“He was a poor man in a criminal justice system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.” – Anthony Ray Hinton
For nearly thirty years, Anthony Ray Hinton was in solitary confinement on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Largely because he was Black and poor, the justice system failed him. Despite the fact that there was convincing evidence that should have exonerated him, he was convicted by an all-white jury, and then had multiple appeals rejected by a systemically racist justice system intent on covering up past errors. With no money to hire good lawyers or skilled experts (i.e. the ballistics “expert” his lawyer hired was blind in one eye and didn’t know how to use the necessary equipment), he stayed in jail anticipating his execution.
I listened to Anthony Ray Hinton’s remarkable book, The Sun Does Shine, last week on my long road trip to the west coast. It’s remarkable for a few reasons: 1. it’s hard to fathom spending month after month stuck in a tiny jail cell while, on nearly a monthly basis, listening to your fellow inmates being executed just down the hall; 2. Hinton managed to move through his bitterness and hopelessness (he didn’t speak to anyone other than his visitors for the first three years) and became a source of comfort, hope, humour and support for others on death row; and 3. Hinton’s loyal friend Lester visited him every Friday for the whole time he was incarcerated (usually bringing Hinton’s mom with him).
After finishing the book, I switched to podcasts for the second half of the drive. For many hours, I listened to The Dream, an investigative series that dives deep into some of the ways that the American dream has been sold to people. Season one examines pyramid schemes and MLM (multi-level marketing) businesses; season two looks at the wellness industry; and season three focuses on life coaching. All three of these industries are built on the beliefs that wealth, health, happiness and success are available to anyone who works hard, believes in themself, and thinks positively.
The content of my two listening experiences was vastly different, but I couldn’t help but notice a disturbing thread that tied them together. In very different ways, they both reveal the dark underbelly of a culture shaped by capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. They both say something about the delusions required to keep those systems alive and the ways they are upheld by those who most benefit from them.
In the case of Anthony Ray Hinton, there were few delusions that the system would serve his best interests because of his skin colour and socio-economic status. Though he hung onto a persistent hope that the truth would prevail, as a poor Black man in the south, he grew up knowing the system was rigged against him. In his youth, he and Lester would hide in the ditch on their walk home from school because they had no reason to believe passing motorists would treat them well.
Many of the people featured in The Dream (especially those who’d signed up to sell products or services on behalf of MLM businesses) were also poor, but most of them were white and had been raised to believe that the world was fair and would treat them well if they did the right things. They wanted so badly to believe this, in fact, that, even when presented with overwhelming evidence that most people who sign up for MLMs lose money, many of them tried company after company, thinking the next one would finally bring them financial security. Unlike Hinton, they had just enough privilege in the system to believe that the system would protect them. “Think and Grow Rich” is one of the most popular books among those working in direct sales.
What’s especially striking about the many stories covered in The Dream, about people who buy into MLMs, are devotees of the wellness industry or seek out life coaching (and some fit into all three categories) is the amount of messaging they’ve received from all of those industries that if they are failing, the responsibility rests solely on themselves. The system (or the business model or industry) is never to blame. “You must not be believing in yourself,” they’re told. Or “you just have to try harder.” Or “you need to improve your tactics, your self-talk, your relationship skills, your financial literacy, your thoughts, your food consumption, your business strategy, your perseverance, etc., etc.” So many people are led to believe this, in fact, that few people challenge or file complaints against MLMs or the wellness industry because they internalise the blame instead of recognizing the predatory nature of the system they’ve bought into.
Capitalism and individualism are close bed-fellows. Capitalism strives to convince us that we are self-reliant, because self-reliant people spend money on goods and services that they might otherwise turn to the community for. Plus self-reliant people take personal responsibility for their lack of success and internalise the shame of their failure instead of building alliances that might disrupt the power that corporations have over them. Self-reliant people keep believing that the next thing will be the golden ticket to a more secure life.
I’ve been working on the fringes of the wellness/self-help/personal development/coaching industry for many years now, and have always struggled with the tension between what is personal responsibility and what is systemic. Am I responsible for my own failure, or have I fallen victim to a system designed to make me fail? If I can’t “pull myself up by the bootstraps” or “think myself into riches”, is it because I’m not resourceful or positive enough, or because others have been given better boots than I have?
The self-help industry has been largely shaped by capitalism, so we get the same messaging that all of those MLMs are passing down to their sales people – if you don’t thrive, it’s YOUR fault. It’s even built into the name – help yourSELF. I have yet to find a section of the bookstore called “community support”, but the self-help shelves are always well-stocked. Nobody is responsible for our well-being except OURSELVES, we are told, both explicitly and implicitly. When you hear that message in so many ways, whether it’s about your financial success or your health, it’s hard to interrogate the system that’s preaching it at you because the system has managed to make itself largely invisible.
The other side of the tension, though, is that if we believe that we are entirely at the mercy of the systems, and we fail to see the role we play in upholding those systems or in keeping ourselves entangled in them, then we develop victim mentalities that disempower us. We get paralyzed by our helplessness and fail to make any meaningful contributions to the disruption and transformation of those systems. “Woe is me,” I tell myself while in my victim story. “I have been so hard done-by and all my power has been taken away from me.”
The best place to stand, in my opinion, is in a both/and position rather than an either/or one. We need both a clear sense of personal responsibility and a willingness to honestly examine the injustice and oppression baked into these human-built systems. We need to believe in our own power (and other people’s power), and we need to recognize the ways the systems have been designed to disempower us and keep us complacent. And then we need to organize with other empowered people so that meaningful change can happen and healthy systems can replace the toxic ones.
