“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.
Learn to tell your own stories in the next online Openhearted Writing Circle on April 23, 2016.
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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
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
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)
Please join me as we all become the women we’ve wanted.
A sacred place. A place of refuge. A place where wild beings are safe in their natural habitat.
That’s what I want to focus on this year. Sanctuary. For myself and for others.
The word came to me while I was working on the prompts for A Soulful Year. One of the prompts is an invitation (in mandala form) to consider what you are most longing for in the coming year. Half way through my intuitive writing on longing, I knew what I want most and what I most want to create for others.
I want sanctuary.
First, there’s the practical, bricks and mortar kind of sanctuary. I want a space where I can work, create, write, and host conversations. I want a place of refuge and quiet, where my work can blossom, and my wild heart can thrive in its natural habitat. I don’t know what that will look like yet, but it is becoming more and more imperative that I move my business out of our house (which is relatively small for a family of five and has very little dedicated space for my work). It may look like a whole new house for our family that includes a space that can be used as studio/classroom. Or it may look like a rented studio/classroom. I’m open to the right solution and the right space.
And then there is the kind of sanctuary that I want to create. For you, my dear clients, friends and readers.
In all that I do – my writing, workshops, classes, etc. – I want to create safe, sacred space. I want to create the kind of space, both with my words and with my physical presence, where it feels like you’ve come home, to safety, to belonging, and to your own wildness.
Because we are ALL longing for this. We are ALL in need of sanctuary.
We need places where our hearts can crack open without fear of judgement.
We need places where our tears can flow without hindrance.
We need places where we know we will be held.
We need sanctuary. We need refuge. We need the sacred.
Last year, while visiting Oakland, California, I wandered along the edge of a lake and then stopped to visit a beautiful church perched at the edge of the lake. I was struck by the fact that both of those places were considered “sanctuaries”. One was a bird sanctuary, where birds were safe from hunters and predators, and one was a religious sanctuary, where the weak and weary could find spiritual solace.
I want the best of both kinds of sanctuary.
I want a spiritual sanctuary, where questions are welcome, where the hungry are nourished, and where nobody is judged for whatever spiritual path their on. AND I want a wildlife sanctuary, where the wild in all of us can run free and unhindered; where we can soar through the sky, or float across the water; where we can build our nests and tend to our young without fear.
In 2015, I will seek and create sanctuary in my work, in my community, in my family, and in myself.
I will make it a priority to find the right space that will nourish me, my family, and my work.
I will make it a priority to create sanctuary for my clients, whether they come to me for coaching, attend my retreats or workshops, sit in circle with me, or participate in my online offerings. I will welcome their vulnerability and cheer on their wildness.
I will make it a priority to create sanctuary on this blog, offering you, my readers, a safe place where you can come when you are hungry for stories that leave you feeling less alone.
I will make it a priority to serve in my community, helping wherever I can to offer sanctuary to those who need it.
Tell me… what kind of sanctuary are you seeking? And how can I help you find it? I would love to hear in the comments.
Note: I’m beginning the year by creating sanctuary for women in Winnipeg. I’ll be hosting an inaugural Women’s Circle (that will hopefully become a regular gathering) on Thursday, January 15th at 7:00 p.m. It’s free and all are welcome. Find out more here.
At my recent person retreat, I played with art supplies in the art room, and this piece of art emerged. What’s written below comes directly from the pages of my journal, intuitive and uncensored.
She Who Sees is Rising
It all started with the shrouded eyes, staring out at me from the front cover of a magazine. A woman hidden by a burka, and yet her eyes are watching. Seeing. Learning. Spying. Waiting.
She is silent now, shrouded by the patriarchy. Shrouded by those who are afraid of her power. She is hidden, draped in black, her sensuous curves too dangerous for the men who want her, who deny themselves her beauty. She is oppressed, beaten, raped, tortured, abused. She is mined for her resources, used for what she can offer. And then hidden, pushed aside.
They are afraid of her. She is too powerful. She is fierce and wild and untameable. She is a feral creature, gnashing her teeth at her captors. They fear her and so they trap her.
But from the bars of her cage, she is always watching. Waiting. Holding her strength in reserve for when she is ready. Waiting for the sisterhood to come of age alongside her. Waiting for the power to build up until the pressure valve erupts and she explodes into the world.
She is ready. Her sisterhood is gathering. Her captors are losing their power. They are wasting their strength, fighting each other and building their fragile empires.
She will rise. She will emerge like a phoenix from the flame. No cage will be able to hold her. No shroud will be able to hide her.
