years of attending sun dances, hosting vision quests, and being in ceremony. I had tried in vain to find the original source of the term “holding space” (to honour the lineage), but TuBears suggested that perhaps there is no one source. Perhaps there is only universal Source.
TuBears started using the term “holding space” years ago, before anyone taught it to her, and she believes that it simply came to her because it is rooted in an Indigenous way of knowing. Together we surmised that the concept of holding space is being awakened in many people all over the world (myself included) simultaneously because it is badly needed in the world right now. If we block it because it doesn’t fit the kind of wisdom that’s acceptable to the dominant culture, then we miss an opportunity for meaningful cultural shift and healing.
I wonder what might change if we brought a more holistic wisdom perspective like what TuBears offered me into our education systems. What if we trained our kindergarten teachers in mysticism as well as academics and they transformed their classrooms and lessons accordingly? What if we taught elementary students how to spend time in nature, how to be in ceremony, and how to talk to plants? What if our high school students all had to spend at least one week a year immersed in the spiritual teachings of their indigenous cultures? What if we wove emotional and relational education (and holding space) into our academic education all the way through university?
Perhaps if we did, we would find ourselves moving in greater rhythm with the natural world. Perhaps then we would no longer treat the land and all that grows on it as “resources” but as “kin”, as Robin Wall Kimmerer teaches. Perhaps we would also know how to build healthier communities where nobody would be marginalized and even the most vulnerable and least “productive” would be highly valued. Perhaps we would consume less and love more.
In the midst of this pandemic, I find myself looking for this more expansive, more holistic lens on the experience we are in globally. While science is crucial in helping us cope with a deadly pandemic, and I am grateful for the many researchers pouring their time and energy into this, I also want to know what the poets are saying about how the pandemic is changing us. I want to hear from the storytellers and philosophers about what is being revealed in our culture. I want to sit with the wisdom of the mystics as they guide us in a spiritual inquiry into how this virus is interacting with the world. I want to hear from the shamans and Indigenous elders and artists. I want to sit at the feet of wisdom-weavers like Bayo Akomolafe or those who gather around Science and Nonduality. Surely there is greater wisdom available to us than what we hear from the most prominent voices in our media streams.
Last night, after spending a full day writing, I closed my computer at the end of the last paragraph and went for a walk. It was one of those beautiful winter evenings, when the low cloud cover reflects back some of the light of the city, and the snow has a pinkish, mystical glow. To get away from the lights and noise of the street, I walked down to the riverbank not far from my house. There isn’t a well-trodden path down to the river, just a deer trail through the tall grass and shrubbery, and I had to climb over dead trees to get to the edge of the frozen river. It was worth it, though, for stillness in that liminal space between land and ice.
Across the river, I spotted some movement, and realized that I was being graced with the rare presence of a coyote as it dashed along the frozen river. As it ran past me, it spotted my movement and paused for a moment while we stared at each other. I stood there in awe, in one of those “thin places” that the Celts talk about, where the gap between the transcendent and the commonplace is especially narrow. Nothing else in the world mattered in that moment but me, the frozen river, and the coyote.
One man saw the immense physical beauty and enjoyed the event in itself. This man was the “sensate” type who, like 80 percent of the world, deals with what he can see, feel, touch, move, and fix. This was enough reality for him, for he had little interest in larger ideas, intuitions, or the grand scheme of things. He saw with his first eye, which was good.
A second man saw the sunset. He enjoyed all the beauty that the first man did. Like all lovers of coherent thought, technology, and science, he also enjoyed his power to make sense of the universe and explain what he discovered. He thought about the cyclical rotations of planets and stars. Through imagination, intuition, and reason, he saw with his second eye, which was even better.
The third man saw the sunset, knowing and enjoying all that the first and the second men did. But in his ability to progress from seeing to explaining to “tasting,” he also remained in awe before an underlying mystery, coherence, and spaciousness that connected him with everything else. He used his third eye, which is the full goal of all seeing and all knowing. This was the best.