That’s the place I want my work to land – where we are both self-empowered and collectively-empowered. When people ask me what I do for a living, the easiest answer is to say “I work in personal development”, because that’s a term that most people understand, but it feels more truthful to say “I serve the well-being of the collective by supporting the growth, healing and transformation of individuals and communities.” I want to disrupt the narrative around individualism and attachment to capitalism so that we can imagine something different for the future.
How do I do that? Well, for starters, I don’t do it alone. Krista and I have, very intentionally, created a partnership and business model that centres collective work and de-centres “claw your own way to the top” capitalism. We regularly interrogate our business decisions to determine whether or not they are rooted in capitalist and/or patriarchal mindsets. Our teaching is almost always done in partnership within a circle where hierarchies are disrupted and there is a “leader in every chair”. In every course we’ve developed, whether it is about holding space or self-reflection, we invite people to examine the ways they’ve been socially conditioned by systems, and then to make empowered personal choices about how they wish to respond. In my upcoming book, Where Tenderness Lives: On healing, liberation, and holding space for oneself, I wrote about how I’d come to understand myself within the systems that shaped me, and how I practise tenderness as a deliberate disruption of the ways those systems have taught me to treat myself (and others).
I believe that we can learn to live with (and hold space for) the tension between what’s personal and what is systemic. I believe that we can challenge the delusions that keep us mired in systems that privilege only a select few. I believe that there is a path forward and we can learn to walk it together.
Anthony Ray Hinton had little power within the system, and yet he chose to use the little power that he did have to change the experience for other inmates and to advocate for meaningful change within his scope of influence. He started a book club while still on death row and introduced fellow inmates to revolutionary Black writers like James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. Since his release from prison, he’s written a memoir, spoken out against the death penalty, and worked as a community educator for the Equal Justice Initiative (the organization that helped secure his release). He refused to accept powerlessness as his final story.
“Despair was a choice,” said Hinton in his book. “Hatred was a choice. Anger was a choice. I still had choices, and that knowledge rocked me. I may not have had as many as Lester had, but I still had some choices. I could choose to give up or to hang on. Hope was a choice. Faith was a choice. And more than anything else, love was a choice. Compassion was a choice.“
(Note: Anthony Ray Hinton’s story was turned into the movie Just Mercy.)
I came here, to the lake, feeling discouraged and a little burnt out from putting so much free content into the world. This is the time of year I have to be the most active on social media because we are marketing our Fall programs, both online and in-person. I always find myself getting knocked off my equilibrium in times like these. I start seeing social media as a monster with insatiable hunger and I am one of many who are chained to the beast and must never stop feeding it lest it turn toward us to make a meal out of our bodies. The beast keeps changing its algorithms, which means that we, its feeders, need to keep finding new and novel ways to satiate its hunger. If we don’t, we can’t pay our bills and capitalism eats us alive. (Yes, I can be a little dramatic sometimes.)
I came to the lake because the lake and the woods nourish me. They help me remember who I am. They ground me and help me return to more embodied presence. Here, I can disentangle myself from the beast and remember that no beast will ever determine who I am.
But the complicated truth is that I also came here to write. I’m at the lake not just for self-care, but to pump out more of that free content that I keep sending out into the world – content that, while generous and emerging from an open heart, is at least partly for the purpose of encouraging people to sign up for our programs. And so, even though I am disconnected here, and I am reminded of who I am, there is still a thread that ties me to the beast and, especially at this time of year when my business partner and I need to make enough money to sustain us for the year ahead, I can’t be fully free of it.
This morning, I went down to the dock to watch the thick fog begin to lift off the water. The world felt mystical and I was happy to be part of it. I’d already written one post upon waking, and I was feeling good about the work I came here to do, but I was still feeling some of that niggling dread that comes from being tied to the beast. I longed to be free, to write what I want, without the beast smacking its lips as it looks over my shoulder.
At the dock, I chatted with a woman and the two children who were with her. I told her I envied her dry folding lawn chair – I hadn’t thought to bring one from home and all of the wooden outdoor furniture at the rented cabin was wet from the overnight rain. I asked her about the children and discovered they weren’t hers – she was watching them for the friend she’d come with who was back at their cabin. I told her that I’d come here for a few days to write and she worried that the noise of the children might be a distraction for me. I said, no, I miss the happy sounds of children and it doesn’t bother me.
As I walked away from the dock, the mother of the children arrived, carrying her morning coffee. We chatted briefly and then I went back to my cabin. I covered one of the wet chairs with a garbage bag and set up my laptop on the small outdoor table with a view of the lake.
Twenty minutes later, a voice called out from the path beside my cabin. “Sorry to disturb you…” the voice said, as the mother of the children appeared around the corner, “but my friend said you hadn’t brought a lawn chair and that you’re having to sit on wet chairs. We have an extra chair so I brought you one.” She placed it on the small deck, and I thanked her.
“I have an odd question,” she said. “My friend told me you’re a writer and I’m wondering… are you by any chance Heather Plett?”
“I am!” I said. It’s not often that I get recognized, so it still delights and surprises me when it happens.
“Oh!” she said. “I’m on your mailing list and I’ve responded to your writing a few times because it means SO MUCH to me! Sometimes I feel lost and you say just the things I need to hear and I don’t feel so alone anymore. I’ve read your book too. I am SO grateful for what you write!”
