Heather Plett https://heatherplett.com holding space for open hearts Fri, 21 Jul 2017 18:13:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 https://heatherplett.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/cropped-image-32x32.jpeg Heather Plett https://heatherplett.com 32 32 How to Hold Space for Children https://heatherplett.com/2017/07/hold-space-children/ https://heatherplett.com/2017/07/hold-space-children/#respond Fri, 21 Jul 2017 17:39:46 +0000 https://heatherplett.com/?p=33176 I swore I’d never write a parenting blog. Parenting feels like a lifelong experiment where the variables, subjects, and researchers keep changing so that there’s never any way to prove your hypotheses. Just when you’ve figured out that “Action A applied to Subject B results in Outcome C”, Subject B becomes a preteen and you get […]

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I swore I’d never write a parenting blog. Parenting feels like a lifelong experiment where the variables, subjects, and researchers keep changing so that there’s never any way to prove your hypotheses. Just when you’ve figured out that “Action A applied to Subject B results in Outcome C”, Subject B becomes a preteen and you get a whole different set of results. Suddenly the evening cuddles are rejected and you’re left sitting in the hallway in the cold.

And then there’s the issue of all of the baggage (self-doubt, fear, trauma, mental illness, etc.) that Researcher D brings to the experiment and suddenly you realize that Action A is never happening in a vacuum and you can’t isolate any of the variables to prove any of the results you thought you were seeing. Researcher D might in fact be sitting in that cold hallway feeling triggered because of their trauma memories of childhood rejection, which means that the cuddles were never just about Subject B.

No, I didn’t want to ever put myself in a position where I was pretending to know something about parenting because I was pretty sure at some point my children would prove my hypotheses wrong and I would have to eat my words. Or sit in the hallway picking up the pieces of my failed attempts.

But… people keep asking me for suggestions on how to hold space for their children, and I’d see the lost looks in their eyes and… well, I don’t want to give them advice, but I want to give them love. And I want to let them know they’re not alone. And I want to at least throw a lifeline in case they’re drowning.

So… what follows is not so much advice as it is a list of things that I find are helpful to consider when holding space for your children. I have three very different daughters, and I have to hold space quite differently for each of them, so these are generalizations rather than specifics. I’m still working on the experiment, so don’t attach any “expert” title to what is offered here. And if my children call to complain that what I say below is not always how I act, let them know that I love them and I’ll keep trying.

  1. Remember that your children are sovereign beings. Your children are not little versions of you. They are not even extensions of you. They are individual, sovereign beings, with personalities that are all their own. Yes, it is your privilege and responsibility to guide them and help them grow into responsible adults, but it is not your job to shape them into what YOU want them to become. Walk alongside them and delight in them as they discover who they are. When they reveal something about themselves that makes you genuinely uncomfortable because it’s so different from you or what you’re used to (eg. they want to move to an organic farm in the middle of nowhere and you’ve always loved your life in the suburbs), meet that revelation with curiosity and openness rather than judgement.
  2. Don’t take it personally. As your child is discovering who they are, they have to figure out who they’re not, and one of the things they’ll discover is that they are NOT their parents. That means that they’re going to need to push back against you sometimes and resist you and argue with you and probably even make fun of what you wear. It’s all part of their development. And it’s not about you. That doesn’t mean you have to tolerate disrespect, but when you discipline them, try to do it out of love for them rather than because you’re reacting to your feelings being hurt. (Yes, I said “try”, because every parent knows how hard it is to not be reactive when our feelings are genuinely hurt.)
  3. Don’t fix everything for them. They’re going to make mistakes. Let them. And then let them figure out how to recover from those mistakes. Resilience, recovery, and adaptability are some of the most valuable skills they’ll need in adulthood and if you don’t let them learn them in childhood, they’ll be much harder to develop later on. And when you’re tempted to fix everything for them, pay attention to what is behind your desire to be the fixer. Is it your ego that doesn’t want your children to look bad because it will make you look bad? Is it your nature to be overly associated with them and you take on too much of their pain as your own? You can stop them when they’re about to make really BIG mistakes (like driving home drunk), but if their mistakes won’t threaten anyone’s lives or cause your house to burn down, step back and allow them to happen.
  4. Don’t overpraise them. I know… you really, really want to encourage them and build their self-esteem and let them know what wonderful little people they are. But you’re not doing them any favours if you heap on the praise too liberally. Children get addicted to the praise and think their worth comes from it and then they can’t figure out how to find their own self-worth within themselves when nobody is telling them how great they are. And overly-praised children may not learn how to receive criticism in a healthy way because they’ve been so protected from it. Sometimes (especially when they get to be teenagers and they perfect the combo eye-roll-lip-sneer), they’ll feel patronized by your praise and push back against it because it doesn’t make them feel better about themselves. Pay attention to when your praise comes from a place of superiority.
  5. Apologize. You’re going to mess up. Every parent does, perhaps even on a daily basis. Sometimes you’ll snap at them because you come home exhausted and they greet you with their everlasting need and you just want a moment to yourself or A LITTLE APPRECIATION PLEASE. Sometimes you’ll use inappropriate humour and you’ll hurt their feelings. You’ll try hard not to do it again, but you’ll still slip up. And then you get the opportunity to model for them what it’s like to be a flawed human and how important it is to take responsibility for and apologize for your mistakes. Your apology lets them know that their feelings have value. They also let them know that it’s okay to screw up sometimes, as long as you take responsibility for it.
  6. Allow them to change. One day your child will love bacon and the next day they’ll swear off meat for the rest of their lives. One day they’ll want to tattoo “Sam is my BFF” on their arm, and then the next day they’ll be deleting Sam from Snapchat and throwing Sam’s birthday gift away. Children change. Every day. It’s hard to keep up. Sometimes you’re going to want to slow down the change, sometimes you’ll be tempted to make fun of them for being so wishy-washy, and sometimes you’ll resent how their changes are affecting your life. Take a deep breath and listen to what they’re telling you without reacting with the first judgemental or frustrated thing that comes out of your mouth. They’re SUPPOSED to change, because growth is what childhood is all about. Let them know they’re still safe with you even in the middle of their biggest transitions.
  7. Let them grow their lives outside of yours. From the day they’re born, a child will be gradually growing away from you. First there will be the time when they want to hold the spoon ALL BY THEMSELVES. Then there will be the time they choose to play with a friend instead of stay home with you. Then there will be the first sleepover at someone else’s house. And on and on until they leave home and forget to call. It’s a life-long practice in letting go. It’s a beautiful and painful thing. Let them go and let them know, from an early age, that they’re allowed to have fun without you, they’re allowed to have conversations that you’re not a part of, and they’re allowed to have space in their lives that their parents don’t enter without permission. It will feel lonely sometimes, and you’re going to want to invade their privacy, but unless you have genuine reason to worry about their safety or health (ie. you suspect they may be doing drugs), allow them the sovereignty and sacredness of their own diaries, their own bedrooms (when they’re old enough to look after them themselves), and their own friendships. Teach them early on that they are allowed to have boundaries and that consent is important.
  8. Shut up and listen. Oh how tempting it is to rush in with our wisdom every time our children say things that we understand better than they do! We know the RIGHT way to deal with a friend who betrays us, the RIGHT way to study for a test, the RIGHT way to talk to an annoying teacher… don’t we? We somehow get the mistaken impression that our job as parents is to teach our children everything we know from our vast storehouse of experience… but more often than not, what they REALLY want from us is listening and acceptance and love. If you’re lucky enough to have a child who tells you when their friend breaks their heart, don’t ruin the moment by rushing in with advice. Shut up and listen. Rather than bulldozing over their feelings with your solutions, let them know that their feelings are valid and that it really DOES suck to be betrayed.
  9. Treat each child the way they want and need to be treated. If you have more than one child, you may be surprised, like I was, just how different each one will turn out to be. My oldest daughter is an introverted marathon runner. My second daughter is extroverted and likes hiking and biking but HATES running. When I had a third I thought she’d come out like one or the other, but she’s another completely different personality with her own complexity. She hates biking, running AND hiking, but she’s a synchronized swimmer and she’s more of an ambivert (combination of introvert and extrovert). All three are prone to some anxiety, but their anxiety shows up in very different ways in response to very different stimuli. Not only are their interests and personalities different, but their needs are different too and I can’t hold space for one in the same way that I hold space for another. Remembering that they are all sovereign beings means that I have to be willing to be in relationship with each of them differently. That can be tough, especially when you’re also trying to be fair and equitable.
  10. Learn with them. Your children are going to bring challenges and adventures and learning opportunities into your life that you never imagined before. Don’t pretend you’ve already got it all figured out – learn with them. Get down to their level and figure out how to build a Lego castle with them and then celebrate your joint success. When they figure out technology much more quickly than you do (because it’s bound to happen), let them teach you what they’ve figured out. And when they discover a new hobby that they become passionate about, be curious about it and let them tell you about it, or sign up for classes with them (unless they want to do it without you – in that case, let them have that as their own hobby). And if, one day, your child tells you they are gay (as has happened to me), support them in discovering who they are and let them know that you are open to learning about this part of their identity. You’ll be surprised how much your world opens up when you invite your children to show you the world through their eyes.
  11. Delight in them. This might be an obvious one, but it seems worth saying anyway. Take delight in your children, in what makes them unique, and even in what makes them challenging. Let them know that you enjoy discovering who they are and watching them discover who they are. Surprise them with your willingness to drive across the city hunting for the perfect weird accessory for a costume they’re designing. Don’t indulge their every whim or be patronizing in your praise, but show support for their uniqueness and even their weirdness. Even if it means getting up at 5 in the morning to bike through the rain to the start of their marathon, just to stand there and watch them start, do it again and again and let them know they’re worth it.
  12. Let them challenge, correct, or disagree with you. When your daughter tells you that what you’re saying sounds very passive-aggressive and she doesn’t appreciate it, you might be tempted to lash back at her with “Don’t talk to me that way – I’M the parent here!” (Trust me on that one – I get called on it regularly.) But if you work to create an environment where everyone is allowed (and encouraged) to ask for what they need and create boundaries where they need them, then you need to be prepared for them to push back. If there is truth in what you’re saying, even if it hurts you, accept it and let them know that you’re listening. If you need to take a moment because you’ve been triggered and all you can feel is the pain, let them know that you need to step away for a moment and will come back to the conversation when you can do so calmly. This will create safety for everyone in the household to express their feelings and challenge those who hurt them.

