That thing you love to do? It is not trivial.

mandala making 2I see more and more women (and some men) who are finding their way back to the things they love to do – painting, dancing, writing, hosting, horseback riding, hiking, taking pictures, acting, etc.

I work with a lot of these people, in my coaching and workshop facilitation, and I love to see the delight in their eyes when they talk about what they truly love to do. Some, for example, sit in my Creative Writing for Self-discovery circle and talk about how writing poetry feels like a homecoming – like something they’ve been longing for but didn’t know they were missing. Others start playing with mandalas and can’t believe how much joy it brings them to hold pencil crayons in their hands again.

Almost always, though, I see that delight in their eyes fade when I ask them “why don’t you do more of it?” They stammer a reply that sounds remarkably similar to all of the other excuses I’ve heard (I’m too busy, it makes me feel guilty, my partner makes fun of me, I can’t take the time away from my kids, etc.). And when they come back a week later, they sheepishly say “I wanted to do the homework, but couldn’t find the time.”

The bottom line is that they have been fed a lie that what they love to do is trivial. It’s the thing you do only if you have time after all of the important things are done. It’s just a hobby, so shouldn’t be taken as seriously as washing the dishes or crunching numbers at the accounting office you work at.

I have struggled with this lie in my own work too. Sure I teach transformational workshops online and off, but it’s not really that important, is it? It’s just stuff people do on the fringes of their lives – it doesn’t fit in the “mainstream” where people are doing real work. Even though I believe in it deeply and know it can transform people and communities, I have trouble marketing my work in the corporate world, because… well… won’t people make fun of me for trying to sell something so trivial in a serious environment?

Mandala journaling? That’s fine for people with time on their hands, but don’t try to get a serious corporate executive to colour in a circle. It’s far too trivial for someone with an important job title. Gathering in circle? Oh that’s just for women who aren’t doing the big, important work in the world. It’s not going to fly in places where people are having tough conversations and changing the world.

But it’s all a lie, and I know that. It’s the lie the patriarchy has been telling us for hundreds of years to keep us silent and to keep us from changing the accepted structures and heirarchy. It’s a lie we’ve been fed again and again, since childhood, and we don’t know how to change it because we’ve received so many wounds over it, we’ve learned to hide our hearts and keep our deepest loves secret.

Imagine if we could rise out of the shame and the fear and truly believe in what we love to do.

Imagine if we could convince governments to move their chairs into circles and have real conversations instead of the polarizing shouting they do at each other from across the room. Imagine if business meetings started with some quiet journaling or mandala-making. Imagine if there was daily dancing in the corporate offices downtown. Imagine if the heads of corporations and governments had to go on vision quests or self-discovery retreats before they could be trusted to lead.

It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? Your first thought, like mine, was probably “oh, it would never work”. But what if every time we heard that voice of resistance in ourselves, we recognized it as the voice of the patriarchy trying to silence us, and we challenged it instead of accepting it?

A few weeks ago, I co-facilitated a weekend stakeholder consultation for a national association of city planners. Because we knew it would be a difficult conversation, we encouraged them to use circle to ensure that everyone was heard. There was some reluctance to our recommendation, but fortunately we had an ally on the planning committee, and so we went ahead with it. The circle transformed the way they gathered. People made positive contributions throughout the weekend because they felt heard. Important decisions were made AND people felt valued and hopeful.

The circle is NOT too trivial for people who are making important business decisions. In fact, I think it’s imperative.

A few years ago, I was facilitating a team planning retreat for a non-profit, and I invited everyone to start with some simple yoga poses, and then we played with modeling clay and tried to envision our future through clay. Halfway through, one of the people in the room said, “but when are we going to do the real work?” He was anxious to get to the strategic planning we needed to do. I didn’t say much, but when we were finished, we looked at each other’s clay creations and saw a great deal of vision for where the team needed to move. “Oh, I get it,” said the person who had resisted. “This IS the real work.” Yes, it is. We saw more vision emerge from the pieces of clay than we would have in a traditional brainstorming session.

Art-making and yoga are NOT too trivial for people doing world-changing work. In fact, I think it’s imperative.

It’s taken me years to stop believing the lie (and it still creeps in now and then), but I believe that the world is crying out for us to do this work. It’s transformational for EVERYONE, not just the people with time on their hands after the real work is done.

It starts by changing us individually, and with that as a base, it can change governments, change international relationships, change the way we treat our earth, and change our communities.