“That means a lot to me,” I said, meaning it more than she could have imagined. “You’ve given me renewed energy for the writing I came here to do.”
“I’m learning to hold space for myself, just as you write about. This morning, for example, I had to take a break from my children so that I could take care of myself.” I told her how glad I was to hear that she was doing that. “We moms need to resource ourselves,” I said.
We talked for a few more minutes about the challenges of motherhood and then she turned to go. “I don’t want to take too much of your time,” she said, graciously.
To that woman, who gifted me far more than a lawn chair, I want to say THANK YOU! You were far from a disturbance this morning, you were a messenger. You reminded me of the real reason I do this work. You reminded me that my words have value and purpose and they are not simply fodder for the beast. You gave me hope in a moment of discouragement.
I will keep writing for you, dear woman, and for all of the other people who need a lamp to be lit so that they can find their paths. I will keep writing because other people lit lamps for me too. I will do my best to make peace with the hungry beast so that my words can land where they need to, and I will remember that even hungry beasts have soft, vulnerable hearts that need to be tended.
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”― Rainer Maria Rilke
P.S. If a writer, artist, musician or content creator of any kind is creating something that inspires you, makes you laugh, challenges you, or makes you feel less alone, tell them! They might need to hear it.
My social media feed is filling up with images of grinning college students settling into dorm rooms. Sometimes the parents who are posting those images are in the photos and grinning too, but beneath the grins and cheery captions… well, there’s a lifetime of stories and a whole host of other stuff. I can see it in their eyes. (Let’s face it, when your child moves away, it’s hard to keep it from showing up in your eyes.)
“Whoa…that’s three sentences… and ten thousand pounds of stuff,” Michael J. Fox said in his documentary, Still, when he was reading a short passage about his relationship with his dad from his autobiography. That’s what I feel when I look at those photos… just a simple photo, a simple smile, a simple caption about how their child is starting university… and ten thousand pounds of STUFF. Yes, when your child moves away, there’s a lot of STUFF – emotional and otherwise.
Did they really grow up so quickly? Don’t I have more time with them? Can we go back to simpler days when they needed me more? Will I become less relevant in their life? Did I teach them all the things they need to become a good adult? Will they make friends here? Will they be lonely? What if they get their heart broken and I’m not around to support them? How will I spend my time when I’m no longer caring for them in my house? What if I enjoy having them out of the house – will that make me a bad parent? What’s my identity now that “parent” is taking up less space?
Oh parent… I feel you. My heart is travelling with you on this wild roller-coaster ride called parenting. Who could have known, when we first became bonded with those little people who entered our lives, just how much our hearts would become tethered to theirs? Who could have known the ways our hearts would swell with pride and devotion, the way those little people could uniquely break our hearts with their cutting words, the way we could feel such intense anger one moment and love the next, the ways we’d feel so completely unprepared, overwhelmed and uncertain about how we were raising them?
Parenting is a series of thresholds, milestones, and heartaches. It’s a gradual, incremental process of letting go, punctuated with these bigger moments when the letting go feels more and more profound (and sometimes earth-shattering) – like when we first leave them with a babysitter, they start attending school, they have their first sleepover, they go away to a week of sleepover camp, they start high school, they learn to drive, and they get their first job. And there’s the other stuff too – less tangible and sometimes more emotional – the first time they keep a secret from us, the first time they lie to cover something up, the first time they choose a friend over us, the first time they slam their bedroom door. Then, before we know it, they’re ready for that BIG threshold – the one that involves them leaving our home, for a university dorm, their own apartment, another city… whatever. It’s all an exercise in learning to let our hearts walk around outside of our bodies… and then realizing those hearts were never ours to begin with.
Sometimes when I teach about what it means to hold space, I joke that I got my PhD in holding space from being a parent. At first, you hold them close and take responsibility for meeting all their needs, and the container you hold for them is small and enclosed, protective and safe – like a bird’s nest. Then gradually, you open your hands and your heart more and more and let them grow into their autonomy and agency and you practice letting them take responsibility for the consequences of their own actions. It’s not easy, this letting go, especially when your child moves away, but it’s necessary. Individuation, according to Jung, is the process a child must undergo to become their own person – a well-functioning adult, with their own beliefs and ideals that might be separate from those of their parents and society. We let go so that they can become themselves.
(An aside… I think there’s a potential individuation process involved in parenting too, especially if there was some arrested development in our early lives and our children’s growing up brings up our own long-buried childhood stuff, but that’s a post for another day.)
What comes up again and again in the work I do, when people begin to learn about what it means to hold space, is that this practice is FAR more about us, the spaceholders, than it is about the people we hold space for. As parents, we have to hold space for OURSELVES during this important milestone so that we don’t project all of our stuff onto our children, so that we don’t pass down the woundedness and trauma we’ve inherited from our lineage, and so that they can be released more fully into their individuation with liberation and without shouldering guilt over abandoning us or fear that they’re severing family ties or letting us down.
Two years ago, my oldest and youngest daughters moved out within two weeks and I drove each of them twenty-four hours in opposite directions to their new homes in faraway cities. Not long afterwards, my middle daughter started traveling and I was mostly an empty-nester. The pandemic had given me bonus time, with all of them staying home longer than expected, but then the world started opening and suddenly they were all leaving in quick succession, and going far away. SO quickly it all happened and suddenly… I was alone. And there I was, reeling from the emotional tailspin of it all, but doing my best to hold space for myself so that my aloneness didn’t become their burden.