And now, with some trepidation, I will release this to you, with this caveat: I have screwed up in every single one of the above points and will probably screw up again. And you will too. So let’s promise to forgive ourselves and not judge each other and keep trying and keep apologizing when we slip up. Parenting is the hardest job we’ll ever do and there is no roadmap. Every one of us is just making it up as we go along, so there’s no point in beating ourselves up over something we’ve never been taught to do or never been given an instruction manual for.

A messed up parent who apologizes and keeps on loving is better than no parent at all.

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In case you need more support in holding space for yourself and others, we’ll be talking about it at my upcoming retreats:

1. Nourish: A retreat for your body, mind, and spirit. Together with my friend and yoga teacher Joy, I’ll be co-hosting a holistic retreat in Manitoba, August 18-20. 

3. Holding Space for Yourself, Oct. 12-15 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia. (Early-bird registration ends July 31.)

4. Holding Space for Others, Oct. 18-22 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia. (Early-bird registration ends July 31.)

5. Space for an Open Heart, Oct. 27-29 at Kawai Purapura, Auckland, New Zealand. (Early-bird registration ends August 25.)

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What to do when your bowl is full https://heatherplett.com/2017/06/what-to-do-when-your-bowl-is-full/ https://heatherplett.com/2017/06/what-to-do-when-your-bowl-is-full/#comments Thu, 29 Jun 2017 18:53:06 +0000 https://heatherplett.com/?p=33157 When I spoke in Florida last month, I recounted a story of a time when I was getting too many requests from people who wanted me to hold space for them when I was personally depleted and had to start saying to people “I’m at capacity – you’ll have to find someone else to hold […]

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When I spoke in Florida last month, I recounted a story of a time when I was getting too many requests from people who wanted me to hold space for them when I was personally depleted and had to start saying to people “I’m at capacity – you’ll have to find someone else to hold space for you, or come back once I have replenished myself.”

I didn’t think, at the time, that I’d said anything particularly profound, until we broke for lunch and several people came up to me to say “Thank you for offering me that phrase, ‘I’m at capacity.’ I’m going to use that one in the future.”

A couple of weeks later, I was still getting emails about it, and almost every one mentioned how grateful they are to now have that phrase to use. For whatever reason, in that crowd of people who work with young people dealing with grief and trauma, that was what people most needed to hear.

When I teach about holding space for people, I talk about how holding space is like “being the bowl”, holding people gently and firmly, offering them containment and support, but not putting a lid on the bowl so that they have freedom and autonomy. Sometimes, though, that bowl gets full and we have no more space to offer people. That’s when we need a way to communicate to people…. “I’m at capacity.” 

That phrase can mean many things. It can mean that we have too much grief of our own to hold and we don’t have the strength to offer comfort to others. It can mean that we’re near exhaustion from holding space for too many people and our bowl is starting to show signs of wear and tear. In can mean that we recognize it’s a good time for us to “go dark” and not engage in anything but our own learning and growth for awhile.

When we say “I’m at capacity” we are under no obligation to explain to others what we mean. It often feels like a reflex to give a long explanation or over-apologize, but that’s usually a sign that we don’t feel that we deserve to take time for ourselves or that other people have more value than we do. Just like “no” is a complete answer, “I’m at capacity” is a complete answer.

Imagine if we could all wear some kind of symbol – a lapel pin of a bowl, for example, with the ability to adjust the fullness of the bowl – to let each other know how much capacity we currently have. If I see that your bowl is full, I might ask what I could carry on your behalf. If your bowl is empty, I might ask if you’ve got a moment to listen to a story I just need someone to hold space for.

What we often don’t recognize when we are considering our own capacity is how much energy our emotional labour requires. One of the functions of growing up in an era of industrialization and capitalism is that we value money, productivity, and material goods over less tangible things like emotional labour, so we don’t have any understanding of how to measure the emotional labour that may be exhausting us.

For those dealing with depression, for example, it requires an immense amount of emotional labour just to get out of bed in the morning and smile at your kids over breakfast. You will probably reach capacity far sooner than other people. For those supporting parents with dementia, it can require vast storehouses of emotional labour to show up every day and put up with possible abuse from formerly loving parents. Your capacity beyond that will be limited. For those wrestling with addiction, all of your emotional labour is probably going into resisting the next temptation. For those working in classrooms with children with learning disabilities, you may have reached your emotional labour capacity by 3 p.m. and have nothing left to cook a healthy supper in the evening. For those living in poverty or fighting the oppression of racism, homophobia, or ablism, all of your emotional labour might be spent in simply trying to survive in a world not designed with you in mind.

When someone tells us, in whatever language they choose to use, that they are at capacity, we must simply believe them because we don’t know how much energy it takes to live life in their bodies. And when we need to say “I am at capacity”, we have a right to be believed and not questioned for how weak or selfish we may be. 

This summer, I’ll be using that phrase regularly to let people know when I need to step away. If for example, you sent me an email and I haven’t yet gotten back to me, it’s not because I haven’t read it or don’t want to engage with you, it’s because it sometimes takes a lot of emotional labour to get through all of the beautiful and openhearted emails people send me. (Thank you! I always read them!) If you want to hire me as a coach but noticed that my door is closed for the summer, that’s because “I’m at capacity” creating the content and holding space for my coach/facilitator program. If you notice that my response time is slower on social media, it may be because “I’m at capacity” and have gone off on vacation with my daughters.

Try it for yourself. The next time someone asks for something you know will require too much energy or emotional labour on your part, simply say “I’m at capacity.” It’s not unkind to say so – it’s simply a way to care for your own storehouse of energy.

P.S. If your container is full, perhaps you need a retreat to help you hold it all? Consider coming to Nourish in August.

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This body, without the triumphant narrative https://heatherplett.com/2017/06/body-without-triumphant-narrative/ https://heatherplett.com/2017/06/body-without-triumphant-narrative/#comments Thu, 15 Jun 2017 02:39:07 +0000 https://heatherplett.com/?p=33143 I am fat. Let’s get that out of the way first. At least 60-70 pounds over what would be considered my “ideal weight”. Probably more, but I don’t own a scale.  I don’t love this about myself, but it’s part of my story. It has been, to varying degrees, all of my adult life. Yes, […]

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I am fat. Let’s get that out of the way first. At least 60-70 pounds over what would be considered my “ideal weight”. Probably more, but I don’t own a scale. 

I don’t love this about myself, but it’s part of my story. It has been, to varying degrees, all of my adult life.

Yes, there are reasons why I am fat. Maybe it’s thyroid related. Maybe it’s trauma related. Maybe it’s far too much self-soothing with food. Maybe it’s the way I always found it easier to value my brain over my body. Maybe it’s the religious shame that told me my body is a sin. Maybe it’s about me trying to protect myself from being raped again. Maybe it’s the pussy grabbing. Maybe it’s a lifelong battle against a patriarchal world that wants to label me, shame me, and force my body to conform. Maybe it’s all of those things.

Whatever it is, it’s my story. It’s the most visible story because I carry it with me every single day, but it’s also the hardest to talk about. It carries the most shame and fear of judgement, not because I think I’m bad or ugly or don’t love myself (I do), but because fat is one of the most unacceptable things to be in this image-obsessed world. It’s one of the hardest to live with, because there is always the assumption that it is “your fault”.

I’ve done enough public story-sharing to know that there will inevitably be those people who will read my story and judge me and/or want to fix me and send me the right diet, the right thyroid cure, the right books, the right self-love teachings, the right exercise plan, etc. They’ll tell themselves they’re doing it with my best interests at heart (don’t I want to live a long life? don’t I want to be a good influence for my children?), but they’re really not. They’re doing it because of their own discomfort with fatness.

And so I keep my fat stories close to my chest.

But this week, thanks to Roxane Gay, I feel differently. I feel like I want to add my voice to hers and say “We’re fat. Get over it.”

“Fat is not an insult. It is a descriptor. And when you interpret it as an insult, you reveal yourself and what you fear most.” – RG

Roxane Gay wrote a book called Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s high on my list of “must read soon”. In it she shares what it’s like to walk around in the world as a fat person.

Coming out with her story should be liberating and empowering for Roxane (and I hope it is, for the most part) but this week, she was fat-shamed by one of the interviewers who talked to her about the book. Mia Freedman introduced the podcast by talking about the detailed preparations that had to be made for Roxanne Gay to visit her recording studio. “Will she fit into the office lift? How many steps will she have to take to get to the interview? Is there a comfortable chair that will accommodate her six-foot-three, ‘super-morbidly obese’ frame?”

The article made my blood boil. An interviewer should be honoured and humbled that someone of Roxane Gay’s stature (and by that I don’t mean size) and wisdom would visit the program. She’s one of the finest writers I know of and the fact that she is willing to share her vulnerable stories with people should be seen as a gift beyond measure. To shame someone who has done that kind of emotional labour on other people’s behalf is unconscionable and downright disgusting.

I was angry, but I was also triggered. I haven’t been the target of such overt and public fat-shaming, but I know what it’s like to have people look at you funny if you dare to eat french fries in public. And I know how it feels to have people on planes glance at you with a look that says they’re hoping they’re not seated next to you. And I know what it’s like to be hesitant to ride your bicycle around the neighbourhood because you’re pretty sure people are judging you.

