The beauty of having space held for you

photo credit: Milada Vigerova, Unsplash

Listen to this post…

 

I have a confession to make. I’m not very good at letting people hold space for me.

It’s true. I’ve built my work around what it means to hold space, and I understand how valuable it is, and yet… I often bump up against resistance around asking and/or allowing people to hold space for me. (Isn’t it true that we often teach what we most need to learn?)

It’s partly because I’ve spent much of my adult life in the roles of teacher, parent, facilitator, leader, manager, coach, advocate, etc., and so I have this internal script around needing to be the strong and supportive one in every relationship. And it’s partly because my life experiences have left me with a somewhat avoidant (and sometimes disorganized) attachment style, and so when it comes to the intimate situations where I need to trust someone to hold space for me, I can get triggered into a “this person might harm me or ask too much of me so I’d better pull back before that becomes a possibility” stance.

I’ve been working on those things in my intimate relationships (especially in the four years since the end of my marriage revealed so many well-ingrained patterns that had become survival skills). It takes a lot of time and effort to adjust those old scripts, and to heal the associated wounds, so I don’t expect it to change overnight.

A few weeks ago, I had a beautiful experience of having space held for me, and it taught me a lot about what’s possible and what I need more of in my life.

I’d been looking for a place to go for a week where I could finish writing my book (tentatively titled Be the Bowl: The Fine Art of Holding Space). I am much more successful at the focused work required for a project as large as a book when I can step away from my commitments, my family, the dirty dishes in the sink, and the many distractions that the internet provides, so I was looking for a private space. 

In the past, I have rented a cabin, stayed a few extra days in a hotel room after a business trip, or stayed at a local retreat centre to get big projects done. All of those are solo efforts (except for the time I shared a cabin with a friend who was also writing a book), and that’s usually the way I like it. This time, though, for reasons I can’t articulate, I had a feeling I needed something a little different. While I needed privacy and quiet, I also needed companionship and nurturing. 

My friends Lorraine and TuBears had offered me the use of the small cottage in their backyard (which TuBears normally uses as an office) and since I’d spent time in their home before and I love them dearly (you can watch a video we once made about our friendship), I was pretty sure it would be the right space where I could write without interruption and still have the value of friendship and support. 

I couldn’t have been more right. It was a magical week. The writing flowed beautifully, I finished the book in record time, and I even had time for a first edit. 

I’m pretty sure that what I wrote in that special space in their backyard is some of my best writing on the subject of holding space, partly because the space is sacred (it’s full of the sacred objects that TuBears has collected from her rich life as a Sundance dancer, shamanic practitioner, spiritual guide, and Choctaw elder), and partly because I had two of the best possible people holding space for me.

If you asked them, they would probably say they “didn’t do anything special”, but that’s not how it felt for me. They were attentive to my needs (Lorraine would sometimes pop in, mid-afternoon when my energy was flagging, with a smoothie or chai latte, and they always had delicious and healthy meals available), they kept the distractions away (they wouldn’t even let me help with dishes after meals, but rather sent me back to my writing cave), they listened to me when I needed to wrestle with a concept I was writing about, and they shared their own stories of what holding space meant for them. Even before I arrived, they’d put intention and love into preparing for me. They’d prayed over the space and smudged it so that it would be ready to support me while I wrote. They’d prepared all of the things they thought I’d need while I wrote – a kettle, a mug, teabags, and a basket full of tasty treats. 

We had long conversations in the evenings, and those conversations both enhanced my writing and gave me a break from it. When TuBears dropped a few wisdom bombs into our conversation, from her years of dancing at Sundance and holding space for people’s vision quests, I knew that I needed to interview her for the book, and so she’s become an integral part of my final chapter. 

We also laughed. A LOT. Together, Lorraine and TuBears have the capacity to created a space that is, in equal measure, both light-hearted and able to hold deep pain. Every time we’re together, I find myself telling them things I don’t normally tell anyone else, because I know that they will hold it with just the right amount of weightiness and humour. They help me to trust myself but not take myself too seriously.