This summer, I’ve enjoyed the gift of a few months with two daughters back under the same roof, but next week I have to say good-bye again as one heads back to the west coast and the other heads in the opposite direction. I’m a little more prepared for it now, having survived the initial blow, but I know it will still be hard. I know my emotions will bounce all over the place for a while.
As I prepare for this next period of transition, I thought I’d share some reflections from my own experience and my understanding of what it means to hold space for our growing children and for ourselves. I hope these are supportive for when your child moves away.
1. Trust that you have taught your children as much as they need to know, and that they have the capacity to figure out the rest. This one surprised me when I helped my daughters set up their new homes far from where I’d be living. I worried about whether I’d taught them enough that they’d know how to function as independent adults. Some of it was about simple things (like getting stains out of clothes) and some of it was bigger (like building community in a new city). I cried about it in a hotel room on the long trip home, but then I had to let go and trust that they’d be okay. Two years later, I can see how well they adapted, and I have to admit that those fears were more about my own insecurities (i.e. Had I been a good enough mother?) then they were about them.
2.Give them the advice that matters most, and withhold the stuff they can figure out on their own. This is related to the first one, but it’s also about allowing our children to have their own autonomy and make their own mistakes. They need to know that we trust them and that we don’t assume they’ll be helpless without us nearby. When we try to dump too much advice on them, we run the risk of hijacking space while making them doubt their own capacity to make good choices independently. In those early days for each of my daughters as they set up their apartments and learned to navigate new cities, I had to learn to (mostly) keep my mouth shut when they chose sheets and towels, and then figured out how to navigate public transit. There was some discernment in recognizing when to stay silent and when to step in and let them know I still had their backs and I didn’t always get it right, but I tried.
3. Be mindful of what this separation might be triggering in you, and work to hold and heal it without making it your child’s burden. Are you feeling separation anxiety, or having old abandonment trauma triggered? Are you afraid of becoming irrelevant in your children’s lives? Are you afraid of losing your sense of purpose when you’re not needed as much? Are you letting your mind cycle through irrational fear of what could happen to them while you’re far away? Maybe there’s codependency in your relationship with your child and you’ve been overly enmeshed in their life? These are all very real things, and you don’t need to bury them and pretend you’re not feeling them, but it’s your responsibility to hold these things (and/or find peers or professionals to help you hold and heal them) not your children’s. Breathe deeply, dear parent, and release them with a blessing so that they don’t have to take responsibility for (or inherit) your pain.
4. Recognize that there is grief in this and find healthy ways to process your grief. I know it hurts – that’s natural. You’re grieving the end of a really important era of your life. You’re grieving the loss of that little innocent child you cherished. You’re grieving the way your role in your child’s life is changing. You’re grieving all of those meals you won’t eat together, all those movies you can’t watch, all those car rides, and all that laughter you’ll no longer hear from the living room. It’s not a death, exactly, but it can feel that way. Let yourself cry, let yourself grieve, and find friends who will hold space while you release all of those big feelings. Pour it onto your journal page or go sit by a river and let the natural world hold space for your tears. Grief is a natural part of relationships. Grief is a part of what it means to love. Go ahead and feel it. (This too shall pass.)
5.Recognize that there is also freedom in this (and let go of any guilt you feel over enjoying that freedom). There is never just one emotion involved in a major milestone like this. There might be some relief mixed in with the grief, and maybe even some joy (though those might not be the most immediate emotions to show up). You’ve done the heavy lifting of parenting a child into adulthood and now they’re not going to need you as much. When your child moves away, they’re going to find other people to lean on and your burdens will likely become lighter. You won’t need to cook as many meals or give as many rides or clean up as many stray socks. That can feel like freedom. Your life is about to open up in ways that might not have been possible when your children were more dependent on you. Feeling guilty over enjoying it isn’t going to serve anyone, so why not enjoy it? In the long run, your kids are likely going to enjoy their own freedom more (and feel less guilty about leaving you behind) if they see you enjoying yours. It’s a healthier way of nurturing a secure (and evolving) attachment bond between you.
6. Lean into liminality. There is liminal space involved in any major transition in our lives and this one is no exception. We have to let go of the old story of who we were and how we spent our days and it will take some time for the new story to emerge. There’s an identity shift when you lose some of the duties and expectations that once defined you as a parent and you might even find yourself in a full-fledged identity crisis. Lean into it, dear parent (while getting support if the crisis is significant). Things are going to be different. There’s going to be a new normal. You will eventually adjust to a new way of filling your days, a new way of being in communication with your child, a new way of welcoming them home for the holidays, and perhaps new hobbies, new friendships, and new ways of making meaning of your life. But you don’t have to figure any of that stuff out right away. Let yourself feel wobbly for awhile. Let yourself feel all the complicated back-and-forth emotions. Be tender with yourself when old wounds get triggered, when you feel lonely, when you’re full of self-doubt, or when you’re uncertain what your purpose in life should be. This is liminality, this is normal.