I believe it’s imperative. The world needs this kind of change. And it will have to start with a healing of our collective wound and a new belief that this is worthy work we are doing.

If you are on the path to the work you love, or you want to step onto that path, consider a journey through Pathfinder.

If you want to practice openhearted writing, consider joining a small, intimate virtual circle on Friday, February 14th.

Create, share, and then get your ego out of the way

hands that createThere’s a delight that fills you when you dream up a new idea – a piece of art, a script for a play, a dance routine, a poem, a delicious meal, a kid’s birthday party, a course… anything. The delight grows as you entertain the idea and begin to give it shape. You fashion it in your mind, you play with the details, you start gathering the pieces that you need to build it. You lie awake at night dreaming of what it will be when it grows up. You fantasize about how happy it will make you feel.

There’s a little skip in your step as you grow it from a seed of an idea to a real thing. You love it dearly and you know that it will be beautiful. It’s your baby, your work of art – you will love it no matter what.

You sweat over it, cry over it, pray over it, fill it with your longing, sadness, and deep love. You pour everything you have into this creation. It gives you life and joy, but it also asks a lot of you. In between the laughter and the delight, you sacrifice, you bleed, and you ache.

When it’s complete, you gaze on it with delight and so much love for just a moment… and then… the ego shows up uninvited, fear pokes its nose around the corner…and… you start to second guess what you have created.

“Is it good enough? I’m really not an artist. I can’t trust my own opinion.”

“Is it really worth anything? Maybe it’s useless and I’m fooling myself.”

“What if people hate it? What if nobody buys it? What if it just sits here on my shelf and gathers dust and I grow to hate it and I never create another thing as long as I live?”

“What if I am a fraud?”

You do this horrible dance – going back and forth about whether or not it’s actually worth sharing this creation of yours with the world. One moment, you’re determined to barrel through and ignore the voices of fear and ego, and the next moment you’re hugging your pillow in the corner, certain that the only course of action should be to destroy the thing you’ve created before you expose yourself to certain shame.

One day, though, you finally work up the courage to share it. You clench your teeth as you do so, holding the fear tightly at the back of your throat. Part of you wants to dance with delight at this moment of triumph, and part of you wants to weep with the agony of the release.

Lots of people ignore what you’ve put into the world. Some people turn their noses up at it. At first, that’s all you notice and you’re convinced that those are the only kinds of reactions you’ll get. You consider yanking it off the shelf and taking a hammer to it in your backyard. This agony isn’t worth it. You shouldn’t have taken the risk.

But then… in the corner, you see someone crying, and you recognize those tears. Those were the same tears that coursed down your eyes as you poured all of your love into the thing you created. Those are the tears of a person who’s letting her heart crack open just a little. They’re the tears of someone watching their own story unfold, and realizing – perhaps for the first time – that their story has found a safe place to exist.

The person approaches you. Her eyes tell the story even before she whispers “Thank you for this beautiful gift. Thank you for seeing me. Thank you for creating something that makes me feel a little more whole. Thank you for cracking me open.”

And suddenly all of those other people – those who turned up their noses or paid no attention – don’t really matter, because you know you didn’t create it for them. You created this thing for the woman standing in front of you, and you created it for yourself. Because both of you needed this little bit of healing that the creation offered. Both of you needed a place where your story feels safe.

You know, in that moment, that you will continue to create. You’ll take all of that pain again and again, you’ll fight with your ego, you’ll risk the failure – you’ll do it all as often as it is required, because you KNOW that you were put on this earth to create and to give and to love.

This isn’t just YOUR story. It’s my story, and to be specific, it’s the story of Mandala Discovery. I have been in love with this program since it began to grow as the seed of an idea a couple of years ago. I knew that I held something magic in my hands, and so I kept pouring my love into it, even when that felt hard to do. I put it out into the world in one form last year, and then – when not very many people paid attention – I let it sit on a shelf for awhile, not sure that it was worthy.

But something kept telling me that the magic I’d seen in it – back when it was only the seed of an idea – was true and good and that I shouldn’t abandon it. Something told me that people needed this little gift that would give them a safe place for their stories to unfold. And so I took it down off the shelf and started polishing again.

When it was ready, I put it out into the world again, and people showed up. Not only did they show up, but they honoured the gift in the most beautiful ways imaginable. They honoured it by creating their own mandalas and sharing them and then telling the stories of how their mandala journals are changing them. They let their hearts crack open and then they stood in front of each other and said “Here. Look deeply into my heart. It may be wounded, but there is a lot of love here.”

mandala samples squareThe stories that were shared floored me and made me realize that this gift was not mine – instead I was simply serving as a catalyst, a vessel, the pot in the hands of the Potter, creating what had been breathed through me and then offering it to those who most needed it.

