Today, I’m back in the messy part of the story. I’m slightly agitated, slightly grumpy, and slightly guarded. I’m doing my best to interact with people in a way that is as kind as I can muster. I’m pulling back into my introverted tendencies and I’m trying not to be pissed off that some things are not going the way I’d hoped.
No, nothing has entirely fallen apart. I’m just moving through some of those emotions that tend to come up after a week of intense work, hosting a retreat with lots of complexity, and having to be extroverted for a longer period than is normal for me. Plus my eight-year-old computer may have met its “planned obsolescence” death point and I wasn’t planning to replace it while on this trip (but need a laptop to do my work). Hence the grumpiness and annoyance.
Since the retreat drew to a close a few days ago, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be an unfinished story. Today, as I deal with these emotions and this messiness, I am reminded that I am smack-dab in the middle of an unfinished story.
As an author, educator, and retreat facilitator, I sometimes feel the pressure to be living a more complete story – to have things more figured out and less messy, to be living with more serenity and less grumpiness. I sense that people want me to serve as a model for them of what it means to be spiritually grounded, enlightened and “complete” so that they can hope to be that way some day themselves.
The trouble is that, though I have done a lot of healing and growth work, there is still much to do and I am messily human. Each bit of healing and liberation work I do seems to peel back another layer that I hadn’t been prepared to witness before. I go deeper and deeper, and yet there seems to be no bottom to the depths I need to excavate.
At the retreat last week, I used the story of The Girl in the Velcro Dress to help us explore the layers of things that we carry around, layers that need to be explored, healed, released, and/or deconstructed. During each session, I shared a short part of the story related to whatever content we were discussing. As a visual aid for the story, I held up a dress I’d cut out of Velcro that was covered in pieces representing the weight of expectations, trauma, conditioning, oppression, etc. that the girl was carrying (see image). After the third session, I started peeling pieces off the dress during each session, inviting participants to similarly liberate themselves from whatever burdens they bore.
At the beginning of the last session, I held up the Velcro dress that still had a few pieces stuck to it and said “You may think I’m going to end the story now by removing these last few pieces. That’s not going to happen, though. I don’t believe that in real life, we wrap up stories the way that fairy tales are wrapped up. In real life, we stay messy and incomplete. Instead of setting unrealistic expectations, we learn to accept the messiness and let go of any expectations of perfection. No, the girl kept working on the pieces on the dress and I expect she’ll be doing that until she dies. But now she has some tools and resources and she knows how to be tender with herself in the process.”
What’s most important in this work of liberation and tenderness is not that we liberate ourselves of EVERYTHING we carry on our metaphorical Velcro clothing, but that we liberate ourselves as much as we can from the unhealthy rules and expectations of the systems (family systems, belief systems, cultural systems, hierarchical systems, etc.) that placed those burdens on us in the first place. (Recognizing, of course, that while we live in an imperfect world where unhealthy systems like capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy continue on, there will always be new attempts to put things on our Velcro clothing.)
Some of those “rules” are things like perfectionism, performance measurement, and purity – all rooted in systems (especially capitalism) that delude us into thinking we should strive for perfection, that we should punish ourselves for falling short, and that we should hold stories with happy endings as our highest ideal (just as we did when we were children watching Disney movies).
So… no, I’m not a finished story. I still get grumpy, withdrawn and/or irritated (especially after doing big work) and sometimes I take that out on people I care about. Sometimes my old trauma gets triggered and I make mistakes I regret afterwards.
HOWEVER… I have learned to be more tender with my imperfections. I have learned to hold space for myself when those imperfections send me into self-criticism and I have figured out how to surround myself with people who hold space for me with tenderness and without judgment in those times. I have learned how to set healthy boundaries so that I can look after my needs after big work without letting too many people down. And I have learned to soothe the reactivity in me when I fear my fumbling and my boundaries will result in my safety and belonging being jeopardized.
Perhaps most importantly, I continue (in my fumbling way) to liberate myself from the expectation of perfection, and liberate myself from carrying around other people’s judgement.