That third eye way of seeing has always been present for me, for as long as I can remember. More than once, in my youth, I remember trying to describe how it could move me to tears to watch the grace with which a deer jumped over a fence. The people I was talking to looked completely puzzled, not understanding how that could have been so meaningful to me. There might have even been one or two dismissive comments like “what have you been smoking lately?” Those people had likely never seen with their third eyes.
After enough of those puzzled looks and comments, one learns not to speak too much about that other way of knowing, or the third eye way of seeing. Deep down, though, I always trusted it and knew that I could return to it, even when I spent years keeping it hidden so as to make myself more acceptable in corporate, academic, or religious environments.
One learns a myriad of ways of hiding one’s third eye.
Like Robin Wall Kimmerer, though, I have developed the “language of resistance” over the years, and have found enough grounding, support and confidence that even those with puzzled looks, ridicule, or suspicion can cause little more than a glimmer of self-consciousness in me now.
The beauty of finally living with your third eye exposed, after years of trying to hide it, is that you have an easier time finding others who also see with their third eyes. And when you spot each other, there is a look of recognition and familiarity that passes between you because you know that this is another person who has stood in thin places.
Right now, in this complex time with multi-layered challenges coming our way, more of us need to find the courage to uncover our third eyes and speak from our other ways of knowing. There is no one way of knowing that will see us through this shadowy time. We need to gather all ways of knowing.
The workday was finished and I had just picked up my two daughters – one a toddler and one an infant at the time – from daycare and we were on our way home in the family minivan. I was tired and knew that I still had to find enough energy to make supper, feed the girls, and give them the attention they needed after a day away from me.
There was a train crossing the road, so I stopped at the railway crossing, the second vehicle away from the tracks. Suddenly, a screeching sound caught my attention and I turned to see that the last three cars of the train, still about 50 metres from the road I was on, had come off the tracks and were crashing down to the ground on my side of the tracks. I had only an instant to process what was going on and what was about to happen. The wayward cars were being dragged along by the still-moving train and were in danger of swinging outward to exactly the spot where I sat.
I jammed the van into reverse, but then looked back to see a long line of cars behind me – unless they moved, I had nowhere to go. The railway cars were heading my direction and I was frozen in place, waiting to see if my daughters and I would be crushed by a careening railcar.
Fortunately, the derailed rail cars stayed close enough to the track that none of the vehicles on the road were hit. With my heart pounding, I, and all of the others on the road, turned away from the wreck and found our way onto other roads that would take us home.
Yesterday morning I was waiting for another train at a crossing not far from where the train derailed and I had a flashback to that moment, over twenty years ago, when I didn’t know whether I’d be able to keep my daughters alive.
When the tears started to fill my eyes with the memory, I realized it wasn’t just the train I was thinking about. “This is exactly how LIFE feels right now!” I thought. “We are ALL sitting on the road, watching a derailed train barrel down the tracks and all we can do is sit and watch it come toward us wondering whether we’ll be in the path of destruction.”
That derailed train is so many things right now. It’s the pandemic that none of us can control and nobody knows when/if it will touch our families or circles of beloveds. It’s the jobs being lost and the businesses that may not survive the repeated shutdowns. It’s the bank accounts careening toward empty as a result. It’s the changing climate. It’s the racial injustice and the pain and trauma of BIPOC people and the rising tension because there seems to be no sign of the systemic racism and related deaths coming to an end. It’s the coming U.S. election which is causing so much fear not only because a misogynist bully might win again and continue to wreak havoc, but because there is a very real threat of serious disruption and possible violence as a result of the election outcome. It’s a Supreme Court in the U.S. that is now dangerously tipped against the rights of LGBTQ+ people and the reproductive rights of women.
Many of us, in fact, are at an intersection where multiple derailed trains are coming at us at once and we don’t know which one will wreak the most havoc. For a person of colour in the U.S., for example, or a person with a disability at greater risk because of the pandemic, there are converging trains coming down the track at once.