She will rise and take her rightful place. She will birth herself into the world. She will hold nothing back.
In her rising, she will silence the oppressors and then she will bandage their wounds. She will halt the destruction of the earth and then she will invite the destroyers to gather round the campfire.
She is fierce and she is a healer. She is powerful and compassionate. She will not hold back and she will offer a soft place to land. She will destroy and she will rebuild. She will fight and she will gather. She is a warrior and a lover. She is dangerous and she is safe. She is bold and she is humble.
She is rising. Her sisterhood rises with her. She will no longer be silent. She will no longer wait for her turn to speak. She will no longer watch her sons go to needless wars. She will no longer let her Mother be raped for her resources.
She is me. She is every woman. She is power. She is love. She is our future. She is our ancient lineage. She is our forests. She is our hearths. She is our food. She is our food. She is our hope. She is our beloved. She is rising.
We rise with her.
I am nearing the mid-way point of my journey. Tomorrow I leave the west coast and head to the east.
I have been trying to write a blog post about my amazing experience at Lake Tahoe, at the annual Gather the Women gathering. I have been trying to come up with the words to describe what it means to be held so tenderly, honoured so graciously, encouraged so generously, loved so fiercely, and seen so clearly, but the words fail me. It will require more processing than I’ve had time to do. For starters, this is what I wrote on my Facebook status:
For the past three days, I have been beautifully held – by a circle of women, by the earth, and by the Divine. I opened my heart, and it was guarded tenderly. I danced on the earth, and my body rejoiced in every cell. I spoke from the depths of my wild heart, and my wisdom was welcomed with grace and openness. I stood on the shores of the lake, and was healed by the beauty. I was hugged and held and touched in tender, nurturing ways that soothed the wounded child in me. I was blessed with an eagle feather and many words of love, and I offered back as many blessings as I received. I am woman, I am loved, and I am whole. Thank you Gather the Women for creating such a safe space for growth, healing and emerging power.
I don’t fully know how to articulate it, but I know that this is really, really important – this container that women create for each other – this safe sacred space where we can weep with grief, dance with passion, embrace with tenderness, speak with wisdom, and shine with the light of the Divine. Rarely have I been in a place where women can show both their vulnerability and fierceness (and many things in between) and be honoured in the whole beautiful complexity.
The women are rising. The feminine is waking. The energy is shifting, and we are the light bearers and the water carriers. We are the midwives and the edge-walkers. We are the healers and the dreamers. We are not only the caretakers and nurturers, but the fierce warriors who have the love and the power to help birth this brave new world.
We cannot do this work alone. We need a powerful container that can hold the birthing, heal the wounding, and balance the emerging power with fierce, unconditional love. That container was beautifully demonstrated in a circle of women on the shores of Lake Tahoe.
I am honoured to be holding my place in that container. May we have the courage to birth what is coming next.
Note: Please consider joining Gather the Women. Anyone who holds a vision like you see in this post is welcome. We need a container that can hold all that is emerging, and if you feel called, that container welcomes you.
Also, if you feel called to do this kind of work, please consider joining the next offering of Lead with Your Wild Heart. It will break your heart open, challenge you, encourage you, and prepare you for whatever your work is in bringing in this brave new world.
I’m a statistic. I’m one of the women Sheryl Sandburg and others talk about who don’t, in their opinion, help the cause of feminism. I made it all the way to the glass ceiling, peered through the cracks, decided I didn’t like what I saw, and walked out. I’m a “walk out who walked on.”
There’s a pretty good chance I would have made it through that glass ceiling if I’d “leaned in” long enough. I had all of the credentials and was an ambitious up-and-comer at the time. I took the fast track through the ranks of the public service, had the title “director” added to my name, got the office right next to the corner office, and was making more money than I’d ever dreamed I could.
On top of the career, I had a good feminist husband who carried his share of the household and parenting responsibilities, a couple of beautiful daughters, a house in the suburbs, a minivan, a trailer at the lake, and a boat. You could say I had it all – the feminist’s dream.
And now? I still have the husband and daughters (with an extra one since those days), but I no longer have the trailer at the lake, the boat, the comfortable paycheck or the title of “director” attached to my name. Instead, I have a tiny office in my basement without a window and a fledgling career as a teacher, coach, facilitator and writer.
Some might call me a failed feminist. I let go of the dream that my foremothers fought for. I quit the corporate climb on the wrong side of the glass ceiling. Instead I now spend a good portion of my days creating mandalas with Sharpie markers, hosting story circles, and inviting retreat participants to stitch together quilt squares – not exactly the things a traditional feminist would take pride in.