And now, after writing this on my phone because my laptop isn’t working, I’m going to have a nap. Because, as Tricia Hersey (of The Nap Ministry) teaches, rest is resistance from the grind culture that capitalism left attached to my Velcro dress.
Growing up in a Mennonite home, where self-sacrifice was one of the highest goods, I was convinced that self-centredness was one of the seven deadly sins.
But as I near my fiftieth year on the planet, I’m learning to be Self-centred, and I’m no longer convinced that’s wrong.
This afternoon, after spending many hours gathering all of the tidbits of my business finances together to bring to the accountant for tax preparation (I’m a disorganized business person), I decided to take advantage of the beautiful Spring weather and go to the park. King’s Park, which houses the labyrinth I love, is one of my favourite places to welcome Spring because the two harbingers of Spring on the prairies – crocuses and frogs – can be found there.
Not surprisingly, the old stories came up on the way there. “Your tax bill is going to be high this year – you should be working so you can afford to pay it.” “If you’re not working at your business, you should at least be cleaning the house. Have you looked at the kitchen floor lately? Disgusting.” “If you’re not cleaning or working on your business, shouldn’t you be giving up your free time for a friend who needs you?”
And then the biggie…
“You are being self-centred.”
I smiled at the voices and let them play through their stories in my head, and then I went to the park anyway. I know they mean me no harm – they are there to protect me – and I also know that giving them the upper hand will keep my life small and unhappy. Time in the sunshine is not something I feel guilty about, especially when the taxes are done.
I walked the labyrinth, not in a slow and meditative way, but in a curious and attentive way, watching for the fuzzy heads of crocuses popping up between the paths. The crocuses weren’t quite ready to bloom, but I was rewarded for my attentiveness with a frog who let me get close enough to take a picture.
As I neared the centre of the labyrinth, a new thought popped into my head…
Perhaps it’s a good thing to be Self-centred.
What if, instead of interpreting self-centred as selfish, we interpret it as “keeping your Self at the centre”?
I capitalize Self here, because I’m referring to the spiritual Self, the higher Self, the one that seeks wholeness within a deep relationship with God/dess.
When we walk the labyrinth, we pause at the centre, because that is where we are most in touch with our Self. That is where we rest in openness, ready to receive Spirit. That is where we are most emptied of ego and fear and the false stories that keep us small.
The labyrinth teaches us to be Self-centred.
Paradoxically, a Self-centred life is actually less selfish than an other-centred life, because we don’t rely on others to fulfill us or make us happy. We don’t place unrealistic expectations on others to define us or behave a certain way. We allow others their own happiness without placing obligations on them to make us happy. We give out of our fullness rather than out of our neediness. We are at peace and therefore we create an environment where others can be at peace too.
When we are Self-centred, we do our own work and don’t expect others to fix us.
When we are Self-centred, we detach ourselves from other people’s behaviour and give them the freedom to find their own paths to their own Selves.
When we are Self-centred we find out who we truly are and we no longer rely on other people’s definition of us.
When we are Self-centred, we serve other people out of our delight in them and not out of obligation or need.
When we are Self-centred, we can offer and receive unconditional love.
When we are Self-centred, we can live in community and not expect that community to give us everything we need.
When we are Self-centred, we hold space for our Selves and that allows us to hold space for others without losing ourselves in them.
One month from tomorrow, I’ll turn 50. As I near that milestone, I’m making it my goal to become more Self-centred.
“How would you introduce yourself if you alone got to choose how you are defined?” That’s the question I asked a circle of women who’d gathered for an all-day storytelling workshop yesterday at a downtown women’s resource centre. “There are ways in which we’re expected to introduce ourselves – what we do for a living, where we live, what our marital status is, etc. – but today we’re going to choose an introductory question that let’s us choose our own definitions.”
The first question offered was the one we used as our check-in question. “How are you a survivor?”
It was a beautiful question and it opened the door for honest and vulnerable sharing. These women are fierce survivors. Some are refugees, some are Indigenous, some are single moms, and most are living in poverty. They have survived domestic abuse, mental illness, conflict in war torn countries, the birth and death of children, racism, hunger, and a multitude of other challenges. They are resilient and courageous and it was an honour to be in circle with them.