I don’t write this to be a doomsday prophet or town crier shouting about the end of the world. (I can already imagine the emails I might get from those who want me to post more “positive thoughts” so I don’t “attract” those runaway trains.) I write it to acknowledge that we are in a strange and complex liminal space and none of us has any control over the outcome and in some moments the only thing we can see on the horizon is sure disaster. This is where we are. This is the complexity of the liminal space the world is in right now, and if you are afraid or angry or overwhelmed, you are not alone. And you are not “doing it wrong”. You are human, with real human emotions. And I will never, ever shame you or gaslight you or offer you any spiritual bypassing cliches that would suggest you shouldn’t be having these feelings right now. I’ve been on the road watching that derailed train come toward me and my children – I know how it feels to be powerless in that moment.
That moment isn’t the end of the story, though. I survived it. And my daughters did too. And trains don’t stay forever off the rails. And moments of terror pass. And even if there is destruction, those of us left behind figure out how to pick up the pieces, and we carry on. And we get stronger. And we discover our own courage and resilience and we turn toward each other and we share the stories and admit our fears so that we can help each other survive.
And then one day, more than twenty years later, we sit at another train track, where a train passes us smoothly and we remember that we survived. And we are grateful to still be alive and to be able to continue to parent those little girls who are now adults. And we might cry a little, because it feels like another train is coming at us from another direction, but we remember that we have the capacity to survive and that trains pass. Even the derailed ones.
Here’s what I want to say to you if you’re sitting there, feeling helpless, as the derailed train is coming toward you and your beloveds.
1. Recognize the trauma response. Your body has within it the capacity to respond to moments of threat and stress in what it senses are the right ways to protect you. When the pressure is intense, your amygdala kicks into gear and takes over your brain functioning and nervous system, raising your adrenaline so that you are ready for the flight, flight, freeze, or tend-and-befriend. This quick reactivity serves an important purpose, but it also comes with a cost. For one thing, it makes it very difficult for you to engage the other parts of your brain that are more rational and calm. For another thing, when the trauma from your past is still present in your body, you’ll have a tendency to respond the same way even when the threat isn’t immediate, or isn’t as dangerous as your body senses it to be. That means that, in times of high intensity, especially when multiple trains seem to have become derailed at the same time, you might regularly find yourself with a flooded nervous system and a diminished capacity for calm and rational thought. And sometimes you might even find yourself suffering from adrenal fatigue when your nervous system has been functioning at high alert for too long. Give yourself a break if you’re not able to accomplish much right now or if you seem to be over-reactive to every stimulus. Speak gently to yourself the way you would to a frightened child. Practice soothing yourself with tactile items, gentle touch, or time in nature. Consider seeing a therapist or seek out the medical and/or psychological support you need.
2. Remember the impermanence of every state. It gives me great comfort to recognize that no emotion ever stays forever. It lets me feel even the intense emotions with a little more ease and presence because I know that they will pass. Fear, grief, overwhelm, anger – none of them are sustainable in the long term and so they will all fade away eventually and you will find yourself in other emotional states that are less exhausting. Yes, they may cycle through you again and again, especially in times of stress or tragedy, but you can practice holding them with more mindfulness and awareness, watching them come, holding space for them for a moment, and then watching them leave. Your emotional state does not own you and you can allow whatever shows up to pass through you without becoming overly attached to it.
3. Find outlets that help you release the emotions and the impacts of the trauma. If you need to scream, scream (perhaps in a place where you won’t alarm the neighbours). If you need to cry, cry. If your body feels shaky, let it shake. If you need to laugh until you cry, then do that. If you need to punch something, make sure it’s a pillow and not the face of someone you love. If you need to break something, find your least favourite mug and throw it against a cement wall. Emotions that threaten to overwhelm you need a healthy outlet so that you don’t hurt anyone (including yourself) with them. And trauma that is not physically released from your body has a greater chance of staying locked inside. Sometimes wild dance movements help. Sometimes swinging a hammer or using power tools helps. Sometimes making messy art helps. Sometimes just watching a sad movie and letting your tears flow helps. Emotions that get stuck inside of us will find less healthy ways of showing up later.