Here’s a newsflash in case this comes as a surprise… Fat people know they’re fat. And we don’t need pity or advice or judgement. And there is absolutely nothing a stranger could say to us that would suddenly make us able to change the size of our bodies. Every piece of advice on getting thinner is already available to us. Every bit of shame anyone’s tempted to heap on us, we’ve probably already heaped on ourselves.

We’re not fat because we’re not smart enough, don’t try hard enough, or haven’t been shamed enough for it. We’re fat because… well, because we’re fat. That’s about all anyone other then us and perhaps our most intimate circle of friends, family, or medical professionals (if we so choose) needs to know about us.

We might choose, like Roxane Gay, to offer up a story to help people understand why we’re fat, but we do not owe that story to anyone. When we choose to be vulnerable about it, that is our gift, not our obligation.

After reading the story about Mia Freedman, I watched an interview Roxane Gay did with Trevor Noah. In it she talked about how her weight started accumulating after she was gang-raped as a young teenager. And then she said something profound that goes beyond just a story about weight.

“People want a triumphant narrative. They want to know that you have solved the problem of your body. But my body is not a problem and it’s certainly not something I have solved yet.”

Indeed. We want the triumphant narrative. We want to hear stories of success – of how a simple diet or lifestyle change transformed someone’s life – so that we can believe that success is possible and there are neat bows that can be tied around a story to clean up the messy bits in the middle.

But we don’t always get the triumphant narrative. Sometimes we get continued struggle. And sometimes we get to a place of acceptance of what is rather than a triumph over it.

I have been struggling with that triumphant narrative this past year. Though I didn’t know it consciously, I had subconsciously bought into the typical health and wellness coaching narrative that leads us to believe that when we find contentment and healing in our lives and once we get rid of the external baggage that was weighing us down, we’ll start to lose pounds off our bodies as well. “Clear out the bad energy and your body will respond accordingly.”

I’m the happiest and healthiest I’ve been in a long time. A LOT has shifted for me emotionally in the two years since my marriage ended. I got rid of a lot of clutter (both physical and emotional) when I cleaned out and renovated my home. My business has grown and I’m doing work that I love and that I’m fulfilled by. I’ve been for therapy and I’ve done lots of energy and body healing work. I’m learning to pay attention to my body in new ways. I’m in such a good place, I almost feel guilty sometimes about how good my life is.

But… I am also the heaviest I’ve ever been. Heavier than I was when I was pregnant with my daughters. And that doesn’t make sense in a world that wants a triumphant narrative.

There’s a part of me that doesn’t know how to square that away in my mind. Shouldn’t all of that effort to heal my emotional wounds result in a slimmer body? If I gained the weight because of the trauma and wounds, shouldn’t it come off now?

But there’s another part of me – the part that has sat at the bedside and watched my mother die, the part that held my dead son’s body in my arms, and the part that knows that rapists climb through windows – that knows that the triumphant narrative is, more often than not, bull shit. 

Sure we get triumph sometimes, but we also get pain and failure.

Perhaps the direct correlation between the healing and the weight loss is just another one of those marketing stories the health coaches want to sell us. Maybe it’s a lot more complicated than that. Otherwise… wouldn’t Oprah, with all of her experts and money, have figured out how to keep it all off permanently by now?

What I keep coming back to is this… Acceptance and resilience are worth a lot more than triumph. 

Sure, triumph is flashy and alluring, but acceptance and resilience are a lot more valuable in the long run. Acceptance and resilience bring contentment and teach us how to get through the fire the next time it comes.

That’s the part I’m working on. I am accepting this fat body that still loves to ride a bicycle through the neighbourhood. I am accepting the amazing way this body knows how to birth babies even when they’re dead. I am accepting the pain this body is capable of holding. I am accepting the fact that this body loves pleasure and comfort and good food and good wine. I am accepting the way it feels when my beloveds wrap their arms around this body. And I am accepting the fact that there are still emotional wounds that this body is holding that may take all of my life to heal.

Because this body may be fat, but this body is also powerful and fierce and has climbed mountains, wielded hammers, birthed babies, carried canoes, held crying children, hiked through forests, slept on the bare ground, skinny-dipped in wild lakes, made love, survived rape,  and rode horses. 

And this body will continue to do all those things for as long as she can no matter how much judgement comes her way.

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When you find it (on finding home in an auditorium in Florida) https://heatherplett.com/2017/06/find-finding-home-auditorium-florida/ https://heatherplett.com/2017/06/find-finding-home-auditorium-florida/#respond Thu, 01 Jun 2017 18:48:29 +0000 https://heatherplett.com/?p=33120 “It’s a long and rugged road and we don’t now where it’s headed But we know it’s going to get us where we’re going And when we find what we’re looking for we’ll drop these bags and search no more ‘Cuz it’s going to feel like heaven when we’re home It’s going to feel like […]

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“It’s a long and rugged road
and we don’t now where it’s headed
But we know it’s going to get us where we’re going
And when we find what we’re looking for
we’ll drop these bags and search no more
‘Cuz it’s going to feel like heaven when we’re home
It’s going to feel like heaven when we’re home.”
– From the song Heaven When We’re Home, by the Wailin’ Jennys

Last week, I found home in Florida, and, like the song says, it felt like heaven.

No, I’m not planning to move there any time soon (I’m not sure this Canadian girl could handle the humidity), but I found home nonetheless.

That home was in front of 175 people teaching a workshop on Holding Space through Grief and Trauma (see above photo). I taught the whole workshop, from 9 to 3:30, without any notes (other than my Powerpoint slides) – because this is my home. This is my work. This is the lifeblood that runs through my veins. The next day I taught two half-day workshops on The Circle Way and it was the same.

I know this material and these stories so well, have spoken and written about them so many times, that notes are no longer necessary. I can stand in front of 175 strangers and feel energized and a little nervous but still perfectly at home.

Some people call it a divine assignment, some people call it a calling, some call it your life’s purpose. In some Indigenous cultures, it’s referred to as your “original medicine” – the unique gift that you and only you can offer toward the healing of the world.

Whatever you call it, when you find it, you feel like you have finally come home.

Here’s what I know about finding it:

  1. Home is a lot more beautiful when you’ve taken a journey away from it. I spent many years doing work that didn’t feel like home, but that was all part of the quest that helped me find it. The more work I did that didn’t feel like “my work” the more clear I became about what I was looking for. A few days ago, I heard a chef on The Chef’s Table say that he’s known he’d be a chef since he was 14 years old. I’m intrigued by that kind of clarity, but that’s not the journey that was meant for me. There’s no way I could have imagined the work I do now when I was 14 – I had to take the long journey to get here.
  2. The quest for home will take you through “alien lands”. I couldn’t say it better than Parker Palmer does: “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.” There are many out there who are selling very tempting “trouble-free travel packages”, but what you’ll get from them is an empty shell of what you’re really meant to find in your life. Take the “road less traveled”. It’s risky, but it’s real.
  3. The path through the “darkness and peril” builds your resilience and helps you to eventually see the light. It was when I learned to surrender to the darkness and begin to see the purpose and meaning of it that I finally started to find the clarity I was seeking. I can only teach about topics like grief and trauma and the liminal space because I learned to navigate those worlds myself, and I could only learn to navigate them when I stopped resisting them. Wherever you are now, there is meaning in it and there are lessons to be learned from even the hardest moments.
  4. It all matters. Even those long years of doing work that didn’t feel connected to me mattered. I honed my communication skills writing speeches for politicians and government officials. I learned storytelling traveling to developing countries and telling the stories of the non-profit organization I worked for. I learned how to create enough content for a full day workshop when I was teaching courses in Writing for Public Relations at the university. It may not have been the content I wanted to speak or write about, but those were the skills I needed for what I now do.
  5. A true purpose includes generosity and responsibility toward others. If you live a self-absorbed life, you will be forever searching for the meaning of it. Look beyond yourself to find your purpose. “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how”. ― Viktor E. Frankl
  6. Many will never understand your quest or your purpose. Last week, crossing the border into the U.S., I was held up for an hour (and nearly refused entry), trying to explain my work to a confused border agent who couldn’t find an appropriate category in his big binder full of visa information. I get the same kind of confusion from lawyers, accountants, friends, family, etc. I used to think I just needed the right “elevator speech”, but no matter what I tried, there were always people who gave me confused looks. I gave up on the elevator speech and simply learned to accept that the work I’ve been called to doesn’t fit well with cocktail party small talk or border crossings.
  7. The right people will get it. It doesn’t take long to figure out whether a seat mate on the airplane, a participant at a workshop, or another parent on the soccer field is on a similar quest as I am on. If I speak words like “holding space” or “The Circle Way” and their eyes light up, I know we’ll be able to have a meaningful conversation. In Florida, those 175 people, who mostly support children in grief and trauma, stayed with me through every word. When that happens, it doesn’t really matter how many confused looks there were until that point.
  8. It will take a lot out of you and it will give a lot back. Whenever I finish doing work that really matters – like that workshop in Florida – I am both exhausted and invigorated. Though it flows with ease when I am doing the right work, it is far from easy. It’s true that I didn’t need notes up there, but that’s because I was sharing from such a deep and intimate place of my own stories of grief and trauma that notes are unnecessary. My heart was being poured out in front of 175 people. I do it out of pure love, but I know that this kind of work must be followed by a few days of rest and solitude.
  9. Desire is a guide even when you try to deny it. I had a lot of baggage around my desire to stand in front of a crowd of people speaking of things that were important to me. “It must be my pride that yearns for the spotlight,” I convinced myself. I needed to be more humble than that. I should be happy being in the background. But as much as I tried to deny it, it’s where I felt called to be and now, because I learned to silence those voices that told me I was wrong to want it, I can stand there and feel at home. “To have a desire in life literally means to keep your star in sight, to follow a glimmer, a beacon, a disappearing will-o’-the-wisp over the horizon into some place you cannot yet fully imagine. A deeply held desire is a star that is particularly your own, it might disappear for awhile, but when the skies clear we catch sight of it again and recognize the glimmer.” – David Whyte
  10. When you find it, it’s even better than you imagined it would be. I have had lots of discouraging days along this journey, lots of times when I thought I was deluding myself, and lots of times when I started looking for other work because it was all taking far too long. But now? I can hardly believe how lucky I am. I have moments of pure joy that are unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Who knew that speaking on topics like grief and trauma could be so invigorating? Just as I surrendered to and learned from the darkness and the grief, I am surrendering to and learning from the light and the joy.