“We have a choice,” I said. “We could have told those same stories from the perspective of victims, and they would still be true, but we chose to tell them as survivors. That doesn’t mean we haven’t been victimized – we have – but we found ways to survive and now that’s the story we’re choosing to tell.”
“It matters that we claim our own stories,” I said. “Because our stories give us power. Our stories define us and help us to tell the world who we are.”
Later that morning, I showed the women a magazine spread from the in-flight magazine I’d picked up the day before. It was a three-page spread promoting New York magazine’s Best Doctor issue. Not surprisingly, the only images were of white, male doctors.
“When we see things like this again and again in the media,” I said, “we make the assumption that the best doctors are white males. Then, when we find ourselves hospitalized, and we end up with someone who’s not a white male doctor, subconsciously we come to the conclusion that our doctor is not one of the best.”
Whoever gets to tell the stories holds the power. And vice versa. When it’s largely white males who own the media, run the big companies, have access to political machines, and have the most influence in the world, they get to tell the stories their way. Their stories reflect people in the way that is most beneficial to them, and so they tell us stories of people who look like them.
When we hear almost exclusively the stories of people who look and live differently from us – whether it’s because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, class, physical appearance, etc. – we absorb the message that we have less value. And that’s when we become shameful of who we are and we stop telling our own stories. We stop believing that our stories matter.
“I used to be ashamed of who I was,” one of the Indigenous women in the circle shared with us. “When I was growing up, there weren’t many Indigenous kids in our neighbourhood and the only thing we ever heard about Indigenous people was that they were drunks or homeless or gang members. I was ashamed to say who I was, so I tried to pass myself off as Italian. It took me a long time to reclaim my own identity.”
Another woman, a recent immigrant from the Philippines, shared about the shame she’d felt when she’d left an abusive husband and had become a single mom. “I was blaming myself for getting myself into that situation. I shouldn’t have married him in the first place. I felt like everyone was judging me.”
“Our shame keeps us silent,” I said. “But when we start to share our stories, we release ourselves of that shame and then people can’t hurt us with those stories anymore. Those stories become part of our beauty instead of part of our shame.”
“Would it have made a difference if you’d heard more stories of people like you?” I asked both women. “Would it have helped you believe in your own value as Indigenous women or single moms?”
“Yes, when we see people like us doing good things, it makes us feel better about who we are. And when we see their courage, we believe that we can be courageous too.”
“That’s why our stories matter,” I said. “And that’s why we have to find creative ways to tell them. The people who own the media and the publishing companies aren’t going to give us much space to tell those stories, so we have to find alternative ways of getting them out to people who need them. We have to find ways of reaching the kids who were growing up just like you did, and the women leaving abusive husbands just like you did, so that they can see their own worth.”
I pulled out the in-flight magazine again, and this time I shared a story of a photo exhibit opening in Washington, D.C., called “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World” which brings together 80 stereotype-challenging, genre-defying works. “What’s striking about the works,” the article says, “is how they dispel the idea, put forth by the international media, that these women are homogenous and invisible. The photos are feisty, provocative, and, above all, thought-provoking.”
“These women chose to tell their own stories their own way,” I said. “Instead of waiting for someone to give them permission to tell their stories, they chose to own them and tell them the way they wanted to.”
We ended yesterday’s workshop by brainstorming creative ways in which these women could tell the stories of their people in their own neighbourhoods without waiting for the mainstream media to call.
Our stories matter. Our stories have power. When we tell them, we let go of shame and we give other people hope and courage.
Last night I hosted a circle of women on Skype, and at the beginning of the call I read this poem:
Finding her here by Jayne Brown
I am becoming the woman I’ve wanted, grey at the temples, soft body, delighted, cracked up by life with a laugh that’s known bitter but, past it, got better, knows she’s a survivor– that whatever comes, she can outlast it. I am becoming a deep weathered basket.
I am becoming the woman I’ve longed for, the motherly lover with arms strong and tender, the growing up daughter who blushes surprises. I am becoming full moons and sunrises.