Why did I walk away from the corporate career and the frequent flyer points in favour of Sharpie markers, quilt squares, and women’s retreats?
There are a few reasons.
- At the height of my career, I had a stillborn son whose presence in my life reminded me that my priorities are not wealth, work, or prestige but rather family, community, and space for spirituality.
- I wanted to find happiness. I knew that the corner office wasn’t my path to happiness.
- I became convinced that it’s time for feminism to grow into something new, and I was pretty sure that I could serve a greater role in helping to birth the new wave of feminism from outside a corporate structure.
It’s that last point that I want to talk about in this article. Instead of a “failed feminist”, I like to think of myself as an “emergent feminist”.
It’s time, I believe, for women to change the world. That won’t happen simply by getting into CEO positions and taking more seats at the boardroom tables. Women will change the world only if we CHANGE LEADERSHIP.
When I was in formal leadership, on my way to the top, I thrived because I learned to think like a man. I listened to the voices of mentors who told me that “feelings have nothing to do with leadership and you should leave them out of the boardroom”, I shut down my intuition in favour of logic, I left my spirituality and much of my creativity at home, I was careful not to be too wild or passionate, and I even started to believe what I was told once that “relationships get in the way of good programming.”
By the time I broke away from formal leadership to start my own business, ten years after being named a director, I was almost completely burnt out from living in a way that was not authentic to me. I returned to the things that made me feel alive – spiritual practices, art-making, wandering in the woods, and relationships – and when I did I realized that THESE THINGS were exactly what had been missing in my leadership practice. More importantly, they weren’t just absent from my own journey, they were missing from leadership in general.
Instead of leaving them at home, I should have clung to them and brought them into my work. Instead of shutting down my feelings and encouraging my staff to do the same, I should have invited them to bring their vulnerability into conversation circles. Instead of creating strategic plans that rarely evoke any imagination, I should have drawn mandalas that wake up the right brain and invite it to the table. Instead of sitting around energy-killing boardroom tables, I should have held staff retreats in the middle of the woods.
For far too long, we’ve accepted a masculine-dominated leadership paradigm in our government offices, our businesses and even our non-profits that is no longer serving us. As Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze say in Walk Out Walk On, we’ve been relying on the leader-as-hero model, when what we really need now is the leader-as-host. In the words of Tina Turner, “we don’t need another hero”. We need people who can lead from a place in the circle, people who can help heal the brokenness in the world, people who help us feel connected again, and people who can remind us of the importance of our relationship with the earth.
“Leadership is about rearranging the chairs, getting the questions right, putting citizens in front of each other and then knowing what’s worth focusing on. The leadership I’m longing for is the leadership that says my number one job is to bring people together, out of exile, out of isolation, and into connection.” – Peter Block
All around us, we see signs of how disconnected we have become – over-consumption of our resources, terrorist attacks, climate change, extreme poverty, etc. These are the stories of a disconnected human race and this disconnection has been fueled by competitive, hierarchical, power-driven leadership that has been allowed to run un-checked.
If the new wave of feminism has a role to play in the world it is not about pushing harder for the corner office, but about bringing us back to a place of connection. Instead of fighting for the top jobs, the power and the prestige, we should be urging our leaders to bring us out of exile and back to community, back to spirituality, back to earth stewardship, and back to ourselves.
Instead of simply fighting to gain entry into the halls of power, we should be working to change the furniture in those halls. It’s time to move the chairs into a circle and open the windows to the world. It’s time to air out the corner office and replace it with conversation spaces. It’s time to replace competitiveness with collaboration, and hierarchy with community.
This is why I decided to walk out and walk on… my role in the world is no longer to fight for power, it’s to help us figure out how to balance power with love. Instead of standing in front of people, I’m sitting beside them and creating space for conversations. Instead of thinking like a man, I’m inviting men to think more like women.
I don’t want the corner office, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see a woman there. I will always fight for her right to be there, and when she gets there, I’ll be standing beside her, helping her to take down the walls of her corner office and invite people in. I will urge her to see the world through balanced eyes, honouring both the feminine and the masculine in the world, and creating space for us all to have meaningful conversations that lead the world into the transformation it needs.
I’m now leading from a place in the circle so that I can help other women (and men) learn to do the same. When we’ve gathered into that circle, we can all lean in and listen to each other.
If you’re looking for a new way of defining leadership, join me on a free call on Re-imagining Leadership for our Time on May 1 at 2 pm. Central.