After the workshops were finished, I stayed in Florida a few extra days to spend some focused time creating the content for my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, and once again, in my little Airbnb room close to the ocean, writing in solitude, I was home. Because my calling is not to stand in front of a room of hundreds – my calling is to teach, in whatever form it takes, this work that feeds my soul and invites me to feed other souls.

“I’m not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead – ahead of myself as well as you.” – George Bernard Shaw

I hope that you find it too – the place that calls you, the work that whispers to you in your quietest moments. I hope that your own long journey is worth it and that you relish the joy that and healing that can come when you find home.

* * * *

If you need some inspiration, here are a few books that inspired me along the way:
– Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation – by Parker Palmer
– Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity – by David Whyte
– Flow: The Psychology of Ultimate Experience – by Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi
– Man’s Search for Meaning – by Viktor E. Frankl
– Body of Work: Finding the Thread that Ties Your Story Together, by Pam Slim
– Making a Living Without a Job: Winning Ways for Creating Work you Love – by Barbara Winter

* * * *

One of my upcoming retreats might also help you find it: 

1. Openhearted Writing Circle, June 11 – a day retreat in Winnipeg, Manitoba. There is still space available.
2. Nourish: A retreat for your body, mind, and spirit. Together with my friend and yoga teacher Joy, I’ll be co-hosting a holistic retreat in Manitoba, August 18-20. 
3. Holding Space for Yourself, Oct. 12-15 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia
4. Holding Space for Others, Oct. 18-22 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia
5. Space for an Open Heart, Oct. 27-29 at Kawai Purapura, Auckland, New Zealand

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Unclear vision and a fragile thread https://heatherplett.com/2017/04/unclear-vision-fragile-thread/ https://heatherplett.com/2017/04/unclear-vision-fragile-thread/#comments Thu, 27 Apr 2017 22:11:15 +0000 https://heatherplett.com/?p=32962 The post Unclear vision and a fragile thread appeared first on Heather Plett.

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The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

~ William Stafford ~

In order to ensure that Theseus would find his way back out of the labyrinth (which he entered in order to slay the minotaur and free his people), Ariadne gave him a ball of thread that he could unravel on the way in and follow on the way out.

Much of my life feels like a version of Theseus’ journey and Stafford’s poem. I’ve been following a thread that’s hard for others to see, but that keeps me from getting lost even when tragedies happen and people get hurt. Stumbling through a dark labyrinth, I often can’t see more than five feet in front of me, but I can feel the light touch of the thread in my hand that invites me forward.

A conversation with a client yesterday reminded me of this thread and how it has sustained me over the years. She was lamenting the fact that, unlike others who seem so focused on their goals, she could never see a clear vision for her life or her work. She had lots of interests and passion, but couldn’t seem to shape those into a business plan or “elevator speech” that would help her make sense of her work to other people. On top of that, grief had rearranged her recently, so she barely recognized herself some days.

The conversation reminded of the time, five years ago, when I was in a similar place. Back in 2012, when I was still struggling to make this business viable, my mom was dying and my marriage was crumbling. I was afraid, angry, and lost. Any vision I thought I’d had for my unfolding future seemed like nothing more than a mirage that had vanished from the horizon. I’d started looking for part time work, afraid I was failing at self-employment because I hadn’t mastered those things the business experts tell you to do, like envisioning my target audience, having clear goals, or writing solid business plans.

Up until that time, I’d often made vision boards, like many good life coaches do, collecting and collaging visual images that represent my unfolding vision. But that process, like so many others, had failed me. No matter how many vision boards I made, my work still felt unfocused and my future was still a mirage. The pending death of my mom and my marriage only compounded the situation.

Frustrated and angry, and feeling betrayed by the practices I’d adopted and coached other people to use, I turned to destruction. I started tearing up maps. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Tearing up old maps can feel surprisingly cathartic when there’s no roadmap for the journey you’re traveling along. I tore and I placed and I glued. I shredded roads and lined them up with wasteland. I tore up countries and provinces. I cut lakes in half. I destroyed international borders. I had no idea what was emerging, but it felt good to destroy.

What emerged from that was the most helpful collage I’ve ever made – my lack-of-vision board. (The above image.) It was messy and beautiful, with glimpses of the thread I keep hanging onto even when I couldn’t see my way out of the labyrinth.

I’ve never made another vision board since. The lack-of-vision board works better for me – helping me sit in the messiness and practice mindfulness even when I feel lost. The vision board always felt a little forced – like I was trying to bash down the walls of the labyrinth so that I could see where the path was going to take me. Instead, my practice is to hold the thread lightly in my hand and trust that one foot in front of another is the only way to follow the path.

Now, when I look back at the development of my work, I can see that moments like this, when I tore up the map and made meaning out of the mess, were the pivotal moments when my real work was emerging. I was learning to surrender to the liminal space. I was letting go of the vision I thought I should have and letting go of the way I thought I should do my work (in other words, the ways that seemed conventionally acceptable). Instead, I was learning to trust the path as it emerged from the shadows in front of me.

When I coach people now, it looks different from what it did in those early days. I’ve let go of many of the conventions of what coaching is supposed to be and I’ve learned that those liminal spaces are where the really important work happens. 

Many in the personal development field want to rush you through those places and into more productivity, light and positive thoughts, but my work is different from that. It’s about holding space for people while they learn to sit with the questions and work through their discomfort with the liminal space.

I couldn’t always tell you what the thread was, back in those moments when I felt lost and confused, but now, when I look back at the places I’ve been, I can see that the thread was there and it helped me get to where I am now. The thread finally became clear when, after my mom died, I wrote the blog post about holding space that went viral and changed my work forever.

All of that time when I was walking through loss and grief and liminal space, I was doing the hard learning that brought me to where I am now.Surrendering to the experience is what allowed me to develop the body of work that is now emerging in my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. Though none of it felt focused at the time, and, as Stafford says, “people wondered about what I was pursuing,” in retrospect I can see that it all threaded together and made a remarkable amount of sense.

Preparing this program has felt like stepping out of the labyrinth into a clear sunny day.

I had to go through all of that to see that what I was meant to develop was not the same kind of coaching or facilitation work that has become common in the personal development world. It is something different, something deeper – something that doesn’t run from complexity, grief, or discomfort but learns to make meaning of it instead.

This work is counter-cultural and doesn’t always make sense in a culture that values linear progress and simple answers, but it’s clear that it responds to a hunger people hardly know they have. When people finally give themselves permission to feel lost, and they no longer feel so alone in the lostness, there’s a new light in their eyes that wasn’t there before.

I am looking forward to working with the participants of the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, because I know that they will bring much wisdom and curiosity to the work. Those who join me will be people who, like me, have walked through pain and grief and despair and have found the source of their own resilience. They will be people who’ve learned to sit with the questions without rushing to find answers. They will be meaning-makers and mystics who embrace the mystery and complexity of life. They will be those who understand what it’s like to stumble through the labyrinth, trusting that the fragile thread in their hand will guide them through the darkness.

This is not a linear path we’re on and there are no easy answers, but when you follow the thread, you can find your way through. Join me?

* * * * *

The Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program is a new online training program, built in a modular way that offers something for everyone who holds space. Register now for the first session which begins May 29th.

If you are looking for coaching for your own liminal space, sign up now as I will only be receiving new clients for the next 2 weeks. After that, the doors will be closed for several months while I work on the new training program.

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Hold your tongue and offer your heart instead https://heatherplett.com/2017/04/hold-tongue-offer-heart-instead/ https://heatherplett.com/2017/04/hold-tongue-offer-heart-instead/#comments Wed, 12 Apr 2017 17:13:03 +0000 https://heatherplett.com/?p=32755 The post Hold your tongue and offer your heart instead appeared first on Heather Plett.

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When my mom was dying of cancer, I occasionally got messages from well-meaning people who wanted to offer what they thought was valuable information about how mom could cure her cancer. Eat raw food, take more vitamin C, stop drinking milk – all of those suggestions and more showed up in my inbox.

After Mom died, I got messages from other well-meaning people who thought they knew how I should deal with my grief. One person even reprimanded me for sharing my grief as openly as I did on my blog. She thought that I, as a public person, had an obligation to my readers to write with more positivity. She was also afraid that I would “attract” more bad things in my life if I prolonged the grief and didn’t think more positive thoughts.

I had the same reaction every time unsolicited advice showed up – I bristled. When I’m feeling emotionally grounded, I can brush off those things that don’t feel helpful, but when I’m vulnerable, as I was then, I tend to bristle.

The advice didn’t have the intended impact. It made me feel small and judged. It made me feel like others knew how to “do grief” or “fix cancer” or even support my mother better than I did. 

I worked through those reactions, and then I wrote a blog post called “My heart is broken, but please don’t try to fix it.” Grief, after all, is not something that can be “fixed” with platitudes and second-hand advice. It’s a journey we all must take in our own way. And I wasn’t about to quit talking about it, even when the Law of Attraction was waved in front of me like a red flag at a race track. My grief was an honouring of the relationship I had with Mom, not an invitation to the Universe to send more bad things my way. (I got a similar reprimand when I shared about my marriage ending.)

