Liminal Space and Liberation: On finding new wisdom in old stories

(Note: There is a free resource at the bottom of this post.)

“Not only did she survive, but she kept rewriting her stories until she found enough space in them for all of the wounded to be held.”

I’ve embarked on a new project recently. I’m writing a collection of personal essays that will eventually become my next book.

This year, I’m spending time in an intentional liminal space, taking time to imagine the next part of my life. With no more dependents, no partner, and no parents still alive, I have no need to live in the house or city where I currently live and can make choices solely for myself. I’m asking myself what I value, what I no longer need, and what matters most to me. As I look around my house, I’m imagining what kind of space I want next, which of my furniture suited the old part of my life but isn’t needed in the next, and which things I love too much to ever part with.

This seems like a good time to also consider the non-tangible things I want to bring with me into the next part of my life. One by one, I’m excavating the stories that shaped me into who I am – the heartaches, the triumphs, the traumas, and the failures – and I’m holding them up to the light to see what new things they have to reveal, and which parts are no longer relevant. It’s a little like digging through the attic for the family’s antiques to see if they should be polished, repurposed, given away, or discarded.

This isn’t an entirely new process for me – I did something similar when I got divorced and was intentional about turning my home from the sometimes-unsafe place it had been into a sanctuary of healing for my daughters and myself. This time, though, I’m doing it largely for myself (with only a little consideration for what support my daughters still need) and feel more free to share pieces of that journey with you, my readers (if I choose to).

Already, only a short way into the process, the stories are shape-shifting and becoming things I didn’t expect them to be. Some are taking on more nuance, depth, and meaning, and some are revealing to me that I’ve been stubbornly hanging onto tired old versions of them that should have landed on the rubbish heap.

One thing that’s surprising me is that this process is not only changing my view of myself, but also my view of the other people in some of the stories. In some cases, I see them more clearly for who they have always been instead of the way I so badly wanted them to be, and that’s allowing me to be clearer about my boundaries. In other cases, I’m better able to see the whole picture instead of just my part of it, and that allows me to extend a little more mercy.

The first story I took on was in some ways the hardest and in some ways the easiest. It’s the story of how I was raped as a twenty-two-year-old by a stranger who climbed through my window. It’s the hardest because it was pivotal in my life and it’s heartbreaking to more clearly see the many layers of trauma that came from carrying that story forward into my life and marriage. But it’s easiest because the only other player in the story is a stranger and I don’t have to worry about hurting anyone else in my life by telling my version of the story.

The line at the top of this post is from that piece. I wrote it after wrestling for several days with the story, when I realized that the process of writing had allowed me to hold my rapist differently. In the end, as I witnessed my own triumph, courage, and resilience in that narrative, I was also able to more gently witness the brokenness and pain that my rapist must have been tormented with (and is likely still tormented with, if he is still alive). How much hatred and shame must one be carrying to climb through a stranger’s window to fulfill their own sexual desires? That’s a burden I would never want to carry.

I am reminded, as I work with this story, that “my liberation is tied up with his” (in the words of Lilla Watson). If I want to be truly liberated, no longer carrying the shame and pain of that narrative, than I have to release my rapist from the story so that he has the potential to be free of it too. (That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be justice or accountability for such a crime – simply that the justice should be restorative, and healing should be the goal.)

As I said in the above quote, the rewriting process is allowing me to find enough spaciousness in those stories and in my attachment to them for all of the wounded to be held. Whether or not they choose to heal is none of my business – I simply release them to their own choices and find my own healing that requires nothing of them.

I am now working on other stories – the ones in which there are people who played longer and more complicated roles in my narrative. I don’t know yet how those stories will shape-shift, but I will hold myself tenderly so that I have the strength to make space in the stories for their healing too. I will not gloss over the hard things or try to justify other people’s actions – I will simply try to tell the truth in a liberated way that isn’t weighed down with bitterness or a need for revenge.

Though this post focuses primarily on the writing and rewriting of these stories, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the words on a page only represent part of the process. While writing is my first love, it’s best when it doesn’t stand alone, especially as a path toward healing. I also have regular therapy sessions with a therapist who incorporates somatic healing practices. And, as I’ve learned from modalities such as Narrative Therapy and Family Systems Constellations, I sometimes practice rearranging the story with physical objects that represent the players in those stories. I am also fond of rituals that help me mark and energetically move through important moments and shifts, like when I burn something that represents an old version of a story I’m releasing. (Perhaps I’ll share more about those practices in another post.)