7. Consider planning a “gap year” for yourself. When we think of gap years, we picture high school graduates going off into the world to find themselves before entering college. But what about a gap year for new empty-nesters? When my daughters all moved out, I sold our family home (because none of them planned to move back to Winnipeg and I didn’t intend to stay in the city either) and set off on a year-long adventure. Because my work affords me the privilege of working from anywhere there’s Wi-Fi (plus I teach internationally), I had the privilege of traveling all over Europe and Central America. Now that I’m at the tail end of that year, I am immensely grateful that I had the opportunity! It wasn’t always easy, and sometimes I felt lonely, but it was a profoundly meaningful (and fun) way to explore who I am, where I want to live, and how I want to live in this next phase of my life. I got to spend the year being intentional about making choices rooted in joy, tenderness, and liberation – choices for ME and nobody else – and I feel grounded and have a new sense of confidence and self-love now. Your gap year might look nothing like mine (maybe you can’t leave your home or have no interest in travel), but there might be some way for you to experience a similar period of exploration, expansion, and joy-seeking as you figure out how you want to live, love, and make meaning. (Consider joining our Full-Bodied Life community for this time of exploration.)
8. Explore (and enjoy) your expanding identity and possibilities. Related to the last point, you have an opportunity, in this transition period, to dive into more intentional self-exploration. Maybe there are lifestyle changes you want to make. Maybe there are relationships that need to shift or new boundaries you need to adopt. Maybe it’s time to dive into that therapy you’ve been putting off. Maybe you want to travel more. Maybe you want to take up new hobbies or take a course. Maybe it’s time to sign up for that master’s degree program you always dreamed you’d get but put off when the children came. This is a moment when you get to let go of some of that old programming about what’s selfish or a waste of time or what you’re not worthy of. This is a time when you get to choose YOURSELF. Be playful with your exploration and HAVE FUN!
One day, dear parent, you will wake up in the morning and realize that something has shifted and that you’ve now become accustomed to this new normal. Despite how monumental they feel when they happen, transitions don’t last forever. You can weather this storm, just as you have weathered storms in the past. You’re not finished growing and evolving, and while growth can sometimes hurt, it can also lead us into more expansive lives. Go ahead – live a more expansive life!
P.S. If you want to learn more about how to hold space for yourself, now would be a great time to sign up for our How to Hold Space Foundation Program. It starts in October 2023, and if you sign up before September 1, you can still get last year’s prices.
There’s an older man I often encounter on the path when I go for my morning walks. We’ve become path-friends, always stopping for a brief interaction when we happen upon each other. Once, he showed me how the inside of his hat was falling apart, but “I just can’t bear to throw it away,” he said, tucking the broken bits in as he pulled the hat back onto his head. Another time he was laughing about the people he’d watched fishing unsuccessfully on the shore. “Just metres away,” he said, “the fish were leaping out of the water as if to taunt those with fishing rods.” The last time I saw him, he showed me a blurry photo he’d captured of a young eagle on a branch. “I’m glad he let me get so close,” he said, delight in his eyes. In turn, I told him about the two turtles I’d watched in a mating dance in the river a few weeks ago. “You’re so lucky!” he said. “You’re right,” I said. “I am lucky.”
At the end of last week, I wasn’t feeling quite as lucky. I’d spent too much time online and had reached that point I often get to with social media – overstimulated with the addictive quality of it, discouraged with how we’ve all become pawns caught in the hamster wheel of the attention economy, dysregulated from all the doom-scrolling, and disembodied from staring at a screen for too many hours. Add to that the self-loathing that creeps in when I recognize the state I’ve allowed myself to get to, and… well, it wasn’t pleasant.
So I did what I know is best for me when I get that way – got offline and went seeking the stillness and nervous system soothing that the natural world offers me. “Eco-regulation” is what some people call it – immersing myself in nature to bring my body and soul back into alignment and a state of calm. More simply put, I let nature remind my body how to love herself again. I drove an hour outside the city so I could walk alone on the shore at sunset with just the seagulls as company.
Monday morning, after a weekend offline, I met my path-friend on my morning walk and we stopped for one of our short chats. I walked away smiling, and suddenly realized that what I receive from every encounter I have with him is exactly why I keep returning to social media and why I haven’t abandoned it entirely. It’s those brief moments of human-to-human encounter. It’s the way we make each other smile. It’s the way we delight in each other’s blurry photos and listen to each other’s slightly boring stories. It’s humanity meeting humanity with openness and little expectation.
Social media is far from a perfect space. Like so many of our communal spaces, it gets co-opted by those who want to sell us things or manipulate our beliefs or secure our vote. Plus it’s been designed to keep us addicted because the more it has our attention, the more money can be made off the advertising put in front of us. All of that is true, but I still value the way that it allows us to encounter each other on the paths we travel down.
I am reminded of what Richard Wagamese says in one of his short pieces in Embers:
We approach our lives on different trajectories, each of us spinning in our own separate, shining orbits. What gives this life its resonance is when those trajectories cross and we become engaged with each other, for as long or as fleetingly as we do. There’s a shared energy then, and it can feel as though the whole universe is in the process of coming together. I live for those times. No one is truly ever “just passing through.” Every encounter has within it the power of enchantment, if we’re willing to look for it.
I love my path-friends, whether online or on the path by the river, but life is not complete with only those encounters. While there is meaning and joy in our brief engagement, I’m sure that I would die of connection-deprivation if that was all I ever had.
In a sense, those little moments are like fast food – they taste good, they sustain us in the moment and they give us a quick hit of energy to help us get through the day, but we burn through those empty calories pretty quickly. We need more nourishment and nutrients than that. We need the slow-cooked, lovingly prepared food of deeper conversations and more long-term relationships. We need the belongingness of community and lovingly nurtured friendships.