Recently, I shared an article called “Don’t tell cancer patients what they could be doing to cure themselves” on social media, and several people shared their own stories of how people responded to their cancer, MS, or other chronic illnesses. One person even heard that their cancer was an invitation for them to repent of their sins. It seems there’s always someone with an answer to every ailment. (I heard something similar when my third pregnancy suddenly went wrong – that it might be a judgement of some kind – or at least God trying to get my attention.)

Does unsolicited advice ever help fix a problem? I can’t think of a single time that it has. For the most part, I think that all of us do the same thing when we’re feeling vulnerable and someone tells us how to fix our problem – we bristle. And then we reject the advice.

Because even if the advice is really good, it feels like violence. It feels like judgement. It feels like shame. It feels like someone is telling us that they’d be so much better at handling our problems than we are.

“Talking at someone with cancer about what they should do, rather than being with them in a morass with no easy answers, is not you helping them. It is you unfairly shaming them for having failed at self-help, which isn’t even a thing.” – Steven W. Thrasher

Perhaps you’re one of those people who can’t resist offering unsolicited advice. I feel your pain – I’m often that person too. I have to bite my tongue sometimes in the face of someone else’s struggle. It can be SO HARD to sit with the messiness and not offer something that we’re SO SURE could be the answer to the problem.

But unsolicited advice isn’t really about the person we’re offering it to – it’s about US. It’s about our own need to be the hero, to be the fixer, to be useful. We prop up our own self esteem by being the person with the solutions.

Fixing other people’s problems even when they don’t ask us to is also about our discomfort with being in the messiness and leaving things unresolved. If we can offer a solution that fixes another person’s problem, then we can live in an illusion that the world makes sense – that A+B=C, that every question has an answer, every illness has a cure, and everything broken can be fixed.

Recently I interviewed Grace Quantock, who lives with disability and chronic illness, for The Helpers’ Circle. Grace shared a story of a raw food party she went to, where, one by one, people who discovered she had a chronic illness sat with her and pried into her eating habits, trying to find out how faithfully she followed a raw food diet. Each of these people was trying to find the one thing she was doing “wrong” so that they could protect themselves from what she was dealing with. They were so certain that a raw food diet was the answer that her illness was incongruent. If she was doing something wrong, then they could return to their illusion.

Parker Palmer shared a story of how people were eager to try to find a solution for him when he was going through his first experience of clinical depression. Well-meaning people told him to spend more time outdoors, while others tried to boost his self-esteem. The advice backfired – leaving him more depressed than he was before.

“Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.” – Parker Palmer

It feels so much easier to offer a fix and then walk away with our illusion of a world that makes sense than it does to sit in the messiness and be a witness. But what your friend really needs is not your answer – they need your presence. They need you to show up and hold space.

They need you to hold your tongue and offer your heart instead.

The next time you’re tempted to offer advice that wasn’t asked for, take a deep breath and exhale slowly. While you do, ask yourself what your friend REALLY needs and give them that instead. Even silence is better than the wrong words.

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Forgiveness and the death of my son https://heatherplett.com/2017/03/forgiveness-death-son/ https://heatherplett.com/2017/03/forgiveness-death-son/#comments Wed, 29 Mar 2017 17:06:10 +0000 http://heatherplett.com/?p=30827 The post Forgiveness and the death of my son appeared first on Heather Plett.

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Matthew's clothes

Handmade clothes my son’s body was dressed in after he was born.

If it hadn’t been for doctors’ errors, I would have a sixteen-year-old son.

Halfway through my third pregnancy, I could sense that something was wrong. My body didn’t feel right. “I feel like I have to re-adjust my hips every time I stand up to avoid the baby dropping from between my legs,” I said to my doctor when I called her. “Something feels too loose down there.”

She sent me to the hospital where an intern taped monitors to my stomach and I lay waiting for the prognosis. “Everything looks normal,” said the intern. “The baby is moving well and the heartbeat is strong. I’ve consulted with your doctor and we’ve decided that there is not enough of an indication of a problem to do an internal exam. At this point in the pregnancy, the risks of that kind of invasiveness don’t seem worth it.”

That was the first mistake. They should have checked my cervix.

A week later, I booked some time off work and visited another hospital for a routine, mid-pregnancy ultrasound. The moment the technician turned the screen away from me, I knew something was wrong. The sudden subdued tone in her voice confirmed my suspicion. An hour later, after an awkward call with my doctor, leaning over the receptionist’s desk and trying not to cry, I was on my way back to the hospital where they would now address the problem that had been missed the week before.

My cervix was open. The signals that my body had sent me were accurate – I WAS too loose down there. I was already four centimetres dilated – four months too soon.

After a variety of doctors visited and asked me the same series of questions over and over again, I finally found myself at a third hospital where I was placed into the hands of the only specialist in the city who had the skill to deal with my problem. That evening, Dr. M. spent nearly two hours explaining the situation to my husband and me.

I had an incompetent cervix. Though it had held firmly through my first two pregnancies, like a rubber band that has lost its elasticity, it no longer had the strength to hold itself closed for the nine months it was required to hold a baby in place. Nobody had an explanation – apparently it just happens sometimes. Because it had been open for awhile, the amniotic sac was bulging out of the gap, which is why I’d been feeling the discomfort a week earlier.

The next morning, after a fitful night that included a panic attack after I listened to the frantic sounds of another mother down the hall giving birth to a dead baby, I was wheeled into the surgical theatre where I was to undergo a cerclage. Like the drawstring of a purse, the doctor would stitch a strong thread through my cervix and then pull it closed, simultaneously pushing the amniotic sac back behind the barrier.

After I was prepped for surgery, Dr. M. entered the room with a young intern. It was a teaching hospital, so I was getting used to students following the teacher around. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Instead of Dr. M., it was the young intern who picked up the needle and stepped between my legs.

Dr. M. read the concern on my face. “Often it’s actually better to have the more experienced doctor watching and guiding rather than doing the stitching,” he reassured me. “It will be okay. She’ll do a fine job.”

That was the second mistake. Minutes later, the faces of both the intern and Dr. M. told me something had gone horribly wrong. “Pull it out,” said Dr. M. “We have to abandon surgery.”

The amniotic sac had been pierced by the needle she was using for the cerclage. My water was now broken. My baby was no longer protected. I would probably go into labour soon and deliver a baby too tiny to survive.

To the surprise of all of the doctors, I didn’t go into labour right away. In fact, hours stretched into days, and the baby seemed to be thriving despite the lack of amniotic fluid or protection from the outside world. Dr. M. watched vigilantly, doing two ultrasounds a day to make sure all of the baby’s organs were functioning properly.

After the failed surgery, I had another fitful night in which I wrestled with the demons that wanted to convince  me to point the blame at the doctors. “It’s their fault,” they shrieked in my ear as I fought through the anxiety. “If they had checked you a week ago, or if Dr. M. had done the surgery, you wouldn’t be in this situation, expecting your baby to die at any moment.”

But there was another voice – a quieter voice – underneath the anger and fear. This voice said “You have a choice to make. Blame the doctors and let the bitterness control you, or let it go and choose a more peaceful way through this.” By morning, I had made a choice. I would let it go. Bitterness wouldn’t do me or my baby any good. I wanted to choose life.

The next day, Dr. M. came to see me and at the end of our visit, he paused for a moment. “The intern would like to come see you. She feels horrible about what happened and would like a chance to apologize. Will you see her?”

I took a deep breath. Was I ready to see her?

“Yes,” I said. “I’ll see her.”

A few hours later, she walked into the room. Her eyes filled with tears as she blurted out an awkward apology.

“I know you were doing your best,” I said, “and you made a mistake. I don’t hold that against you. Don’t let this ruin your career as a doctor. Learn from it and keep doing better.”

For much of the next three weeks in the hospital, I felt surprisingly peaceful. I started a gratitude journal and I had many long, luxurious conversations with the friends and family that came to visit. I joked with people who commented on my peaceful appearance that my hospital stay felt a little like being in an ashram – a retreat space away from my busy life that gave me time to reflect on the meaning of my life.

At the end of those three weeks, though, my peaceful state met the crashing waves of despair. I went downstairs for my morning ultrasound visit and discovered that my baby had died during the night. A few hours later, I had to go through the excruciating pain of labour and delivery, knowing the outcome was a dead baby. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done.

As I prepared to go home from the hospital, my breasts filling with milk my son would never drink, I checked in with myself about the choice I’d made three weeks earlier. Now that my baby was dead, could I still forgive the doctors for their mistakes? The stakes were higher – could I make the choice again? Yes, I decided that I could. Choosing not to let go would be to choose bitterness and hatred. I wanted to choose peace and forgiveness. I made that choice again and again in the coming months as the waves of grief came.

IMG_8303This week, I’ve been reading Wilma Derksen’s new book, The Way of Letting Go, about her thirty-two year journey to forgiveness after her thirteen-year-old daughter’s murder. The term forgive, she says, derives from ‘to give’ or ‘to grant,’ as in ‘to give up.’ Forgiveness is the process of letting go. It “isn’t a miracle drug to mend all broken relationships but a process that demands patience, creativity, and faith.”

I’ve known about Wilma since the story of her daughter Candace’s disappearance erupted in the media, five months after I graduated from high school (in 1984). Seven weeks after the disappearance, Candace’s body was found in a shed just a few blocks from her home.

A few years ago, I heard Wilma give a TEDx talk about forgiveness. What stood out about that talk was that, during the trial of the man accused of murdering Candace, Wilma realized that she could not hold both love and justice in her heart in equal measure. Though she longed for justice for Candace’s sake, for the sake of the family that was still with her, she chose love.