A year from now, when I have (hopefully) a clearer picture of what this next part of my journey will be, I want to be on the journey with more lightness and liberation. This is not a perfect process (stories have a way of popping back up long after I think I’ve let them go) but I’m okay with the imperfection of it. Whatever emerges from my imperfect process, I hope to share it with you.


Are you currently in your own liminal space and want a tool that will help you? I’ve created a free resource that you can download (in PDF): Journal Prompts for the Liminal Space. (After you click on it, you can save it for future use.) And if you want even more, check out my online self-study program, Write for Love and Liberation.

10 journal writing tips that will help you connect more deeply with yourself

In honour of the release of Fall Reflections: A mindfulness journal, I’m sharing these ten tips. For some who are just beginning a journal writing practice, they may offer a place to start. For others they may offer enhancement to an ongoing practice.

1. Start with the facts, then move to the feelings. Begin by describing the details of your day. What did you do, who did you see? As you write, consider how you responded emotionally to whatever happened.

2. Try a stream-of-consciousness style of writing. Just write the next thing that comes to mind. If you’re writing about the conversation you had with your mom, for example, a question might suddenly come to mind about something your mom said. Write it down. Don’t censor. Just write.

journal writing - jo-anne3. Keep it simple and don’t edit. Your journal is not a place to prove you should be the next poet laureate. It’s about the process, not the product. Use simple language, and write what comes to mind rather than over-thinking what words to use.

4. Keep the “shoulds” out of it. Your journal is a place to be honest with yourself, not a place to try to reform yourself into what you think you should be. Simply write how you feel and what you think rather than filtering it with what you think you SHOULD think or feel. There’s enough of that self-filtering when you talk to others and it doesn’t belong in a journal that’s meant for your eyes only.

5. When you’re trying to work through internal conflict, try writing a dialogue with yourself. If, for example, there’s part of you that wants to go on a trip and another part of you that thinks it’s a bad idea, write as though those are two separate people having a conversation back and forth.

6. If the blank page scares you, use journal prompts to help you get started. Fall Reflections or Summer Lovin’ might be a good place to start. Or you could choose to start each day’s entry with the same simple journal prompt such as “My wish for today is…” or “Five words to describe this day are…” or “The things I want to remember about this day are…”

7. Try keeping a list every day. It could be a list of ten things you’re grateful for each day. Or five ways that you were kind to others. Or three ways that you stood up for yourself. Consider what would help you in your personal growth (gratitude, confidence, courage) and create a list prompt around that theme.

8. Find a routine that works for you. Some people write morning pages (filling 3 pages with stream-of-consciousness) every day. Others set aside half an hour each day for journal-writing. Sometimes I suggest to my coaching clients that they simply sit with a pen in their hand for ten minutes each day and see what emerges. (If it’s just doodling some days, that’s perfectly fine!) You have to find what works best for you, or you won’t sustain it.

9. Find the right pen and journal combination that works for you. I love sturdy, attractive journals, and so I give myself permission to splurge a little each time I buy a new one. I also love to write in colour (and change colours on a whim) so I write with fine tip Sharpie markers. You, on the other hand, may love expensive pens but are content with the kind of notebook you used in elementary school. Experiment until you find what makes you happy.

10. Take your journal with you. You never know when you’ll want to write things down, so it’s a good idea to carry it with you on the bus, to the coffee shop, on a trip – wherever you go. If your journal is too big, consider having a smaller secondary notebook in your purse or backpack.

Finally, just be yourself and write what you want to write. There is no wrong way to do this! Just start wherever you are, write in your very own style, and don’t do it to please anyone else but yourself.

Fall Reflections - mock coverp.s. For only $10, you can download Fall Reflections and you’ll have 60 journal prompts to get you started. If you want to go even deeper with your writing, my next Openhearted Writing Circle will be October 4, 2014.

Some instructions before you write

journal on rockYesterday I hosted an Openhearted Writing Circle. It was beautiful. When people dare to come together to explore and share their raw and courageous stories, magic happens.

Before they started to write, I gave them these simple suggestions. I give them to you, too, in case you  want to be an openhearted writer.