Perhaps most profoundly, Lorraine and TuBears demonstrated a deep belief in me. They are unequivocal cheerleaders of my work and they want this book to be born, and so they were delighted to help midwife it into existence. When you have people with that kind of commitment to and belief in your work, it makes it much easier to shine.

Lorraine and TuBears are able to show up in that way and hold space for what I needed because they have done a lot of work in holding space for themselves. They are both strong and grounded people, and so their offering felt clean and generous, without hidden expectations. I never felt an obligation to pay attention to them, to offer them the right amount of gratitude, to reciprocate their generosity, or to feed their egos. Of course I WANTED to express gratitude and offer back some gifts, but it wasn’t out of a sense of obligation or expectation.

As I’ve written before, this is what it means to be in relationship with people when all parties are able to maintain their sovereignty and act out of love and commitment to each other rather than expectation, oppression, guilt, fear, power imbalance, or obligation. When we can hold space with sovereignty as our grounding principle, then we don’t layer our old wounds and expectations onto each other and we give each other the space to grow and to shine. We don’t feel threatened by another person’s greatness, nor do we diminish our own greatness to make the other person feel better. 

At the end of my week with them, I knew that I’d not only been able to do good work, but that I’d had some profound healing in the container they provided for me. In trusting them and letting them hold space for me, I’d had a beautiful opportunity to continue to re-write the old scripts about my need to be self-sufficient and not get too close to people. 

Since then, I’ve been reflecting on what was at play in order for me to allow space to be held for me (and what will allow me to find greater intimacy in future relationships), and here are some of the things I’ve come up with:
– I needed to have a high level of trust that Lorraine and TuBears would provide the space and support without expectation or unspoken conditions. My prior experience with them demonstrated that they could.
– I needed to work on releasing the leftover garbage from old attachment wounds so that I wouldn’t be as easily triggered by having to rely on and trust someone else for the kind of support they gave me.
– I needed them to be sufficiently mature and self-aware, and not needy or co-dependent so that I wouldn’t have to spend the week worrying about whether I was hurting their feelings or not reciprocating enough.
– I needed to pay attention to my own needs and be honest in articulating them.

– I needed to let love in and be gracious in receiving their generosity and kindness.

One of the teaching tools I often use is a collapsible bowl that can be either shallow or deep or somewhere in between. It demonstrates how we can hold space at different levels. Although I often have space held for me at the shallower or medium levels, I don’t often find myself held at the deepest level. (That’s usually what I do for other people instead of the other way around.) With Lorraine and TuBears, though, I was able to trust at the deepest level.

I can’t imagine a better way to finish a book on holding space than with my own profound learning about what it’s like to have space held for ME! 

This is toxic masculinity. And we are tired of absorbing it.

(photo credit: Unsplash – Alex Mihai)

I was on my way to the dentist, feeling anxious because I had a broken tooth and was sure the repair would be expensive and painful and that it must somehow be my fault and I’d be shamed for not flossing, eating hard candy, or clenching my teeth when I sleep. I was also feeling a little guilty for driving the two blocks, but didn’t want to have to walk home in the extreme cold with a frozen mouth.

Driving slowly through the parking lot, I got hit from behind by another car. In my anxious state of mind, my automatic thought was that I must have done something wrong because I was distracted. But just as quickly, I realized that there was nothing I could have done in that moment that would have caused the bump – it had to be something that hit me.

I turned and processed what had happened. A car was pulling out, hadn’t seen me, and hit the back passenger side of my car.

The driver of the car that hit me pulled up beside me and we both rolled down our windows. “I’m sorry,” said the guy, looking strangely frantic, given how minor the incident was, “but I didn’t hit you.”

“What do you mean you didn’t hit me? My car moved. Clearly you hit me.”

“Look,” he said, pointing back, “there’s a block of ice on the ground – that’s what you hit.”

“What are you talking about?” I said, looking in the mirror at the tiny block of ice. “How could a block of ice have caused my car to move like that?”

And then he just kept yelling “I didn’t hit you! I didn’t hit you!”

And I said, in as calm a voice as I could muster, “Can we just get out of our cars and look at our cars to see if there is any damage?”

His voice began to escalate. “But I didn’t hit you!!”