One woman shared how the mandalas have become part of her own recovery and how she will use them in a drug and alcohol recovery program on a First Nations Reserve. Another woman told the story of how she’d used one of the prompts with a group of second grade students who hardly knew any English, but were able to articulate something through the mandalas where words had failed them. Others shared how they had found themselves opening up to new truths about themselves. One woman plastered her walls with her mandalas – a road map back to herself.

I was reminded once again that when we let our egos get in our way, when we keep ourselves from doing that which is closest to our hearts, when we cower in fear of failure and rejection, we not only cheat ourselves, we cheat the world out of what it needs for healing. We cheat people out of what makes them feel less alone. We isolate ourselves and we isolate others.

I would like to get Mandala Discovery into the hands of more people who need it, not because my ego says “it must be big to mean something”, but because I know that it has transformative value.  I would be honoured and pleased if you would help me do that.

Please share a link to Mandala Discovery (and/or this post) with your friends, followers, fans, family, and either use the hashtag #mandaladiscovery on social media so that I know that you have done so, or leave a note at the end of this post letting me know that you have.

Two people will be selected from those who’ve shared to win one of the following:

1. A free one-on-one coaching session with me.

2. Free registration for the November offering of Mandala Discovery.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you for honouring this gift.

Holding other people’s dreams tenderly

Yesterday was a powerful day. One of those days that leaves you vibrating with energy when it’s all over.

In the morning, I was a guest in a design class in the School of Art at the University of Manitoba. My friend ‘Segun teaches design there. He’d asked me to share the manuscript for my memoir with his students, so that they could design it as one of their assignments. My visit to the classroom was for the purpose of giving them feedback on their designs, so that they have some experience in working with a client in the design process.

I expected to see design concepts on a screen. I wasn’t expecting to hold copies of MY BOOK in my hands. Wow! What an amazing feeling that was! And these weren’t ordinary designs – they were all beautiful! The students are in their third year of art school, so their talent is exceptional. Suddenly my long time dream of becoming a published author began to feel like a very real possibility.

The book (at this point, at least) is called Butterfly at the Grave. Here are some of the possibilities of what it might look like.

What felt especially powerful about the morning was the way that these students had so tenderly treated my words and ideas, honouring them with art, photography, and beautiful treatment of text. Each one of them explained the way they’d interpreted my words and translated them into art, demonstrating a real sensitivity in their approaches.

In return, I held their creations tenderly in my hands, gave them gentle (and hopefully helpful) feedback, and encouraged them in their pursuit of art.

The afternoon was similar in some ways, and yet very different. As a board member of UNPAC (a feminist organization that works to empower and advocate for women), I’d been asked to serve as a mentor for our Changemakers program. In this program, women are mentored to become leaders in their communities. The target audience is largely marginalized women who live in the inner-city.

I sat with three of the women for most of the afternoon. Throughout the course of the program, they have to work on developing some personal project that they are passionate about – either some business idea that they want to grow, or a community leadership role they want to take initiative on. I served as their advisor, giving them feedback on their ideas and helping them bring more clarity and focus to their plans.

I listened deeply, trying to give each woman the tender and honest respect and encouragement that they need. I would like nothing more than to see these women succeed in their plans.

After our smaller advisory circles, we all joined in a closing circle to offer our final thoughts for the day. There are few things I like more than sitting in a circle of women – especially when those women are talking about stepping into leadership in new ways.

I’m sure that people who saw me on the bus on my way home wondered why I was smiling the whole time.

I was smiling because I’d been touched by so many people throughout the day. First there were the students who’d tenderly held my dream in their hands (and I’d tenderly held theirs in mine), and then there were the women (most of whom have lived difficult lives where trust can not be assumed) who trusted me enough to let me hold their dreams for even a brief moment and offer ideas on how to shape them.

It all felt so very powerful.

This is the way that dreams grow. We plant seeds, add dirt, and then we have to trust other people to help us water those tender shoots when they start to grow.

This is the way that communities grow. We honour each other, give helpful feedback, take risks in trusting each other, and believe in each other’s projects.

This is the way that love grows. We share, we listen, we help, and we give, until each of us shines more beautifully than we did before.

Tears + Art + Healing + Birthdays + Murder = Messy, Painful, Beautiful Life

I was standing at my kitchen sink yesterday afternoon when the tears started flowing down my face.