  • Be in love. Write from a deep source of love that wants to flow through you. You are not writing for a critic, you are writing for love. Dare to be in that love.
  • Be courageous. Dare to dive deeper into your own truth than you ever have before. Dare to say those things that make you tremble.
  • Be honest. There is no point in watered-down truth. If you are lost in a dangerous sea of sadness that threatens to drown you, and you say simply “I’m a little sad”, you’re not telling the whole truth.
  • Be authentic. Nobody wants Hemingway’s stories coming out of your pen. Only YOUR stories can come out of your pen, and your stories are as unique and valuable as Hemingway’s, even if they’re never published and are meant simply for your own healing.
  • Be messy. You don’t have to get it right the first time. Or even the second. Let yourself get messy and spill all that you have onto a page. There will be time to polish later, but to start with, get it all out there without editing what wants to flow. The most beautiful gems show up when you make the least attempt to edit yourself.
  • Be kind to yourself. Silence the inner critic and simply let yourself write. You are not seeking perfection, you are simply seeking a gateway into your truth.
  • Be passionate. Dare to show the fullness of your emotion – your love, hate, fear, strength, anger, etc. – on the page. Dare to shout “YES!” to the world through your writing. Dare to live out loud.
  • Be generous. Give it ALL to the page (and to your reader), not just a token. If there’s wisdom that wants to flow out of you right now, don’t save it for another day – let it flow. Be intentional about living in the gift economy, where we serve each other instead of seeking a “return on every investment”. You have gained wisdom in your years on the earth and others need it, so share it.
  • Be patient. “If good ideas do not come at once, or for a long time, do not be troubled at all. Wait for them. Put down the little ideas however insignificant they are. But do not feel, any more, guilty about idleness and solitude.” – Brenda Ueland
  • Be trusting. There are stories in you that want to be told – trust the muse to help you tell them. Trust yourself to have the right words and the right creativity.
  • Be shameless. The greatest barrier for people telling truthful, raw stories is often the shame that we feel about that story. “What will people think if they know this about me?” But that keeps us from really connecting and helping other people through our stories.


Writing that cracks my heart open

booksWhen I am in pain, I turn to books. When I am lost, I turn to books. When I am confused, need to feel less alone, long to be inspired, need help with relationships, or want to change the world or myself, I turn to books.

I turn to books. A lot.

Yes, I also seek support from my community – my family and dearest friends – and I do a lot of journalling, wandering, praying, and art-making, but almost always, when there is a gap in my life, I first look for books (or blog posts, articles, song lyrics – anything that’s well written) that will help me understand something deeper about myself and the world I live in.

Good writing cracks my heart wide open. It changes my perspective. It opens me to new possibilities. It challenges me to be a better person. Sometimes it frightens me. And sometimes it makes me weep. But it always leaves me wiser and more openhearted than before.

When I was lost and losing my faith and wanted to know that my confusion was human and that there was a different way of experiencing God than the way I’d grown up believing, Anne Lamott’s courageous, vulnerable, and breathtaking words let me know that it was okay to lie broken on the floor, and trust that God would be down there on the floor with me.

“Hope is not about proving anything. It’s about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us.” – Anne Lamott

When I was in a difficult place, facing the fear of conflict and yet knowing that I, as a non-profit manager, needed to address the difficult things that my team was facing instead of hiding and pretending it wasn’t there, I hung Ranier Maria Rilke’s words on my wall.

“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.  Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”  – Rainer Maria Rilke

When I was preparing to travel to Ethiopia, where I knew I would see the kind of intense poverty and injustice that would tear my heart apart, I turned to Viktor Frankl.

“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.” – Viktor Frankl

When I longed to follow my dreams, and not simply follow the accepted path that would make the least waves, I clung to Mary Oliver’s words.

“You do not have to be good.
 You do not have to walk on your knees
 for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
 You only have to let the soft animal of your body
 love what it loves.” – Mary Oliver

When my inner wild woman kept whispering in my ear, Clarrisa Pinkola Estes helped me recognize her.

“If you have yet to be called an incorrigible, defiant woman, don’t worry, there is still time.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estés

When I longed to understand myself better so that I could understand others, David Whyte served as a guide.

“Making room for our own fears, we suddenly have room for the fears of others. Once we have renounced the need to live without suffering, to be special, to be exempt from the losses and doubts that have afflicted all people since the beginning of time, we can see the difficulties of others without being afraid ourselves. Our fearful, disappointed surface face starts to fall away. We can welcome other people into our lives because no matter their fears, they do not make us afraid. Suffering is the natural cyclical visitation that comes from being alive.” – David Whyte

When I couldn’t understand why my journey was often so difficult while others seemed to have much easier paths, Parker Palmer saved me.