“Before you drive away, I’m JUST asking you to get out of your car and come with me so we can see if there is damage.”

He kept yelling, but got out of his car and we both went to look at the side of my car. Sure enough, there was a small dent on the fender near the wheel (ironically in the same spot I’d had repaired a few months earlier after I’d backed into a pole).

“I didn’t hit you!” He yelled. “How do I know that dent wasn’t there before?!” (Well, for one thing, I knew because that whole section of the car’s body had been repaired and repainted, but I didn’t think to say that at the moment.) He started wildly flinging his arms, pointing at other dings and marks on the car. “Next you’re going to say I caused that! And that! And that!”

“No, but you DID cause THAT!” I said – pointing at the small dent.

“I DIDN’T HIT YOU! LOOK – THERE’S THE BLOCK OF ICE. AND LOOK AT THE SKID MARKS BY THE BLOCK OF ICE. YOUR CAR WAS HIT BY THAT AND THE DENT WAS ON YOUR CAR ALREADY!”

I glanced toward where he was pointing. In the thin layer of snow on the ground, my tire marks showed clearly where I’d been traveling in a straight line and then was jolted five inches to the left. Near the zigzag was not a block of ice, but a lump of compacted snow that had likely been dislodged from my mud flaps on impact.

As quickly as I’d glanced away, though, I turned back to look into his eyes. Instinctively I knew I couldn’t take my eyes off this raging, irrational man or I would not be safe. Behind the anger in his eyes, I could see something else. Fear? Trauma? Shame? Maybe he was driving without a license? Maybe he’d been traumatized by parents who wouldn’t allow him to make mistakes? My mind reeled with the possibilities, wondering what parts of his history and his pain I needed to draw on to diffuse this situation.

“Look – I’m not going to take you to court or anything, so stop over-reacting and simply realize that what just happened could only have happened if your car hit mine.” My fingers touched the edge of the cell phone in my pocket, wondering whether I should pull it out to record this moment or take a photo of his license plate.

“I DIDN’T HIT YOU!” Seeing the rage increase in his eyes, I made a split-second decision to let it all go rather than risk being punched in the face. I left the cell phone in my pocket.

“Sir,” I said, as calmly and deliberately as I could muster, “the damage is minor enough that I’m not going report it. Get back in your car now and drive away.”

“Okay,” he said, getting back into his car. “But I didn’t hit you.”

I got back into my car and carried on to the dentist. As I sat in front of the dentist’s office, trembling, I had a flashback, realizing that this wasn’t just the story of a five minute encounter with an irrational man in a parking lot – it was a story of my whole lifetime. And it was the story of every woman I know. 

It’s a story as old as history. Man does wrong. Woman second-guesses herself, thinking she may have done wrong. Man swears he didn’t do wrong, gaslights the woman to try to convince her she’s crazy for thinking wrong was done, yells at her and makes her afraid he might hit her if she calls him out for what he did wrong. Woman does the emotional labour of trying to calm him and assure him he’s not a horrible person because she needs to keep herself safe. And then she carries the trembling with her when she goes.

Last night, as I sat down to journal after processing this five minute encounter nearly all day, I could feel the ache in my body and I knew that it was not from whiplash (the jolt was too minor) but from holding my body tense and alert throughout the encounter as I reacted instantaneously to what I needed to do to stay safe in that moment. It was also from holding a whole lifetime of such encounters in my body. I wrote “It’s still in my body. I can feel the shakiness, the tingling, the tight throat, and the tears that want to come but are blocked.”

Suddenly, a new thought appeared in my journal and every cell in my body knew the truth of it.

Women have learned to be the shock absorbers for men’s pain.

We are masterful at absorbing the intensity of it and diffusing it so that it won’t cause further damage.

This is a story of a whole lifetime, and a thousand lifetimes before mine. It’s a story of generation after generation – a story we carry in our DNA. It’s a story of a whole lineage of shock absorbers showing up in my instinctual need and ability to keep that man from exploding.

This is the story of a childhood with a father who would never hit his children, but who would throw hammers at trees or tractors in his rage. It’s the story of a little girl who learned, from a young age, to jump up very quickly, if she heard him come in from the barn, to make sure there was food on the table so that she didn’t have to face his anger. It’s also the story of a woman who, at thirty-five and with children of her own, could still feel her body react in the same way when she heard the back door of the farmhouse open.