I wasn’t crying because of the drudgery of having to clean the house again, and again, and again. I was crying for the sheer privilege of being able to clean the house for my daughter’s sixteenth birthday.

Wilma Derksen didn’t get to clean the house for her daughter Candace’s sixteenth birthday. When Candace was just thirteen years old, she disappeared on her way home from school. Six weeks later, her body was found, tied up and frozen in a shed not far from the Derksen’s home.

Just last year, twenty-seven years after Candace’s death, her murderer was finally found and convicted.

Yesterday, before cleaning the house, I visited an art show made up mostly of art created by Cliff Derksen and Odia Reimer, father and sister of Candace, during and after the murderer’s trial. Every piece bore marks of pain, anger, guilt, anguish, and love.

The first piece I saw was a set of simple pencil drawings Cliff drew during the trial. There were sketches of the judge, the security guard, the jury, and various other players in the narrative that was their life for those twenty-three days. Mixed into the human characters were images of the guardian angel that protected them throughout, and the demons who were never far from their minds.

The piece that first made me cry was a set of simple black and white photos Odia took of the steps her sister would have taken on her way home from school. Just a simple, ordinary street, with simple, ordinary stories happening all around, and yet those everyday images took on a whole new layer of meaning because they represented her sister’s last view of the earth. Under the images were snippets of text representing the moments and thoughts the family experienced in the days after Candace’s disappearance – the way they’d been treated by police who interpreted their deep faith as religious fanaticism, the day that five plates were set at the table and one had to be put back in the cupboard, the guilt Wilma felt over not picking her daughter up from school that day.

Below the images stood a sculpture that represented Cliff’s anguish. It was titled “Suspicion” and was ostensibly about his youth, growing up on a farm… “how impossible expectation resulting in judgement, created an environment loaded with suspicion and distrust on all sides.” He felt trapped like the first post of a barbed wire fence – something I could immediately recognize, having grown up on a farm with similar expectations. At the bottom of the text, though, was something I had no way of relating to. “Is this symbolic of my 22 years under suspicion?” Imagine… 22 years he lived with the knowledge that some in the police force suspected him of murdering his own daughter.

My own memory flashed back to the day when I’d returned home to the farm after suffering at the hands of a rapist. My father, overcome with emotion and the pain of knowing he’d been unable to protect his own daughter, left the house for a few moments. When he returned, with great pain in his voice, he told the story of a man he’d once known who’d spent five years of his life hunting for the man who’d raped his daughter, with the intent of killing him. “Suddenly,” my pacifist father said, “I know exactly how he felt.” My father was not under suspicion, but like Candace’s father, he probably felt trapped, knowing he could do nothing to change what had happened.

The next piece that caught my attention was one that I’d seen before – 490 crocheted teardrops created by Odia. 70×7 – the number of times the Bible instructs us to forgive those who’ve wronged us. With each teardrop crocheted, I imagine Odia trying to find a drop of forgiveness in her heart for the man who’d taken her sister from her. I’m sure the tears she shed as she crocheted them were more full of rage than they were of forgiveness.

Upstairs in the gallery, two last pieces provided the final frame for the story that the other pieces began. One was a line of six black and white images of feet drawn by Cliff, called Sacred Ground. Each set of feet represented a different member of his immediate family as they sat in the trial waiting to hear the verdict. Most of the feet were barefoot. During the trial, they’d often removed their shoes to remind themselves that, like Moses at the burning bush, they were on Sacred Ground. God was with them in the courtroom and had been with Candace as she lay dying in the shed. What great faith that simple act of removing their shoes must have required!

The final piece moved me even more than the rest, and makes me determined to go back to the gallery so that I can sit quietly in its presence for a little while longer. It’s a set of 23 crocheted circles in red, black, and cream. Each day that Odia sat in the court room, she crocheted a circle. The colours represent the state of her emotions while she sat and listened to the proceedings – cream for neutral, red for pain, black for rage. Some days were mostly cream, other days were a complex mix of all three, and other days were pure black. One day that intrigued me was almost purely cream, with a tiny shock of black. Not unlike my own mandala practice, she brought the complexity of the experience into a simple circle.

With me at the gallery was my friend Gabby with her two small girls – beautiful, vibrant children who made the viewing of the art even more complex and meaningful. While I processed the sadness, little Sadie was busy pulling treasures out of her bag to show me. One was a large plastic sparkly diamond. Surrounded by stories of death, this little girl reminded me of the joy of life. Our stories are messy and complex and the beauty doesn’t stop even when the sadness overwhelms us.