“Most of us arrive at a sense of self and vocation only after a long journey through alien lands. But this journey bears no resemblance to the trouble-free “travel packages” sold by the tourism industry. It is more akin to the ancient tradition of pilgrimage – a transformative journey to a sacred centre’ full of hardships, darkness, and peril.” Parker Palmer

When I was lost in grief over the deaths of my mother, father, and son, C.S. Lewis shared his own story and left me feeling less alone.

“Grief … gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.” C.S. Lewis

When I tried to follow my passion, but faced fear and resistance, Steven Pressfield held my hand and coaxed me forward.

“Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.” – Steven Pressfield

When I needed to learn how to trust again, Martyn Joseph’s songs were my companions.

“So turn me tender again Fold me into you Turn me tender again And mould me to new Faith lost its promise And bruised me deep blue Turn me tender again Through union with you”Martyn Joseph

When my creative heart called me forward into a deeper and deeper journey, John O’Donohue was there beside me.

“The call to the creative life is a call to dignity, to a life of vulnerability and adventure and the call to a life that exquisite excitement and indeed ecstasy will often visit.” – John O’Donohue

When chaos terrified me and I didn’t know how I would lead my team forward, Margaret Wheatley calmed my nerves.

“Change always involves a dark night when everything falls apart. Yet if this period of dissolution is used to create new meaning, then chaos ends and new order emerges.” – Margaret Wheatley

When I looked around me and saw only flawed paradigms for leadership, Christina Baldwin was my guide to a new way of seeing.

“As much as we may think we know about the nature of being human, the circle knows more. The circle is a form that has been able to withstand the imperfections of human interaction and survive tremendous social shifts. I believe this on both experience and faith: experience, because I have been in circles at moments of searing vulnerability and high confrontation and the circles have held me; faith, because the circle once held human society together for over thirty thousand years.” – Christina Baldwin

When I recognized that part of my calling was to help people build community, Peter Block showed me how.

“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

These writers and so many more have kept me company in my darkest days and inspired me in my brightest days. I owe them a deep, deep gratitude for the many ways in which they have touched my life.

All of my life, I have strived to be the kind of openhearted writer that these writers have been. It has been my daily practice to put my words onto the page in vulnerable, truth-seeking ways. Sometimes I share those words, and sometimes I keep them close to my heart… but always I write. Always.

One of the greatest blessings of my life has been the many, many times that someone has left a comment on my blog, sent me an email, or phoned to tell me “your words touched/changed/challenged/enlightened/inspired me.” When I share with an open heart – whether that heart is broken in the grief of the death of my mother, cowering in fear over challenges that feel too big for me, stumbling through the daily struggle of life, or in awe of the grace that appears out of nowhere – people respond.

Open hearts touch other open hearts.

Out of my own practice of openhearted writing has emerged a new offering. I want to invite you into a small, intimate online circle where we will spend a day practicing and learning about openhearted writing.

Won’t you join me on February 14th in opening our hearts to what wants to be written? Your words may not leave the pages of your own journal, but even if you are the only person who is changed, the practice is worth every moment you spend on it.

A circle of writers (what my workshops and classes are like)

It’s another Tuesday night and I prepare once again for my small circle of writers. I arrive early and place the low round table in the centre, covered with the colourful tapestry that comes with me to every workshop. Like the threads of the tapestry, many stories will be woven together tonight.

At the centre of the table is always the candle – the warmth that holds us together. Next to it is my Tibetan singing bowl and whatever talking piece has been selected for this evening’s sharing time. Sometimes the participants bring talking pieces that are meaningful to them. Tonight one woman has brought a beautiful black polished stone, adorned with a dragonfly mosaic. “It represents transformation,” she says.

The women (and occasionally men) settle into their chairs and I welcome them with the ringing of the bell. We sit quietly, focusing on our breath as we wait for the end of the rich tone. After the bell, a centring piece is read – a poem by Mary Oliver or a blessing by John O’Donohue. Then the talking piece is passed, and we share the details of how our weeks have gone – from the mundane to the profound. None of this is about writing, but it’s important nonetheless. Our writing voices emerge out of our personal stories and we know that those stories will feel more safe in a circle of people we trust. Only three weeks in, and we are already bonded, sharing increasingly more vulnerable stories with each other.

Next they begin to share the pieces they’ve been working on throughout the week. “I didn’t have much time,” one apologizes, or “it’s not very polished,” says another, or “it’s nothing great,” says yet another, and yet each time they share, I marvel at how profound and beautiful their simple offerings are. This week, they’ve written a dialogue between the voices in their heads – the one that wants something new and the one that’s resisting. Their individuality and shy dreams shine through their pieces.