After hearing her speak, I reached out to Wilma and we have since become friends. Last year, while she was working on the book, she invited me to lunch to explore the idea of me being a guest speaker at a class she was teaching about forgiveness. Over lunch, she told me about how she had, after more than thirty years of processing her own forgiveness over the murder of her daughter, come to a somewhat different conclusion about forgiveness than what we’d both been taught in our religious upbringing. As she says in the book, it’s a long journey of letting go and making the choice, again and again, to choose love and life, just as I’d done in the hospital. It’s not about denying that you feel anger and hatred or that you want justice, but it’s a conscious choice not to let those things control you. 

Toward the end of our lunch date, I decided to share something with Wilma that I’d hesitated to bring up earlier in the conversation – that my marriage had recently ended. I was reluctant to talk about it for two reasons: 1. I didn’t want it to dominate the conversation, especially when the focus was on her course and her work, and 2. since she was an “expert” on forgiveness and I knew her to be a religious person, I was afraid of what she might think of me for having failed at marriage. (I still carried some old shame about the sin of divorce.)

Wilma’s response caught me by surprise. Not only was she compassionate and non-judgemental, but she offered a simple reframing of a story I shared that helped me see even more clearly why the ending of my marriage had become necessary. She held space for me in the beautiful way that only someone who has walked through pain and has learned not to judge herself for her reaction to it can do.

I realized, in that moment, that I had placed Wilma on an impossible pedestal. For more than thirty years, I’d seen the media’s version of this somewhat saintly Christian woman who had some kind of super-human capacity to forgive the most egregious crime against her and her family. But the truth was much more complicated and nuanced (and, in my mind, appealing) than that. She was, just as I was, a very human woman who’d been nearly drowned in intense pain, anger, and fear, and yet she kept swimming back up to the surface in search of the light. 

Forgiveness, for her, was not a pie-in-the-sky utopian ideal that meant she could live in peace and harmony with all who’d wronged her. Instead, it was a daily – sometimes hourly – decision to let go of fear, grief, ego, happy endings, guilt, blame, rage, closure, and self-pity.

I didn’t get to raise my son Matthew, but because, like Wilma, I chose forgiveness instead of bitterness, his short life transformed mine and his legacy is present in all of the work I now do. That three week period in the hospital with him was not only a retreat, it was a reconfiguring, sending my life in a whole new direction that lead me to where I am now.

At the end of the book, Wilma admits that her concept and experience of forgiveness are still changing and evolving. I’m with her on that. Life will keep giving us more chances to learn.

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Communicating across differences and through noise https://heatherplett.com/2017/03/communicating-across-differences-noise/ https://heatherplett.com/2017/03/communicating-across-differences-noise/#respond Thu, 16 Mar 2017 22:42:15 +0000 http://heatherplett.com/?p=30810 Melancholy: a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause That sounds about right for my state of mind this past week. I hesitate to call it depression, because it doesn’t feel that heavy, but there is definitely “pensive sadness” going on and it has no obvious cause. When this familiar sense of melancholy […]

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donohue quote

Melancholy: a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause

That sounds about right for my state of mind this past week. I hesitate to call it depression, because it doesn’t feel that heavy, but there is definitely “pensive sadness” going on and it has no obvious cause.

When this familiar sense of melancholy comes at this time of year, I usually chalk it up to the end of winter, when I’m a little more sluggish from not taking as many long walks in the woods and not getting as much sunshine as I need. I get a little imbalanced when I lose my connection to the natural world. I’m pretty sure that it will pass soon (Spring always revives me), but for now, my creativity is low, my resilience isn’t what it normally is, my emotions are a little tender, and I feel disconnected. I stare at blank pages when I should be writing, I crawl into bed earlier than usual, I cry unexpectedly, and I watch too much Netflix.

A couple of things happened last week that were quite minor, but because of my state of mind, I took them more personally than I normally would. Though none of the people involved meant any harm, my tenderness left me feeling a little lonely and a little rejected. There was no true rejection involved (I still feel well loved by them), but in the middle of my fragility, it’s always easier to make up stories that align with how I’m experiencing the world. Feelings of disconnection often lead to greater disconnection.

Not long ago, I was on the other side of that story, inadvertently wounding someone who was going through her own state of tenderness. Unaware of her emotional state, I said something that normally would have been received with ease, but instead carried some wounding.

“At two, you’re at abstraction.” That’s a line from a Sara Groves song (that I think she borrowed from someone else, but I can’t find the source) that points to the impossibility of fully understanding another person’s reality. Another person’s pain, joy, love, trauma, history – they’re all just abstract concepts for us because we have never lived inside of them. We can never really “walk a mile in another person’s shoes”.

Despite our best efforts to be compassionate and understanding, our well-meaning words can land the wrong way and leave a person feeling wounded, lonely, misunderstood, defensive, angry, etc. That’s one of the reasons why, in our efforts to hold space for other people, we need to avoid falling into the trap of taking responsibility for their emotional response to our words or actions. Each of us is a sovereign individual with our own stories, our own interpretations, and our own emotions and when we take too much responsibility for another person, we diminish their sovereignty.

At a workshop a few weeks ago, Dr. Gabor Maté talked about how trauma can shape a person’s world and change the way they respond to stimuli. When a person grew up with trauma (either in the form of a traumatic event, or as a result of being raised by caregivers with unresolved trauma) their fight/flight/freeze instincts are heightened and they are inclined to over-react to stimuli that brings them back to their traumatic memories. Unresolved trauma, he said, makes it impossible for us to be in the present moment. “When we’re triggered, the emotions that show up are those of the abandoned child. We don’t react to what happened – we react to our interpretation of what happened based in our traumatic memory.”

Even compassionate people can inadvertently trigger someone’s trauma. Think about the last time you said something to another person that you thought was fairly innocuous and they reacted with defensiveness or anger that seemed out of proportion for the moment. There’s a good chance that there was something in what you said that triggered an old wound that they may not even know they still have. In that instant, that person was not the mature adult you thought you were talking to – they were a scared child relying on an instinctual response for their own protection. While they may need your empathy in that moment, and you might make a mental note to adjust your behaviour in the future to avoid triggering them further, you can’t take their autonomy away by trying to fix their problem for them.

When I used to teach a university-level course in communication, I would always start with the following diagram to help my students understand that, in every communication, there are complexities and potential pitfalls that we can’t fully anticipate or mitigate.

Communication process

Each of us lives within a unique field of experience that may overlap with other people’s experience, but is never exactly the same. When I want to communicate with you, my intended message is shaped and encoded by my field of experience, which includes factors such as my gender, race, culture, disabilities, lived experiences, language ability, emotional state, etc.

I choose the channel of communication to best offer the message (ie. will I make a phone call, wait until I can talk to you in person, or send an email?). If I am compassionate, I will consider your field of experience when choosing the channel (ie. if you are hearing impaired, a phone call might not be the best method), but I’m limited in how much I can understand your reality so I may make mistakes. On top of that, no matter how carefully I encode the message and how intentional I am about the channel of communication, there is always unexpected noise that can disrupt or distract us at any moment in the process (ie. a child needing attention in the middle of a personal phone call, a disturbing story on the news, a misunderstanding, etc.).

The message crosses over to you and is, in turn, shaped and decoded by your own field of experience and your current circumstance. As I mentioned above, for example, you might be going through a period of tenderness that I had no way of knowing about when I initiated the communication. Even the most well-intentioned communication can go astray, and by the time you’ve decoded it, it may have a very different shape than what I intended. Much of our encoding and decoding processes happen in mere seconds during the course of a conversation, so we aren’t aware of all of what has shaped and reshaped what’s passed between us.

If you choose to engage in two-way communication, you send your own message across the reverse path, back through our fields of experience, risking similar misinterpretation, triggering, etc.

Given the potential complexity of even the simplest conversation, and given the fact that only a small portion of the process is within our control or within our conscious understanding, what can we do to improve the process? How can we be better communicators who wound others less often and receive fewer messages as wounds?

When you are the sender of the message:

• Pay attention to how your message is being shaped by your field of experience.
• Be humble, recognizing the limitation of your understanding of the other person’s field of experience.
• Especially where the differences are vast and there may be power imbalances, do your best to learn about the other person’s field of experience instead of passing judgement (especially if you are the one who holds more power).
• Be aware of the other person’s emotional response and check in when something doesn’t seem to land well, but don’t judge or try to control the emotion.
• Take responsibility for what you’ve said and allow the other person to take responsibility for their response.
• Allow for processing time in the conversation. Pauses may help to alleviate misunderstanding.

When you are the receiver of the message:

• Recognize the limitations that are at play in the sender’s lack of understanding of your field of experience.
• If you trust that the person will honour your current state of mind (ie. if there’s grief, depression, etc. going on), let them know that you may be limited in your capacity to receive.
• If you have a strong emotional response to the message, pause for a moment to check in with yourself. Recognize that the first reaction may be your instinctual desire to protect yourself and may not be fully based in the current situation.
• Hold the other person accountable for their words (especially in the case of harsh or oppressive language) and recognize when it may be in your best interest to stand up for yourself and/or walk away.
• If there is a misunderstanding and the relationship is important to you, reflect back to the person what your interpretation of the message is, based on your field of experience, and offer them an opportunity to reframe it.
• Take the time you need before sending a message back.
• Remember that you have a right to set boundaries and protect yourself.

Each situation is different, and based on how valuable the relationship with the other person is, you may or may not want to invest in the effort it takes to work through misunderstanding. If, for example, you’ve been verbally assaulted by a stranger at a bus stop, you probably won’t have any interest in figuring out how to communicate across your differing fields of experience. If, on the other hand, you love and trust the other person and believe that the relationship will be strengthened by deeper understanding, you’ll want to invest more time and energy in cutting through the noise.