This is the story of a twenty-two year old, naked and trembling in her bed while the rapist held a tight grip on her throat and a blade over her head. It’s the story of how her mind raced, trying to find just the right thing to say that might soothe him enough so that he would do the least amount of damage. And it’s the story of how she sat with him on her bed for an hour after he raped her, listening to him tell stories of his childhood. 

This is also the story of a wife and mother who learned to contort herself to absorb the pain, shame, anger, and insecurity of a man who needed someone else to blame, because she thought it was her job. It’s the story of how she learned to anticipate his mood the moment he stepped in the door, and how she did everything to fend off his darkness to keep her daughters safe. It’s also the story of how she woke up one day and realized she’d taught her daughters how to become shock absorbers too.

And this is the story of Dr. Anita Hill, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Tarana Burk, and every person with a #metoo story. Every single one of us has absorbed the pain of men who didn’t know how to diffuse it on their own.

We are exhausted. Our bodies have been nearly destroyed by the many shocks we’ve absorbed (and many HAVE been destroyed).

We don’t hate men, as those who would dismiss us as “angry feminists” might have us believe. Quite the contrary – we love them and we want better for them. And for us. And for our daughters and sons.

We simply want to stop being shock absorbers. We want men to learn how to diffuse their own pain without throwing it, like hand grenades, into someone else’s yard.

There is another five minute encounter with a man that happened shortly after the first one that helps to bring this into perspective. The dentist (a man) looked into my mouth and said. “It’s the crown that’s broken. We just put that in last year and it shouldn’t have broken, so we’ll take full responsibility for it and replace it. I’m really sorry about that.” Simple as that. No defensiveness, no deflection, no gaslighting or trying to convince me it was my fault. Simply taking responsibility for it.

THAT is what we are asking men to do. Just take responsibility and learn to deal with the shame and fear that might come along with that responsibility. Once that happens, we’ll stop talking about toxic masculinity.

****

P.S. If your response to this is “Why are you assuming this is a male/female thing? Couldn’t it as easily have been a female ranting and raving?”, my response is this… it is not purely a male/female thing, but it IS a power thing. In that situation, as a man, he has more physical and cultural power and so my instinctive reaction to him was about knowing (and remembering in my body) that he could hurt me. And, though I can’t speak for him, I suspect that some of his behaviour was about knowing I would absorb it rather than punch him first. I believe this is also the case with BIPOC people who have learned to be the shock absorbers for the pain that we as white people have not learned to process. The person with more power is more likely to assume that the person with less will absorb it. The closer you are to the top of a hill, the more you can afford to throw hand grenades. 

My visit to Laker Memorial School, Kitgum District, Uganda

What can I tell you about my experience in Kitgum District of Uganda? I’ve tried about half a dozen times to write this article and to reflect on what the experience meant to me, but so far every attempt falls short. I was going to tell you about how it felt to be the only white person I saw for five days (how all of the children would shout “Munu!” – white person! – when I walked by, and how they’d peer in my bedroom window while I tried to nap, like I was an exotic zoo animal), and then I was going to talk about how this trip felt different from my other visits to Africa, and then I thought I’d start by reflecting on how complicated it feels to be white, relatively wealthy, and a representative of colonization in a place like Uganda and still walk with consciousness and humility… but all of those attempts make this story too much about me and what I really want to tell you about is the school that was the primary reason for my visit.

Laker Memorial School in Kitgum District, Uganda, is the school my friend Nestar started five years ago and which I have been supporting financially for almost that long. What I learned on this visit is that it is named after Nestar’s mom, Laker, a strong and courageous woman who believed in educating children and who worked hard to raise school fees for her children despite the many obstacles life threw in her path (ie. they had to flee their farm when her children were still young because the rebels had attacked their region, and she became a single mom when her husband died a few years later). Though the school is currently housed in a temporary facility that was never meant to be a school (they had to cut windows into the classroom walls so that the children would have fresh air), Nestar’s dream is to some day build a new school on the land that her mother owned.