Tonight we are exploring what voice means – both our own voices and the voices of those people and creatures we want to bring into our writing. I pull out a set of cards depicting forest creatures – the Elementals designed by my intuitive friend Thomas – and they are invited to write in the voice of the creature they see on the cards they select.

As they write, I boil water for tea. Tea goes well with writing and storytelling. There is silence in the room, each person wandering away from the space for awhile, imagining themselves in the forest with a mesmerizing creature that has a message meant just for them.

They share their pieces, surprised by how much wisdom flows out of them. Before long, the conversation has veered far away from writing. We’re talking about our connections to the earth, our secret longings, our hidden shame, our deepest fears. I say very little and offer only little guideposts to help them know the conversation is good and true and heading in the direction it’s meant to head in. In this moment, I am not teacher but host. It is their wisdom that is emerging – their truth, their gifts. I am here simply to help them unleash it.

As I listen, I find myself grinning at the beauty of this circle and all of the others like this that I have had the pleasure of hosting. Each offering I make, the right people show up, the right voices emerge, and the right truth is spoken. Always, the people that are drawn to what I offer are open-hearted and open-minded. They come because they want to learn and grow. They come because they are beginning to find the courage to explore and share their own stories. I am always fascinated by how unique and wise each person is.

Often, early in our time together, there is resistance in one or two of them, but usually by the end, the resistance has softened and openness has taken its place. Only once has someone stopped coming because she wasn’t prepare to process the depth of feelings that surfaced for her in the circle.

The evening ends quickly and they are given their next assignment. This week, they will write about place. They’ll find a place that feels meaningful to them and they’ll find the unique quality and voice of that place. I have no doubt that once again they’ll be surprised at what shows up in their writing.

One more time, the talking piece is passed, and we share what we learned or what intentions we wish to set for the week ahead. The bell is wrung one more time, and we begin to leave the circle and depart for our various homes.

I drive home, taking the long way through the park, savouring the magic of the night. This is my greatest dream coming true, circle by circle, story by story. I am honoured and blessed to be the host of so much goodness.

She’s holding my book

This morning, I had the sudden urge to watch the sun rise over Matthew’s grave. I’d been working on the re-write of my book and was thinking about him in the early hours of the morning. And so, before anyone else was awake, I headed to the graveyard.

Something caught my eye when I got there. A statue of a woman, only about 50 feet from Matthew’s grave. Though she stands about 15 feet high, I’d never really noticed her before.

I carried my camera across the snow and took a few pictures of her. I wasn’t sure who she was. Mary was my first thought, but then I puzzled over why she was holding a book and standing in front of a globe and a stack of books.

It wasn’t until I started walking away that I had a sudden realization… she’s holding a BOOK! I came here (like I’ve done many times) for guidance about a book. She’s holding MY book! Only, what came out of my mouth was…

“She’s holding MY FUCKING BOOK!” (Yes, I swore. It was one of those moments.)

What I wrote in my journal was: “Sophia God is holding my book. I guess I’d better trust her with it then.” And with that thought came a huge sense of release and comfort.

I don’t have to worry about my book, or about how I’ll get it published or whether people will want to buy it. It’s in God’s hands. All I have to do is show up and finish it.

I don’t know what the statue is meant to represent to other people who visit the grave, but I know what she means to me. And I can’t help but be amused at the way she remained hidden from me all these years, until now, when I’m standing on the precipice of finishing my book and getting it into print (my hope for 2012).

Sophia God has a sense of humour. And a lovely way of bringing surprise and wonder into our lives.

UPDATE: After I wrote this post, I opened my daily email from Fr. Richard Rohr. At first I skimmed it, thought it didn’t interest me, and ignored it. But then I opened another email from a friend who’d quoted Rohr’s email, so I re-opened it. Wouldn’t you know it… December 17th is the day associated with Sophia, feminine wisdom. Don’t you love synchronicity?

Today, December 17, (according to the Antiphons) begins with the letter S for sapientia. Wisdom—sophia in Greek, sapientia in Latin, sabiduria in Spanish—was the feminine metaphor for the Eternal Divine, as found especially in the books of Proverbs and Wisdom. One might partner or compare Sophia with Logos, which is the masculine metaphor for the Divine. It is interesting that Logos was used in John’s Gospel (1:9-14) and became the preferred tradition, but Sophia was seldom used outside of the monasteries. On December 17 we invoke the feminine image of God as Holy Wisdom. – Richard Rohr

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