*****

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Centring marginalized voices and decolonizing my bookshelf https://heatherplett.com/2017/03/centring-marginalized-voices-decolonizing-bookshelf/ https://heatherplett.com/2017/03/centring-marginalized-voices-decolonizing-bookshelf/#comments Wed, 01 Mar 2017 22:04:50 +0000 http://heatherplett.com/?p=30786 At the beginning of 2016, I made a commitment to read only books by authors who weren’t from the dominant culture. My intent was to broaden my education and stretch myself by staying away from books written by white able-bodied cisgender heterosexuals. Books have always helped me make sense of the world, and I knew that […]

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books - James Baldwin quote

At the beginning of 2016, I made a commitment to read only books by authors who weren’t from the dominant culture. My intent was to broaden my education and stretch myself by staying away from books written by white able-bodied cisgender heterosexuals. Books have always helped me make sense of the world, and I knew that if I wanted to catch glimpses of the world through lenses that were different from mine, books would help me get there. Though my bookshelves reflect some diversity, I knew there was much more I could do.

It was harder than I expected. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of books by other voices – there are, but I had to dig harder to find them. It became clear, early on, that few publishers and booksellers are willing to bank on books by marginalized voices. They don’t invest in them as often and don’t put them front and centre in the bookstores. Walk through almost any bookstore (or at least those that I’m most familiar with, in North America), or browse through Amazon, and you’ll see fairly quickly what types of books get the most space and attention. Those voices that feel most “safe” for the average bookstore shopper will sell the most books, and I think it’s fairly safe to say that the “average bookstore shopper” is expected to be a white person with privilege.

That was one of my first realizations in this year-long quest… It is far more challenging to find a publisher and make a living from your writing if you do not fit the dominant paradigm. Other voices have to work twice as hard just to get a spot on the bookshelf. Like any other space ruled by capitalism, the bookstore centres those with privilege.

It was easiest to find books by marginalized voices in the fiction section, so I started there. Friends gave me lots of recommendation and my nightstand quickly filled with borrowed books. I started with Indigenous authors (in Canada, those are the voices that are often the most marginalized) and moved on to people of colour from the U.S., Africa, and Southeast Asia. Many of those books were gritty and challenging, and some of them brought up my white guilt. There were moments when I questioned why I was putting myself through this. Reading was starting to feel more like a chore and less like a pleasure. (Note: scroll down for a list of some of the books I read.)

Though I enjoy fiction, I don’t read nearly as much of it as I used to, and soon found myself searching for the kinds of books I lean toward – memoirs, books about the human condition, cultural exploration, leadership books, and other non-fiction. These became increasingly more difficult to find. Memoirs were fairly plentiful, once I started digging deeper than the typical bookstore shelves (and I found some great ones by writers who gave me a new perspective on what it means to be gender non-binary, what it’s like to be raised by a residential school survivor, etc.), but the hardest to find were the non-fiction books I tend to read that are relevant for my work.

I’m not sure how to define the books I most love to read, because they don’t tend to fit bookstore categorization. I read a lot of “ideas and culture” books – on leadership, spirituality, feminism, trauma, engagement, facilitation, personal development, etc. When I turned my attention to these books, my quest became the most challenging. Very few of these books are written by people who aren’t from the dominant culture.

And this was my second major realization in this quest… While we may be willing to read fiction, and sometimes memoirs by people who don’t look like us, we very rarely will accept as experts anyone who doesn’t fit the dominant paradigm. This is where the white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis-gender voice is the most centred. Storytelling may have become a more equal playing field, but the fields of knowledge and expertise are still colonized by those with more power and privilege. And the higher you go up the “knowledge food chain” the more white women are eliminated as well.

In the Spring of 2016, just when I was looking for more of these kinds of books, something happened in my personal life that derailed my year-long commitment and made the absence of these voices even more obvious. As I’ve written before, I hit burnout. A combination of stresses in my life – divorce, single parenthood, home renovations, and the continued high demands that followed my viral blog post – left me feeling wobbly and exhausted. I stepped off social media, pulled away from some of my commitments, and sought therapy to help me get my feet back on the ground.

As is my tendency when I journey through something that shakes me up and requires a deepening of my emotional and spiritual growth, I turned to books for comfort and a way forward. At first I tried to maintain my commitment to marginalized voices, but the effort required felt like one more stressor, so I let myself off the hook. Instead, I read about body healinggenerational trauma, and spirituality from some of the prominent writers in those fields – all of them from the dominant culture.

This healing period in my year is worth mentioning for a few important reasons.

1.) It highlights the lack of marginalized voices in books related to trauma/therapy/spirituality/body wisdom/etc. This begs the question: Where do people who aren’t from the dominant culture turn to find voices like them speaking to the deep healing work that they need to do? If you’ve experienced oppression, it’s very difficult to find healing from among the people who represent your oppressors.

2.) To stay on the quest for a deepening understanding of injustice, racism, etc., and to be able to continue to examine my own place within the systems that oppress people, I needed to turn inward for awhile to find my own strength and resilience. A deepening understanding of trauma, for example, helped me to heal some of my own so that I am more equipped to hold space for others who’ve faced trauma. I can enter into other people’s stories better when I have healed my own.

3.) My ability to find the voices that speak to my experience and help me heal is part of my privilege. I didn’t have to look very hard to find a therapist who looks like me and has enough education and training to support me and I didn’t have to look very hard to find suitable books that helped me understand my life experiences. My voice is well-represented and healing is relatively easy to find.

After a few months, I renewed my original commitment. I found I wasn’t quite ready for the heaviness of some of my earlier reading, so I looked for lighter reading. Comedic marginalized voices provided a nice balance and, in a surprising way, helped to normalize “the other” even more. When you’ve entered into the humour of a lived experience that is different from yours, you realize the threads that bind us together and give us common humanity. In a book on growing up Muslim in Canada, for example, I found myself chuckling at how similar some of the experiences were to my own Mennonite upbringing. Just as I felt like an outsider in my small town for the things I couldn’t do as a child (no dancing, drinking, attending community bingo nights, etc.), a young Muslim girl feels set apart for living a more restricted life.

By the end of 2016, I wasn’t ready to quit reading books by marginalized voice. Having worked through the earlier challenges of finding books that interested me, I now have a stack of books waiting for me and a long wish list of ones I want to get to eventually.

I have learned more than I can say from the reading I’ve done so far and I know I have much more to learn. At the beginning, I was learning about what it means to be Indigenous, black, brown, disabled, LGBTQ+, non-gender-binary, etc., but at some point I realized I was learning something that was equally important. By witnessing, if only for a fleeting moment, the world through their eyes, I was learning more about what it means to be a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis-gender woman and what privilege comes from those pieces of my identity.

When you’re a member of the dominant paradigm, you rarely have to look back at yourself in any kind of intentional self-reflection. The world is set up to support you, to centre you, to make you safe, and to make you feel normal, so you don’t have to work very hard at figuring it all out and there’s no need to challenge it. 

I have the privilege of navigating the world with a kind of obliviousness in ways that others don’t, and my reading this year helped me see that more clearly. Since reading all of those books, I am more aware of, for example, how safe a bathroom might feel for a transgender person,  or how accessible a space might be for a disabled person. I am also more aware of how little I’ve had to pay attention to either of those issues, and, more importantly, how I have contributed to the challenges marginalized people face and how I represent that which is unsafe for them.

Two terms came into my consciousness this year and both were made more clear by the reading I did – kyriachy and intersectionality.

From Wikipedia:

Kyriarchy, pronounced /ˈkaɪriɑːrki/, is a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission. The word was coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992 to describe her theory of interconnected, interacting, and self-extending systems of domination and submission, in which a single individual might be oppressed in some relationships and privileged in others. It is an intersectional extension of the idea of patriarchy beyond gender. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, economic injustice, colonialism, militarism, ethnocentrism, anthropocentrism, and other forms of dominating hierarchies in which the subordination of one person or group to another is internalized and institutionalized.

Intersectionality (or intersectional theory) is a term first coined in 1989 by American civil rights advocate and leading scholar of critical race theory, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. It is the study of what Crenshaw contends are overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. Intersectionality is the idea that multiple identities intersect to create a whole that is different from the component identities. These identities that can intersect include gender, race, social class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age, mental disability, physical disability, mental illness, and physical illness as well as other forms of identity. These aspects of identity are not “unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but rather…reciprocally constructing phenomena.” The theory proposes that we think of each element or trait of a person as inextricably linked with all of the other elements in order to fully understand one’s identity.

The broad range of my reading has contributed to my understanding of what it means to be intersectional AND someone who benefits from the kyriarchy. My life is impacted not just by one aspect of who I am, but by the intersection of multiple identities. I am never “just a woman” or “just a white person”. I stand at the intersection of those identities, just as every other person stands at their own intersection. My intersection means that I am both oppressor and oppressed, both settler and sexually colonized. Their intersection means something entirely different, and I can’t presume to understand it until I ask and until I sit and listen to their stories. Embracing their stories means embracing complexity. 

Individually and collectively, we need to examine our wounds, our trauma, our privilege, our oppression, our marginalization, our power, and our guilt. As we do so, we need to be conscious of how our intersectional identities might impact other people.

I started out trying to diversify my bookshelf, but what I learned instead was that I needed to work on decolonizing my bookshelf and, consequently, my life. Diversity would only get me part way there. It might give me a collection of stories and ideas about what it was like to be marginalized. But a diversity lens still allows me to centre myself and my story and do little to challenge my privilege. Decolonizing is different – it invites me to examine myself and my place in the kyriarchy, deconstruct my own narrative of domination, and challenge that which allows me to live with privilege while others can’t.

I don’t want to make it sound like it was all drudgery and hard work, though. It wasn’t. Many of the lessons of this year were beautiful ones. Adding all of these voices to my life was like adding colour to a monochrome kaleidoscope – it added depth, beauty and texture to my view of the world and allowed me to see what I’d been missing. I found common threads in the stories that made me feel more connected to the humanity of all of the people I encountered.