I find her becoming, this woman I’ve wanted, who knows she’ll encompass, who knows she’s sufficient, knows where she’s going and travels with passion. Who remembers she’s precious, but knows she’s not scarce– who knows she is plenty, plenty to share.
After the poem, I asked each woman to share something about the woman they are becoming. Some shared that they are becoming more confident, more open, more authentic, and more self-aware. Some are becoming leaders, spiritual guides, teachers, and wise grandmothers.
Several of the women remarked on the line “I am becoming a deep weathered basket.” They resonated with the image – becoming a vessel of whatever they’re called to carry, a little worn, beat up, and perhaps leaking, but still full of gift. The older women on the call focused on the world “weathered”, while one of the younger women said she was grateful for all that leaked out of those weathered baskets into her own, much less seasoned, basket.
When it was my turn to hold the virtual talking piece, my first top-of-mind response was “Satisfied. I am becoming more satisfied.”
I am becoming more satisfied that I am enough. I am becoming more satisfied that I have enough. I am becoming more satisfied that the work that I do is the right work and that I am living as authentically as I can. I am becoming more satisfied that I’m doing the best I can as a mother.
That thought surprised me, given the kind of day and month I’d had, but it popped out of my mouth and after I said it I knew that it was true.
Earlier that day, when one of my daughters had a crisis, I was worried that I hadn’t provided her with enough tools to weather the emotional storms when they come.
Earlier that month, when online sales were flat-lining and a class I was supposed to teach at university got canceled, I was worried that I wasn’t doing a good enough job in growing my business.
And yet, despite those worries, despite the fact that I am still full of human weakness – I still feel the jealousy well up when I see others with more success than me, I still suffer from insecurity when I think I’m not parenting well, I still get unreasonably angry when my husband doesn’t do something I expected him to do – I am becoming more satisfied.
I am not becoming more perfect. I’m not even sure, sometimes, that I’m becoming more wise. My questions increasingly outweigh my answers. But I am becoming more satisfied.
I won’t always parent well. I won’t always say the right things when I teach. I won’t always be successful in my business. My skin is becoming increasingly more saggy and my belly – well, it will never be as flat as I’d like.
BUT I’m learning to love myself more, I’m learning to forgive myself faster, I’m learning to trust that I’ll have the wisdom I need to get through the challenges, and that’s good enough.
With each disappointment, each challenge, each heartbreak, and each victory, I become more authentic, more satisfied, and more committed to being fully myself. As the poem says, I am becoming the woman “who knows she is plenty, plenty to share.”
Now it’s your turn… “Who are you becoming?” Are you satisfied with the answer?
I invite you to join me on a journey that will bring you closer to the woman you are becoming. When you sign up for The Spiral Path, you’ll receive 21 lessons, full of stories, inspiration, journal questions, and embodiment exercises that are designed to bring you closer and closer to the core of who you are. For only $45, you’ll receive a whole lot of content that has the potential to change your life.
Here’s what one participant said before she’d even worked all of the way through: “I’ve worked thru Lesson 9….I have shed tears, felt my anger, and looked at my fears up close and in 3-D. I have felt the darkness, and feel brave and courageous about sitting with it. I now feel much more comfortable in my body and am ready to move ahead and receive all the gifts that will come as a result of this work.” (Carol Brown)
I was raised on a healthy dose of “only a sinner, saved by grace”. Again and again the Sunday School songs reminded me to carry the shame of the sin that had separated me from God. I was nothing without salvation – a wretch, a lost soul, a disgrace.
On top of that, I was a woman – reduced to second class in the eyes of a male (understanding of) God. Not good enough to have my own voice. Not strong enough to lead without a man as the head.
And then, to add to those stories of unworthiness and submissiveness, I was a Mennonite, taught to be a pacifist, discouraged from standing up for myself. Turn the other cheek and don’t rock the boat.
Let’s not forget that I’m also a Canadian, and people in my country place politeness high in our values.
That’s a lot of old stories that contribute to my “I am worthless” back story.