4. Find stillness. As I mentioned above, intense emotional states aren’t sustainable, and worry and fretting are among those that we need to let go of when they’re ready to pass. It’s hard to let go of that kind of frenetic energy, though, if we stay in the frenetic space that feeds the worry. Step away from your computer for awhile. Stay off social media one day a week or turn it off at 7 p.m. Don’t check the news first thing when you wake up. Limit the number of conversations you engage in online, especially if there are some that cause you anxiety and discomfort. Unfollow people whose feeds are full of doom and gloom. Pick a comfortable chair in your home that is the no-electronics zone and leave your phone in another room every time you curl up in that chair. Or designate your backyard a no-tech area. Find the places that give you some measure of peace and visit them regularly.
5. Lean into love. Even though we can’t spend as much time in the same physical spaces as the people we love, this is a time when we need connection and community more than ever. This is a time when we need to rely on each other and find the spaces where we can be authentic and vulnerable with people we trust. Lean into that. Reach out to your friends and host Zoom dates. Go for walks in the park together. Send a small gift to someone who’s special to you. Find a way to offer love and that love will come back to you in some way or another. Notice who’s in the most direct line of the oncoming train (i.e. who will be the first to be impacted by the disaster?) and find a way to support them or advocate for them. And if you need mental health support, call a help line or ask around to find a therapist or support group. You are not in this alone. Collectively, we have more capacity to weather derailed trains than we do alone.
6. Know that you are resilient. This too shall pass. You have survived hard things in the past and you will survive hard things in the future. And each hard thing you survive gives you additional resources to help you survive the next one. Trust that you have the strength and resilience to weather this storm. Trust that your emotional muscles will grow under the strain of this new weight. Trust that even those who lose limbs learn to dance again.
Perhaps next year, when we find our way through the rubble of the derailed trains, and we can touch each other again, we’ll lean on each other, we’ll hold up the most wounded, and we’ll do the dance of the wobbly yet resilient.
I stopped talking about “non-judgement” and replaced it with “selective non-judgement”;
I started talking about boundaries and limitations and the times when you shouldn’t hold space;
I started writing about spiritual bypassing and the many ways we avoid the messiness of the liminal space (i.e. by trying to stay in “love and light”);
I evolved my language around “safe space” and started talking more about “brave space”.
Here’s why that matters: If these nuances are not part of the complexity of holding space, then it can be its own form of spiritual bypassing, it can be a justification for willful blindness, and it can make us complicit in allowing harm to be done.
If I hold space without any judgement, discernment, or boundaries, and if I insist on everyone being allowed to express any opinions they want in the spaces I hold without repercussions or accountability, then the spaces I hold can become cauldrons of toxicity and dangerous ideology, they will overlook the abuse of power and they will almost certainly contribute to the further oppression of those who are already marginalized.
I am currently seeing this happening in the wellness/spirituality/yoga communities. People are invoking the language of holding space to gaslight other people for daring to challenge belief systems and worldviews that contribute to oppression. They’re insisting on things like “safe space” and “no divisiveness” and “unity” and “all beliefs are sacred” and “all lives matter” as a way to shame people for challenging racism, fascism, ableism, and other destructive “isms”.
More specifically, this watered down, spiritual bypassing use of the language of holding space has allowed QAnon (a dangerous, cultish belief system rooted in fascist propaganda which espouses beliefs such as “the pandemic is a hoax” and “Trump is a lightworker who will save the world from a powerful cabal of leftist child traffickers”) to take hold in these communities and has stopped people from challenging the destructiveness of it because they don’t want to create divisiveness or judge other people’s beliefs. (Sadly, I suspect that it may be specifically BECAUSE QAnon saw the potential of this type of culture within this community that they put the effort into targeting it. If you’re looking for a fertile field to grow a dangerous belief system, why not target a space where people won’t put up much resistance or be judgmental when their friends buy in?)