As I stood at my kitchen sink processing the fullness of what I’d seen, I cried for Wilma and Cliff and Odia and the rest of their family. I cried for the day that Candace would have turned sixteen and their basement wasn’t full of the laughter that would soon ring through mine. I cried for the gift that my three daughters continue to bring to my life. I also cried for the sixteenth birthday I will never be able to host for my son Matthew.

Several years ago, I heard Wilma Derksen interviewed on the radio, and she shared a story about the one year anniversary of Candace’s death. She’d been holding her emotions together, when suddenly she’d noticed fingerprints high up on the wall on the way down the stairs. She knew those could only have been Candace’s fingerprints, left there on the many times she’d bounded down the stairs and jumped up to slap the wall above her on her way down.

As I wiped the fingerprints my own children had left around the house yesterday, I thanked God that there will still be fresh fingerprints to wipe off tomorrow, and the day after that, and… I pray… the day after that. I also thanked God for the fingerprints Matthew left on my heart, though he will never leave any on my walls.

A few weeks ago, I heard Wilma Derksen speak at TEDx Manitoba. She said that one of her greatest learnings during the trial was that you can’t hold two things equally in your heart. Though she tried to hold both love and justice during the trial, she knew that there was not enough space for both. And so, for the sake of her family that remained with her, she chose love.

Yesterday, as I prepared to celebrate my daughter, I too chose love. It’s the same choice my dad made after the rapist harmed me. And the same choice I made eleven years ago after human error resulted in the death of my son.

Again and again, I choose love.

From chaos to creativity

Last night I asked my Creative Discovery students to consider the word chaos.

“What does the word mean to you? What does it conjure up?”

One woman groaned. Her job feels like chaos right now. “It’s being imposed upon me,” she said, “and I HATE it!”

Another woman (the scientist in the circle) spoke of the chaos theory and how random things are always happening. She said that helped her see chaos as a positive thing.

A third woman had a body reaction to the word – said it filled her with dread and angst.

“What I’d like you to consider,” I said, “is that chaos is a necessary step in the journey toward creativity.” And then I presented the change curve.

Before the transforming idea can emerge that will lead us to the new status quo, we have to go through chaos. There are no short cuts. You see it appear in almost every development model – from community development to project management.

CHAOS is a common factor in our lives any time real transformation is about to take place.

Around the circle last night, a few looks of recognition began to appear when they superimposed the change curve on their own lives. Ah yes, they’d been through chaos.

Getting up from my chair, I walked over to a large garbage bag. I picked it up and dumped the contents on the floor. It was full of things I’d collected from my recycling bin and garbage can – cardboard, plastic, styrofoam.

“THIS is chaos,” I said. “Out of this, we’re going to invite creativity to appear.”

“I want you to imagine your life and the space you’d ideally like to live in. What things are of value to you that you want around you? What do you want your community to offer you in order for you to feel comfortable and at home? Work on your own space, but also work as a community to develop a neighbourhood that reflects who you all are and what you value. Go ahead – make something out of chaos.”

The eager ones jumped in right away and started imagining bookstores and coffee shops. The reluctant ones took their time, but before long they too were drawn in.

Out of chaos, beauty started to emerge. A comfy coffee house; a bookstore; a neighbourhood park with a play structure and trees; a farmers’ market with bins full of fresh vegetables; a recycled water bin; an urban garden; a bike rack; a tiny picnic table with a chess board. Given more time, they would have gone on – they were already talking about building art galleries and neighbourhood learning spaces.

When we were done, we all gazed lovingly at our new tiny home. It was clear what we all valued – community, green spaces, books, good food, comfort, and friendship.  There were no freeways or big box stores in sight.

At the end of the class, nobody wanted to put their new creation back into the garbage bag. This was no longer garbage – it was art and ideas and little bits of their dreams.

That classroom last night was a tiny microcosm of the world in which we live. It may feel like chaos right now, with a lot of garbage we’ve created cluttering up our lives and making us feel trapped. And yet, out of chaos, creativity emerges. When push comes to shove, and when we give space for our community and our values, something beautiful can come out of this mess.

Last night’s playtime gave me hope.

Now let’s go play with the garbage and make something beautiful.


– Photo source for the change curve: Jurgen Appelo

– Inspiration for last night’s activity, my friend Sophia’s photos of cardboard city. Check out Halifax in cardboard!

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