Perhaps friendship can be best plotted on a spectrum, with one end being the path-friends we encounter occasionally but might never know their names. Somewhere further down the spectrum are the coffee-shop friends – those with whom the relationship has deepened enough that we occasionally sit down together over a meal or a cup of coffee. Sometimes these are friends we only see once every few years, but their presence matters enough that we choose to set aside time for them for an exchange of stories.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had more lunch dates than I’ve had in years, and I feel deeply nourished by these coffee-shop-friendships. There is something special about re-encountering people who’ve witnessed me in different phases of my life and still delight in who I am now. There’s the former boss and mentor I haven’t seen in over twenty years – the person who helped me see I had leadership capacity before I saw it in myself – who wanted to know all about my work now. There’s the couple I traveled with in Ethiopia, India, and Bangladesh when I worked in international development and with them I shared a few good laughs over wine while we reminisced about the horrible nights we spent in a creepy house surrounded by abandoned army barracks, where I ended up with over 500 bedbug bites. There’s the friend I only see every couple of years, who once flew across the country to attend my retreat, who shared with me that she is once again on a journey with cancer. There’s the young friend I met in Costa Rica who delighted with me in traveling down a rabbit hole about what it means to change our belief systems and how queerness offers a frame for expanding our understanding.
I have coffee-shop-friendships all over the world and my life is much richer for these “sometimes playful, sometimes heavy, sometimes back and forth between the two” conversations. While we’re more committed in these friendships than with our path-friends, and we usually have the contact information for these people in our phones, we hold the connection with lightness and minimal expectation, enjoying each other when we see each other but not getting too attached to an expectation of how often we need to connect or how much we meet each others’ needs.
In my work, I get to serve as a catalyst for creating space for the online version of these coffee-shop-friendships in the programs we offer at the Centre for Holding Space (like the Foundation Program or A Full-Bodied Life, where we gather on Zoom every week or two). We all come with an expectation that space will be held for our authenticity and vulnerability and so we offer ourselves wholeheartedly to the conversation. People often tell me, several years after being in my programs, that they still have regular meaningful contact with people they met in the program. Just this morning, somebody told me about the grief she experienced when our eight-month certification program ended because of how important this circle had become in her life.
Further down the spectrum from the coffee-shop friendships are the living-room-friendships. These are the friends we let into our living rooms even if we haven’t dusted and there are stray socks tucked into the couch. These friends settle into the couch, pluck out the socks and toss them in the general direction of the laundry room, and before long, hours have disappeared in meandering, soul-bearing conversations.
Living-room-friends are the ones who show up to babysit our kids, even though we haven’t asked them to, when they know we’re overwhelmed with grief after losing a parent. They’re the ones who bring a bottle of wine when the divorce papers are finally signed, or a big pot of soup when the flu knocks down every member of the household. They show up because they’re attuned to our emotional states and our times of need and we reciprocate by showing up for them.
The commitment level and risks are much greater in these friendships. Friends at this level witness our shadows but they also get a bigger dose of our light. We let ourselves be more needy with these friends, because we know that their presence in our lives is what helps us be more human and more emotionally regulated. We work out some of our insecurity and we might even heal some of our attachment wounds in friendships like this, because they’re dependable, secure, generous, and reciprocal.
Today’s lunch date is with one such friend, and I can hardly wait for her to show up. She’s been on vacation with her family, and I’m slightly annoyed that she abandoned me for so long, just as she was rightfully annoyed when I left the city last year and abandoned her. We laugh about that, though, because there is enough trust in the solidness of our relationship that neither of us ever feels truly abandoned. Even though I value therapy, I think it’s safe to say that more of my trauma healing has happened in this friendship than in any therapy relationship. We have such deep conversations that we’ve sometimes had baristas in coffee shops reveal their curiosity about what we talk about for so long.
I am a big fan of friendship and I want it to be more honoured in our culture. I wish that we would turn some of the attention that’s placed on romantic relationships onto friendships instead. I want more songs about friendships and more movies and novels. I want a section at the bookstore to be dedicated to friendship the way there’s so often one dedicated to marriages. I want us to celebrate friendships the same way we celebrate people’s engagements or weddings. Maybe we even need friendship apps to become as ubiquitous as dating apps.
ALOK talks a lot about the value of friendship and their words often stir something for me. “i want a world where friendship is appreciated as a form of romance,” they say. “i want a world where when people ask if we are seeing anyone we can list the names of all of our best friends and no one will bat an eyelid. i want monuments and holidays and certificates and ceremonies to commemorate friendship.”
We layer far too much expectation on our romantic relationships when we assume that one person will complete us and fill our needs for belonging, safety and identity. That’s far too much of a burden on one person and one relationship and it often results in codependence instead of healthy love. It’s much more realistic to get our needs met from a range of relationships, especially our friendships.
When we have a range of friendships, from path-friends to living-room-friends, our cup is filled in many ways by many people and nobody has to carry the burden of helping us be whole.
P.S. People often ask me how to find friends, and one of the suggestions I make is that they seek out spaces where like-minded and like-hearted people will show up. If you’re looking for such a place, you might find it in our Full-Bodied Life community.
Transcendent (adjective) [tran(t)-ˈsen-dənt]: exceeding usual limits; extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience; being beyond comprehension; a spiritual or religious state, or a condition of moving beyond physical needs and realities
Every year at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, it happens at least once – I have a transcendent experience. It usually happens at one of the smaller stages, tucked away under the trees, while I’m listening to an intimate concert with a singer-songwriter. It’s a combination of things that align to bring together this exquisite moment – the cotton-ball clouds in the gentle blue sky, the towering pine trees, the poetry and emotion woven through the lyrics, the notes of the guitar, the tenderness of a receptive audience, the sun on my face.