Though I started the year feeling like it was my duty, as a white person, to challenge myself and stretch my worldview, I can now say that it is also my pleasure and privilege. I have fallen in love with these voices and I want more and more of their stories and their wisdom. They have challenged me and they have blessed me. They have pushed me past my own fragility and helped me listen more intently to what I couldn’t hear before. My life is richer for what they continue to bring to my world.

I still have much to learn and many teachers to teach me. For now, I will continue to centre those voices that are not centred on the bookstore shelves, because it is only in doing so that I can see myself and the world more clearly.
Though I wasn’t vigilant in keeping track of the books I read this year, here are the ones I remember and recommend (in no particular order:

The books I read for healing/growth (not from marginalized voices)

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How to start a women’s circle https://heatherplett.com/2017/02/start-womens-circle/ https://heatherplett.com/2017/02/start-womens-circle/#respond Thu, 23 Feb 2017 21:13:40 +0000 http://heatherplett.com/?p=30762 Tonight is my weekly women’s circle, and I’m looking forward to it as I always do. It’s not a perfect space (we are all human and we don’t always know how to hold space for each other), but it is beautifully imperfect. We show up – sometimes 2 women and sometimes 12 – with our […]

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circle of grace 2

Tonight is my weekly women’s circle, and I’m looking forward to it as I always do. It’s not a perfect space (we are all human and we don’t always know how to hold space for each other), but it is beautifully imperfect. We show up – sometimes 2 women and sometimes 12 – with our scars, our fragility, our fierceness, and our love, and we offer each other the kind of listening we don’t find many other places in our lives. We don’t fix anything or offer advice or platitudes. We just listen and we hold space for each other.

People often ask me to write about how this women’s circle got started, so I’m finally sitting down to offer our birth story as a gift to anyone else who’d like to create something similar.

I had been longing for a women’s circle for several years before I finally got one off the ground. I had a couple of false starts (circles that got started but then faltered and died), so I was a little leery of trying again, but I kept longing for it and believing it was possible, so I made one more attempt.

Before sending out an invitation to those women I thought might be interested, I spent some time considering what my intentions were and what I wanted from the circle. This is an important step because it helps to shape what evolves. Some of the things I wanted were:

1.) A circle that would nourish me as much as the others in the room. Doing this work for a living means that I hold space for a lot of people but don’t always find ways to have space held for me. The creation of this circle was partly selfish in that I really wanted a space where I could be as vulnerable and flawed and held as anyone else who showed up. I wanted to be intentional about inviting people with a level of maturity that they could hold space for me without expecting me to be the “expert” in the room.

2.) A circle that I didn’t have to own by myself. I didn’t want to host it every week and I didn’t want to be the primary leader. Given my travel schedule, I knew that I wouldn’t always be available, and I wanted the circle to have enough strength that it would exist even if I were away for a long stretch of time. I also didn’t want to have to do the emotional labour of keeping everyone informed, managing people’s feelings if they got left out, etc. The only way for it to work was to have shared and/or rotating leadership.

3.) A circle that was accessible to anyone who needed it. I didn’t want it to be a closed, exclusive group, where only those who were members were allowed in. I often get emails from women looking for a circle like this, so I wanted it to remain open to everyone. I also wanted us to welcome diversity and make people feel welcome no matter their race, religion, abilities, etc. (This was a bit challenging, because I also didn’t want to impose my “rules” on the group if I was not going to be the primary leader. I mentioned this desire to the group and we worked through it together to determine whether it could become a shared intention. In the end, it did.)

4.) A circle that had as few barriers for entry as possible. At first I considered having it in a person’s home, but then I wondered whether strangers would feel welcome in the space and whether accessibility would be an issue for people with disabilities, etc.. I found a wheelchair accessible space in a church on a well-traveled street (with buses available) that was available for low rent. (Note: one of the possible barriers that we haven’t fully addressed is that some people may not feel comfortable stepping into a church, but we haven’t found a more neutral space for as low rent.)

5.) A circle that would meet the needs of those who showed up and wasn’t strictly formed by my own agenda. Though I was being intentional about it in advance, I didn’t want to attach too many preconceived notions about what would happen in the circle, how often we’d meet, etc. For it to be collectively owned, I knew it needed to be collectively formed.

6.) A circle that was story-driven rather than agenda-driven. I wanted to create a space for sharing and listening that would adapt to whatever people brought into the circle each week. I didn’t want to create a book club or study group, but rather a place where we could have spaciousness for vulnerability and relationship building. (Again, though, I had to be careful about not imposing too many of my expectations on the group.)

With these intentions held lightly in mind, I arranged for the space to host the first gathering, and I sent out an email to everyone I knew who’d ever shown interest in being in a women’s circle. I invited them to come with their own ideas of what we might create together. I also created an invitation page on my website and, because I wanted to be inclusive, said that “all who identify as women are welcome”.

I arrived at the church early and set up the circle. The intentions about how a space is arranged helps create the tone of the gathering, so I set up a comfortable circle of chairs, with a small, low table in the centre. I covered the table with a tablecloth and placed on it a candle, a bell, some talking pieces, and a box of tissues. (I have yet to attend a women’s circle where tears don’t flow.) I also brought an assortment of teas and had hot water and teacups ready.

Fifteen women came to that first gathering. I read a poem to open the circle, and then we did a check-in round (passing a talking piece around the circle, inviting people to share a little about who they were and what brought them to circle) and then we had a conversation about what people might want from circle, how often they’d like to hold it, what our shared values were, etc. Someone suggested “I think we should have it every week and even if you can’t make it every week, at least you always know that it’s available to you.” There was enough interest in this suggestion that we decided to make it a weekly gathering.

For the next five months, since I have the most training in hosting a circle, I served as host. I arrived early each week to set up the room, I gave gentle guidance about the practices of circle, (ie. We speak with intention. We listen with attention. We tend the well-being of the circle.), and I helped the group find its own groove.

There were a few bumps those first few months. There was some resistance to the talking piece round, for example (people wanted to interject with questions, advice, etc.), and some said they wanted us to have more free-flowing conversation. Some lamented the fact that we didn’t have more time for informal conversation over tea. We considered whether we should adapt the format, having a circle time and then having a less formal portion of the evening.

In the end, what emerged for our circle was this simple format:

  1. When people are seated (starting at 7 p.m.), someone rings the bell to call us to pause. Somewhere along the line we adopted three rings as our preferred choice for opening and closing.
  2. If there are new people in the room, someone (usually whoever brought the bag) shares the principles of circle and a little about the flow of the evening.
  3. Whoever has brought a poem or quote to share reads it. This is entirely voluntary and not planned. Sometimes we have a reading and sometimes we don’t.
  4. Then we have our first talking-piece round. Whoever wants to start picks up the talking piece and shares whatever story is on their heart to share. We tend to dive deeply into vulnerable sharing quite quickly. It’s a chance to unload our grief or celebrate our joy – whatever has been going on for us that week. Nobody interrupts and nobody attempts to fix.
  5. The first sharing round usually takes about an hour. Once that is finished, we put down the talking piece, grab tea if we want it, and have about 20 minutes of informal conversation.
  6. Depending on how much time we have left (we try to end not too much later than 9 p.m.), we either do another full round of sharing, or do a shorter round with each of us setting an intention for the week.
  7. When the second talking piece round is complete, we ring the bell again and the circle is over. Usually we’re not in a rush to leave our chairs and we sit for some more informal conversation.

This is the format that works for us and may or may not work for other groups. It allows us to show up without anyone needing to do any advance planning and it frees us up to share without needing to attach our sharing to an agenda or theme.

After about five months of serving as the primary host, I had some travel coming up and knew it was a good time to pass on the leadership. To ease that transition, I created a circle kit that could float from person to person, depending on who was available each week. In a cloth bag, I packed the following items: (Some of which were purchased for the group from our shared funds, which we take a collection for periodically to pay the rent.)

  • the key for the building we meet in (with the security code written on the bag)
  • a bell
  • an assortment of talking pieces
  • a tablecloth
  • an assortment of teas
  • a candle holder and candles
  • a box of tissue
  • an envelope with the group’s funds

Our circle kit now travels from woman to woman. Each week someone volunteers to take it home and show up the next week to unlock the building and set up the space. Those who take responsibility for the bag have also occasionally replenished it with tea, tissue, and candles. This means that there is no onerous responsibility placed on anybody’s shoulders and we all share the ownership.

There’s been an ebb and flow to the circle. Sometimes we’re strong, regularly attracting ten to twelve women, and sometimes we go through a period when only two women show up each week. Sometimes newcomers come for awhile and then don’t come back. Some members will only come every three months or so, when they can get away from family duties.

It’s hard to know right now what the lifespan of the group will be. Before Christmas, when few people were showing up, we wondered whether it was worth it to keep making the effort. But since then, there’s been a bit of a resurgence, so we carry on. There is enough commitment to it that it seems worth it.

There is a natural lifespan to groups like this, and even if it some day falters and fades away, I will always know that it meant something, that it held an important place in the world and it made a difference for whoever showed up. Many beautiful things have happened in the circle and lives have been changed from being part of it. We’ve opened up in ways we rarely do otherwise. We’ve bonded with each other on an authentic level that’s fairly rare in our culture. We’ve become best friends and it’s not unusual for us to gather for Saturday breakfast, when we want more of each other’s company.

We’ve learned a lot about holding space for each other by showing up week after week without expectation, without agenda, and without advice. We’ve peeled away our masks, shed lots of tears, and weathered many storms together. We’ve gotten better and better at offering each other unconditional love.

If you’re ever in Winnipeg on a Thursday evening, we’d love to have you join us!

If you want to know more about how to start your own circle, here are a few resources:

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