Though Laker Memorial School is primitive by western standards (there are few textbooks and no computers, the paint is peeling off the classroom walls, and all of the teaching aids are handwritten by the teachers), it was clear to me as soon as I visited that the level of education is high, that there is a strong commitment to fostering excellence in the children, and that the leadership of the school has passion and a vision for the future. On the first day I visited, I heard some beautiful music drifting out of one of the classrooms and I went to investigate. When I was invited into the classroom, I discovered that the school choir was practicing their school anthem, which had been written by the head teacher (who was delighted to share it with me). They were singing in four part harmony – at a higher quality than any school choir I’ve ever heard in Canada.

 

During that first visit, I also had a chance to visit the school kitchen, a small lean-to hut behind the main school building where the school cook was stirring a huge pot over the fire. I was in awe of the muscles and agility required to stir such a pot AND the fact that she was doing it barefoot, just inches away from the fire. (Note: providing school lunches is one of the ways a school like this attracts students – because then the children get at least one solid meal every day.)

A couple of days after we arrived, I was welcomed as the “chief guest” at the kindergarten graduation. I was imagining the kind of small-scale graduation ceremonies my children had when they completed kindergarten – where parents perch on the edges of tiny chairs in the kindergarten classroom and the children wear paper mortar-boards they’ve made in class. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This was a full-day celebration that included much music and dancing, a huge feast, a spelling bee, a drawing contest, and many speeches from dignitaries (including myself). It was a joyous day and I laughed harder than I’ve laughed in a long time when the women invited me up to dance and I proved to them that a white woman’s hips just can’t shake the way a Ugandan woman’s can.

I don’t use the word “awe” lightly (my dad taught me well about the overuse of superlatives), but I am truly in awe of what has been created in just five years at Laker Memorial School. The vision of Nestar and the people she has gathered around her in support of the school (including several of her siblings who serve on the board) is spectacular. It is no easy feat to create a school (and the foundation that supports that school) out of nothing in a remote part of Uganda, where people still struggle from the after-effects of 20 years of civil war, and then to grow it from a couple of dozen students in one grade level to 250 in 8 grade levels in just five years. Nestar does much of the fundraising herself (she sells homemade jam in markets in the Netherlands, where she now lives), and together with her husband Ed, runs the non-profit for next-to-nothing so that all donations can go directly to the school. (And, it should be added, she does all of this while raising four children.)

While I was at the kindergarten graduation, seated with the other special guests, I had the opportunity to chat with several local politicians and community and church leaders from the region (including the school inspector). What I heard from all of them is that the school is developing a strong reputation not only in the Kitgum District but across Uganda for quality education and excellent teachers. It was clear from the way that they spoke of it that they too are impressed with what Nestar has managed to create and the quality of people she has attracted to serve in school leadership.

To give you a sense of who Nestar is and what she brings to the school and the children being educated there, I want to share a little story of a tiny moment that represents so much more of what I witnessed in my time with her. During the spelling bee, when kindergarten students were taking turns spelling the words read by the teachers, she took aside one of the boys who had failed to spell his word. “Don’t ever be afraid to try,” Nestar said to the young boy, leaning over to look him in the eye. “You might fail, but at least you tried, and trying is always the first step to succeeding.” She spoke from her own years of experience, having tried a big and bold thing in starting a school, knowing she could have failed.

If Laker Memorial School produces even a handful of young leaders, like Nestar, who lead with compassion, vision, and humility (and I’m certain it will do more than that), then the world will be a better place.

Over the years, I have helped raise money for classroom furniture, textbooks, and, most recently, the construction of a latrine to increase sanitation at the school. Many of you, my readers and friends, have been generous supporters of this school along with me, and I thank you for that. I can assure you that your donations are going to a very good cause and that every dollar is being well spent. I hope that you will consider continued support (you can do so on UKEF’s website) and that perhaps you’ll even consider making a monthly donation.

These children have hope for a better future because this school exists.

Please support them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you help us raise at least $5000?

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

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

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

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





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

 

 





Conscientious Disruptor: What it means to grow up Mennonite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What came first – the trauma or the patriarchy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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