Suddenly, I feel my heart soften and expand in my chest as though it can simultaneously blend into and hold the entire universe. I become both expansive and small – a tiny part of a big world and also bigger than I’ve ever been. As my eyes fill with tears, I look around me and know that I am connected to everyone I see, connected to the trees around me, connected to the music, and connected to myself. I am fully embodied, fully present, and fully alive. Any anxiety or self-consciousness I held just moments before dissolves in this moment of tenderness, connectedness and expansiveness. It’s blissful and as close to perfect as any moment can be.
The moment never lasts very long – soon I land back into the ordinariness of life and my mind starts to wander – but it stays with me throughout the day, and I can bring some of it back days and even weeks after it happens. Even now, I can close my eyes and reach back into my memory to touch that moment and remember the way I felt when it happened.
In his study of awe, Dacher Keltner gathered stories from people in 26 countries and distilled the stories into what he calls the “eight wonders of life”. People find awe, he says, in moral beauty (people’s kindness, courage, and ability to overcome obstacles), nature, collective movement, music, visual design, spirituality, big ideas, and the beginning of life and its end. Perhaps that’s why there is such a strong likelihood that it will happen for me during my annual pilgrimage to the folk festival – because that moment always combines so many of the things on the list.
Awe, Keltner says, is transformative. “It’s hard to find something that is better for your body and mind than experiencing a bit of awe. Studies where people look up into the trees or take in vast views or think about somebody who is morally inspiring find that brief experiences of awe calm the stress response and make a person feel more connected and less lonely. Awe has been seen to reduce depression, reduce PTSD symptoms in veterans, and is also good for cardiovascular health and the immune system.” (Listen to Dacher Keltner talk about awe on this podcast.)
In studying the science of awe, Keltner’s team found that there’s a certain kind of tear that happens during an experience of awe (like the tears that always fill my eyes when I have my transcendent moment at the folk fest) that’s produced by the lacrimal gland which is activated by the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system. Instead of activating fight or flight physiology, it activates calmness and connection. In other words, awe soothes and calms our bodies and gives us that feeling of oneness that I always feel with other members of the audience.
This past year, while I was traveling, I was lucky enough to have many experiences of awe, like when I swam in cenotes in Mexico, or took a train into the snow-covered Alps in Switzerland. I know that those moments helped to heal and transform me. I feel more at peace, more grounded, more in touch with myself, and more able to live with the liminality of life. I know that I am less reactive, less activated by the wounds that were once easily triggered, and less burdened by stress.
Of course it’s not only the awe moments that changed me (I’ve also been doing a lot of somatic and therapeutic healing work over the years), but I have no doubt that they mattered. I have now become much more intentional about seeking out awe moments, so that I can tap into some of what I experience while sitting under the trees listening to music at the festival. As Keltner teaches, I find ways of experiencing “everyday awe” by bringing more of the eight wonders into my life as regularly as I can. This morning I experienced awe watching a swarm of ants on the sidewalk.
It can seem frivolous, in a world that feels more and more chaotic and unjust every moment, in which political divides and climate change are becoming more and more palpable in our everyday lives, to go out in search of awe, and yet I believe that this is a crucial part of what makes us able to cope with and respond to the many challenges in our lives. Awe makes us more resilient and more grounded in the wobbliness of liminality. It connects us with each other, ourselves and the earth. It is the opposite of frivolous – it is essential.
Awe is one of the things we’ll be talking about in A Full-Bodied Life. We’ll also talk about embodiment, empowerment, liberation, love, joy, and connection. I am looking forward to the conversations we’ll have and I hope you join us!
I had good intensions of writing something light-hearted this week, in celebration of the beginning of summer and the launch of my new program, A Full-Bodied Life. The first lesson in that program is about embracing joy, so it seemed fitting to write something joyful. But then something hard happened, and those plans were set aside because it felt more important to write about this. Sometimes, that’s just the way life is. Sometimes the hard gets mixed in with the happy (which is all part of what I teach in A Full-Bodied Life). Maybe next week I’ll be back with something light-hearted.
A few days ago, my day took a complete detour from where I expected it to go. On my morning walk, I came across a young woman getting up off the ground with her bike near the river’s edge. She was stumbling and I thought she’d fallen off her bike. I stopped to ask if she was okay and needed help.
She wasn’t okay, she told me. She’d been trying to end her own life.
I said I was sorry to hear that and asked her if there was someone I could call to be with her. She told me her mom was in the hospital in a coma, her grandma lived far away, and there was nobody else around who cared for her.
Not sure what to do next, I asked what her name was and whether she’d consider continuing my walk with me. (I’ll call her Debbie for the purposes of this story, though that’s not her real name.) Debbie agreed to walk with me and I learned about her hard life on the streets. She is HIV positive. It was the anniversary of the miscarriage of a baby boy she really wanted. She’s two years aged out of the foster care system that she was placed in because her mom tried to sell her for drugs when she was ten. She has lost several siblings to drug-related deaths.
I found Debbie at the edge of the Red River, not far from the place where Tina Fontaine’s body was pulled from the water. She told me that the day before, she’d ridden her bike out to Brady Road landfill site, intending to end her life there, but she couldn’t get in. The landfill site is where Linda Mary Beardy’s body was found back in April. I don’t know whether either of those things have significance for where or how she was planning to end her life, but I couldn’t overlook the connection.