I want to go on record as saying that I DO NOT support this use of a term that has become so close to my heart that I’ve co-founded The Centre for Holding Space (and written a book about it). I AM NOT, nor will I ever be, in support of this language being co-opted for those purposes. And I will not be a bystander and allow this beautiful concept to be corrupted in such a dangerous way.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – Desmond Tutu
Holding space is NOT about being neutral in situations of injustice. It is about wise discernment, courage, boundaries, anti-oppression, intersectionality, and fierce love. It is about centring the most marginalized and keeping the oppressor out of the circle (unless they show evidence of change and a commitment to repair). It is about daring to have difficult conversations and it’s about transforming conflict.
Holding space is about honouring the sovereignty and seeking the liberation of ALL people. That means not accepting the abuse of those who threaten that sovereignty or try to take that liberation away.
It doesn’t mean that you have to be unkind to people who’ve bought into belief systems that cause harm, but it means you have to be bold enough to challenge them and, if necessary, keep them out of circles where marginalized people risk being harmed.
Whenever I teach the Foundation Program in holding space, people are always somewhat surprised at the challenge and robustness of it, especially when we get to the part about Holding Space in Complexity. In that module, we talk about power, oppression, intersectionality, and conflict. Suddenly, a concept that started off as simply a way to support a friend through a crisis, or a client through personal or organizational development, becomes somewhat confronting when it calls us to be courageous in the face of injustice and oppression. Suddenly, we are called to be warriors rather than doormats.
From Buddhism, I learned the posture of “strong back and soft belly”. This concept teaches us that we should be welcoming and offer access to our open hearts through our “soft bellies”, but that we should maintain “strong backs”, prepared to become warriors who challenge that which threatens to harm us or other people. This, I believe, is how we should hold space – softness balanced with strength.
That means that there is openness to everyone’s questions, longing, fears, etc., but there are boundaries erected whenever harm is being done. In these spaces, you are allowed to express your beliefs, but you may be challenged if those beliefs don’t honour the dignity and sovereignty of other human beings.
At this point, you may be thinking… “but Heather… it sounds like you’re biased and you get to pick and choose whose belief systems are acceptable in your spaces”. Yes, I will admit to my biases and I will also admit that I am not always right and that I am still learning. (Each of us has biases and to pretend otherwise is another form of willful blindness.) As much as I can, I try to be biased on the side of justice, equity, and the sovereignty and dignity of ALL people. That means that sometimes I choose to intentionally centre the more marginalized and ask that those with more privilege relinquish some of that privilege (and dare to have the belief systems and biases connected to that privilege be challenged). That may feel uncomfortable for some, but I believe that it is the way that we will build more equitable and just spaces.
If you wish to hold space in a way that does not inadvertently create spaces of intentional blindness where dangerous ideas are allowed to grow unchecked, here are some tips:
Be clear about what is acceptable in the spaces you host. If you are a group facilitator, pastor, community leader, teacher, etc., it’s good practice to post what is acceptable, and/or invite people in your groups to collectively develop a set of agreements that articulate what is acceptable and then ask that everyone adhere to those agreements.
Work in community and develop a culture where vulnerability is valued and people can be open about their own biases and blindspots. Build trust and a strong container among your co-leaders so that when someone’s blindspots become clear to them they have the resources and support to work through any shame that might be triggered. (This is why I am now in partnership with a strong partner and have a team who work together and allow this work to expand beyond my own biases. I have been stretched because of it.)
Be in relationship with people who are different from you, especially those who are from marginalized populations, so that you have an expanded worldview and can gain perspective about the kinds of behaviour and beliefs that cause harm. If you don’t yet have such friendships, start by following strong leaders/writers/thinkers who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), LGBTQ+, differently abled, etc., especially those who clearly articulate how their communities are being marginalized.
Be committed to having your biases challenged and your worldview expanded. None of us can claim to be free of bias or prejudice – it’s in the soil our society was built on and it’s part of the evolutionary development of our brains that’s helped keep us alive and connected to our communities. Some of those biases, in fact, are inwardly directed as internalized oppression. (For example, after all of these years of living as a fat person, I still have to catch myself in the judgements I make about fatness.) We might not be able to free ourselves entirely of harmful biases, but we can be humble enough to admit them and open to having them changed.