Now…I’m not going to argue the theology or “rightness” of any of those belief systems – I’m just speaking from my own experience here. I’m just saying that it’s hard to emerge from a history like that with a healthy self-confidence and a belief in one’s worthiness.
It took a lot of personal work to start telling myself other stories. It took a lot to begin to believe that I was worthy of love, that I was equal to men, that I could believe in a God that was both masculine AND feminine, and that I was “fearfully and wonderfully made”.
For awhile the pendulum swung in the other direction. I started to embrace those self-help books that told me that I am awesome, I am powerful, and I can do anything I set my mind to. I started to believe that I was a self-made woman and that I didn’t need faith in a God who made me feel worthless.
But the other end of the pendulum wasn’t comfortable for long either. If I am awesome, than I don’t need other people. If I am perfect the way I am than I can get away with treating people poorly and not cleaning up after myself. If I can do anything I set my mind to, then I don’t need grace and I don’t need God and I certainly don’t need to pay attention to the wounds all of us AWESOME people are inflicting on the world.
And what if I don’t FEEL awesome all of the time? Then do I send myself back to the “unworthy” end of the pendulum because other people have figured out this self-help stuff better than I have? And what about when I do something that is really selfish – do I simply excuse myself with an “I am worth it” mantra? Do I never hold myself accountable for my screw-ups or unkind acts? And if there’s no need for grace, then how do I pick myself up after a particularly horrible failure?
Gradually the pendulum swung back, but this time it landed somewhere in the middle. This time it stopped in the grey area – the paradox.
I am beautiful AND I have a lot of flaws.
I am smart and capable and have a lot of gifts AND I need to be forgiven when I make mistakes.
I am loving and kind AND sometimes I do things that are downright mean and hurtful.
I have been fearfully and wonderfully made AND I need a lot of grace for those times when I don’t act or feel like it.
I am full of wisdom AND I rely on God/dess to help me use that wisdom with discernment.
I am a sinner AND I am a saint.
I am good enough as I am AND I need to keep working to improve myself.
I am as worthy as any man on earth AND I want to keep living on a planet where both genders are needed.
The grey area is a good place to live. It feels comfortable, because I don’t need to be perfect, but I also don’t need to believe that I am worthless. It’s the field that Rumi talks about – I want to lie down in that grass with you.
“Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make sense any more.”
p.s. There is still space in tomorrow’s Openhearted Writing Circle, if you want to explore how your own writing can help you get to an “I am enough” place.
Let’s pretend we’re setting off on a long, leisurely walk together. Just you and I. We’re walking along the shore, an eagle is flying overhead, there’s just the right kind of gentle breeze on our faces. We dip our toes in the water now and then. Now, tell me… what would you like to talk about if you had all the time in the world for a conversation?
A little while later, after people had shared what they’d love to talk about, and several said they’d like to simply walk in silence, I said this:
The sun is shining. There’s nothing urgent I need to do. I’m going out for a real walk. I’ll pretend I’m taking you all with me.
On a whim, while I was walking, I started sharing photos from my walk, with the hashtag #ifyouwereherewithme. Here’s the sequence. Imagine we were on that walk together.
If you were here with me, I’d take you to my favourite place to wander, where deer often greet me and butterflies flit among the milkweed.
If you were here with me, we’d sit for a spell when the conversation got so juicy we’d need to look into each other’s eyes.
If you were here with me, I’d introduce you to the tree I call the Dancing Goddess Tree because of the way she reaches her thick limbs to the sky in praise.
If you were here with me, I’d tell you about the Spring I sat on the stone bench among the birch trees and wept because I realized I’d lived through a whole season without my mom.
If you were here with me, I’d invite you to leave the beaten path and step into the wild with me.
If you were here with me, we’d stop to stare in awe at the eagle circling above our heads.
If you were here with me, I’d tell you how I dream of living by water, and how the Red River near my house has to suffice for now.
If you were here with me, I’d tell you about the time I broke my foot and felt such a strong hunger for this place, I had my husband drop me off at the gate so I could limp part way in on crutches.
If you were here with me, I’d pour you a glass of iced tea and invite you to sit awhile when our wandering was done.