She didn’t want me to call 911 or take her to a hospital because she doesn’t have a history of being treated kindly by people in the medical system in our city. “I have PTSD from it,” she said. I honoured her request and instead made a couple of calls to try to find someone with a vehicle who could help me get her to somewhere safe. In the end, my daughter Julie met us with my car.
Debbie was barefoot, and it was Julie who first clued in to the fact that her first need might be for a pair of shoes. We didn’t have any at our house that would fit her, so I drove her to a thrift store to buy her a pair. Then I bought her breakfast, and then took her to a social services agency where she said she had access to mental health support. We spent about two hours together, chatting about our families. I told her that I, too, had lost a baby boy that I really wanted. I asked her if she liked music. “Taylor Swift?” I asked “Or Harry Styles?” She smiled and nodded vigorously and I turned on one of my daughter’s playlists.
I don’t know whether anything I did for Debbie was the “right” thing. I don’t know whether she found a way to carry out her plan later in the day (or tomorrow, or the next day). I don’t know whether she’ll find a place in the world where people treat her with the kind of dignity that she has been offered so little of in her life. To be honest, I don’t feel a lot of hope on her behalf, so I didn’t walk away feeling like I’d done anything heroic in helping her choose not to die that morning. Life has been unbelievably cruel to this young woman and I don’t know how she can hold as much pain in her body as she does.
I saw the way people looked at her when she walked into the thrift store barefoot, and I don’t disbelieve anything she said about the ways that people in health care and social services have mistreated her. My heart feels broken on her behalf. This lovely young woman, whose face broke into a grin when I offered to buy her second-hand shoes (“They’re New Balance!”, she bragged to the support worker later, before I left her), who wanted to know all about my life too when I asked about hers, who gave me the best hug before I left… she deserves so much better than the world has offered her.
No, I don’t know if anything I did was right, but if nothing else, I wanted her to experience a little kindness on a day when she was grieving her dead son (just as I once grieved mine). She deserves at least that.
A couple of days later, there is much about this experience that is still alive in my heart and my body. This is not my first experience with someone who wanted to end their own life. Just down the road from where I met Debbie is the hospital where I rushed my former husband the second time he tried to die. He was also there the first time, fifteen years earlier. There’s a hill outside the hospital where I cried some of the most hopeless tears of my life. I know something about how much people can be failed by the medical and mental health systems because I’ve seen it up close and personal.
There are more stories. There were other times I sat in other emergency rooms in this city with other people close to me who could see no reason for carrying on their lives. Some of those stories can still flood my body with anxiety over the memory of them.
When I shared this story on social media a few days ago, some people asked for more, and I could sense in their questions some desire to know what to do should they ever find themselves in that position. I can’t claim any suicide prevention expertise (and don’t, to be honest, entirely resonate with the terminology of “suicide prevention”), but I can share some of what feels true for me now, having lived some version of this story multiple times. Know this… I share these things partly because, in the past, I have done completely the opposite and later wished I could go back and change things.
1. Don’t deny or gaslight anything they share with you about how hard their life is. The pain is real. Treat it like it’s real and don’t belittle them for having a moment when it feels like too much to manage.
2. Don’t try to sugar-coat how good their life might be if they choose to hang on a little longer. Don’t even pretend that you know that they are better off alive than dead. You don’t know that and there’s no point in lying about it.
3. Place their dignity and autonomy at the centre. They get to make their own choices and you are not in control of what they choose. You might not like what they choose, but it’s their life and their choice.
4. Offer them kindness, presence, and listening. Ask them questions that honour their humanity and let them know that, if nothing else, in this moment they are being seen.
5. Consider it simply as one moment and one choice in that moment. Maybe they can choose not to die in this moment. Maybe they can hang on for one more moment. Maybe they can go for a walk with you and you can chat about your families for awhile and that is enough for this moment. The rest of their lives is beyond the scope of your conversation.
6. Be brave enough to open your heart to them, at least a little (if/when appropriate). You’ve found them in a vulnerable position, and they will likely be sensitive to judgement. Let them know that you are as human as they are and your life is full of imperfections too.
7. Shut down your inclination to try to be a hero. You are not the star of this show. Do what you can, and, if possible, try to get them to somewhere safe where support is available to them, but keep your ego in check and don’t try to fix their life. It’s not yours to fix.
8. Find other people who can help, if possible, but be prepared to stand up for the person’s right to their autonomy and dignity. Some people will be inclined toward judgement and/or trying to control the situation, and you might serve the hurting person the most by being an advocate for their right to be treated kindly.
9. Pay attention to how you’re being triggered by what’s happening and do your best to soothe yourself so that your own fears, grief, anxiety, trauma, etc. are not projected onto the situation. For the moment that this person needs you, try to make it about them, and then make sure you look after yourself later.
10. When the moment is over, give your body and heart heaps of tenderness and soothing (and reach out to others to talk about it if you need to) so that the trauma of that moment doesn’t settle into you. If the person chooses to end their life regardless of what you did or said, don’t take that on – you did the best you could and they made their own choice. Don’t be afraid to get professional help to figure out how to deal with what happened.
Friends, I hope you’re never faced with such a situation, but if you are, I hope that you will trust that whatever kindness you are able to offer is enough. And don’t forget to extend that kindness to yourself as well.