BUT… don’t be so open to having your biases challenged that you’ll be easily swayed by manipulation and propaganda. Don’t be afraid to stand firm on your core beliefs. Check your sources, do some research about the origin of ideas and the people behind them, question things that seem preposterous, and look for wise researchers, thought-leaders and journalists whose analysis is rooted in good research methodology and who don’t use manipulation techniques in how they communicate. Use your logic to check an idea before accepting it. (For example, if someone tells you that ALL mainstream media or science agencies are corrupt and controlled by some dark force, contemplate, for a moment, just how many people the world over would have had to have fallen victim to some kind of illogical mind control. And then consider the danger of that kind of belief, the people who would likely be most harmed by it, and the people who most benefit from it.)
And now, for the sake of transparency, here are some of the things I believe:
I believe that Black Lives Matter. I believe that systemic racism exists and I believe it is the cause of many Black bodies being killed or harmed by the police.
I believe that, as a settler on this land, I need to commit myself to reconciliation and repair with the Indigenous people who were here before us and who were colonized by our ancestors (and that includes upholding the treaties and honouring their sovereignty and land rights).
I believe that climate change is real and that our capitalist greed has done damage to our earth. I believe that we need to act urgently in order to mitigate that damage.
I believe in the rights of LGBTQ+ people and people with disabilities and I believe that we should, collectively, honour their sovereignty and dignity and work to create a society where they no longer have to face the harm that has been done to them throughout history.
I believe in science and I believe that, because science is built on a system of checks and balances and peer review, even when scientists make mistakes, there will eventually be better science that will reveal and correct those mistakes.
I believe that, though there is bias and some corruption in the mainstream media, and sometimes they may focus too much on certain things and miss other things that are important, there are a lot of hard-working journalists who have integrity and are committed to telling balanced and well-researched (and fact-checked) stories in the best way they know how. I believe they deserve our support and encouragement (and payment) to keep doing their jobs. I believe that there is great risk in relying only on biased, independent news sources, and I believe that many people become manipulated when that happens.
I believe that COVID-19 is real and that it wasn’t created by evil scientists or big pharma and that people are dying from it and unless we act collectively and responsibly to decrease the rate of infection, we risk putting many more people in harm’s way and we will over-burden our healthcare workers.
I believe that we are collectively responsible to do our best to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized in our society. During a pandemic, that includes following the guidelines our leaders and scientists develop, when they base those guidelines on the most current science available to them.
I believe that there is value in doing our best to strengthen our immune systems (and some of those things fall outside of traditional medicine) and I believe that we should ask for transparency about any possible vaccines and who stands to make a lot of money from them (thankfully, most of us live in democracies where we have those rights and, at least here in Canada, those rights aren’t being taken away), BUT I also believe that those things can distract us away from protecting our most vulnerable and can cause us to marginalize those who don’t have access to immune-boosting supplements, food choices, and practices, or have mental health issues or other challenges that create a barrier. I believe in collective responsibility and I believe that an “every person is responsible for their own health and for finding their own truth” mentality has the potential to do great harm.
I believe that QAnon is a cult and a system of propaganda for the far right (whose immediate purpose is to sway the U.S. election and control the most powerful country in the world). Like cults have been doing for centuries, it preys on people’s vulnerabilities, fears, and isolation, particularly in a time of disruption and insecurity like we’ve been experiencing with the pandemic. I believe that nobody is immune to cults, not even the most intelligent among us, because cult leaders manipulate people’s trauma and attachment systems in such a way that it makes it difficult to access the higher-functioning parts of our brains. Because of that, it is difficult to use reason to draw people away from it. (For more on this, read Terror, Love, and Brainwashing.) I believe that they intentionally manipulate people’s goodness and the things they care about (i.e. saving children from child trafficking) to draw them in. I believe that it is particularly insidious right now because it can harness the power of social media, and I believe it is particularly dangerous because it is mirroring the rise of Naziism in the days and months before the Holocaust.