I didn’t rake the leaves off the lawn this Fall. My climate activist daughter regularly sends me articles about how the dead leaves create biodiversity in the backyard, serving as places for insects (including pollinators) to hibernate, and then, in the Spring, bringing more birds and flowers to the yard. As for the leaves I needed to clean off the patio and walkway – I built a backyard composter where they can rot into food for the soil.
The neighbours on both sides of my yard raked their leaves, so there’s a clear line between their property and mine – crunchy leaves on one side, grass on the other.
As much as I believe in more healthy symbiosis with the natural world, I will admit I struggled with the decision not to rake. Nobody wants to be THAT neighbour – the one whose cluttered yard is talked about in whispered tones because of the way it brings the property values down. Though I don’t need it to be pristine, I wanted it to be at least as orderly as the neighbours’. (Somebody in our neighbourhood once gave their next-door-neighbour $500 to temporarily clean the clutter from the yard while their house was up for sale.)
I recognize how vain this makes me sound – that I would make decisions that could negatively impact the environment based on what the neighbours think. But it’s the truth, isn’t it? Even when we pretend we’re not paying attention to our neighbours, friends, and family, we’re always at least somewhat aware of the ways that we stand out, the ways we’re seen as odd, and the ways we’re judged for not having our lives together. We do it in our neighbourhoods, at our schools and workplaces, and online. We don’t really grow out of our childhood need to fit in.
But change doesn’t happen until someone is willing to be the outlier, and so I’ll leave my leaves and if they ask about it, I’ll tell them about the insects and the birds. And if my leaves blow onto their lawns, I’ll offer to rake them back onto mine.
This decision, while a minor one in the grand scheme of things, is making me think about the many ways that we choose to hide our messes so that the neighbours don’t see them and so that we conform to the (often unspoken) collective norms and expectations of the places where we live and work. Even if our lives are messy behind closed doors, we want to project the appearance of having shiny, happy, orderly lives.
It’s a cultural thing (especially in wealthier western countries), it’s a neighbourhood thing (especially in the suburbs), and it’s a capitalist thing (especially among those who want others to see that they have the kind of success that is valued within capitalism). In an era of social media, it’s even more prevalent, because we are always peeking into the virtual windows of other people’s curated lives. (Be honest – how often have you moved things out of the frame before you’ve taken a photo to post on social media? The pressure is real, isn’t it?)
On an interview for a parenting podcast, recently, the interviewer asked me to speculate on why, when change is such a constant in our lives, so few of us are truly equipped to handle change in our lives. My answer was some version of this… “Change comes with disruption and messiness. And we have been led to believe, in our culture, that truly successful lives are those without the messiness. When the mess shows up, and we don’t have control over it, we assume we must be doing something wrong.”
We are always comparing our own lives to the curated versions of other people’s lives. If they don’t show their messes, we assume that they don’t HAVE messes. But they do. We all do. Life is messy. We break things. We spill things. We hurt people. We get hurt. We get overwhelmed and incapable of the simplest tasks. We get triggered back to the less mature versions of ourselves. We get resentful of our kids who NEVER clean up after themselves. We get angry with ourselves because “WHY didn’t we teach our kids better?!” We get depressed. We get anxious. We fumble. We fail. ALL OF US.
What if we showed more of that messiness? What if we divested ourselves of the toxic values systems of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy and we stopped trying to perform to some ridiculous and unreachable standards of perfection? What if we let our bulges spill out over our jeans, left our leaves on the lawn to make happy homes for the critters, left the dirty dishes in the sink when we’re taking photos to share on Instagram, and let people know when it feels like the world is crushing us? What if we agreed to no longer play by the rules that place value on curated lives? What if we invited people into our homes even when we haven’t dusted the furniture in weeks (and then didn’t apologize)? What if we wrote letters to all of the marketers who try to tell us our lives aren’t good enough and we told them we’ll never buy anything from anyone who markets from that kind of manipulative, scarcity mindset?
Maybe then we’d nap more, play more, eat more, and laugh more. Maybe then we’d crawl around on our hands and knees and stare at the pretty bugs gathering under our scattered leaves. Maybe then we’d lean into new ways of being in relationship, where value is placed on presence and not perfection. Maybe then we’d be less hard on ourselves and we’d smile at ourselves when we look in the mirror. Maybe then we’d wake up and realize how much we’ve been manipulated into the kind of shame and self-judgement that keeps us from being real.
People often ask me why it’s so hard to hold space for other people when they’re going through the mess of the liminal space, and I usually say “When you can become more comfortable with your own mess, then you can become more comfortable with other people’s messes. When you stop seeing yourself as someone who needs to be fixed, then you’ll stop trying to fix other people. And when you stop believing that you only have value when you’re DOING something productive and meaningful, then you’ll become better practiced at simply BEING with another person.”
There is a LOT of value in being the kind of friend who is unphased by the mess, who can sit with someone and deeply listen, seeing through to their heart without being distracted by the things that are out of order. There is a LOT of value in being silent when someone simply needs a listening ear and not advice. There is a LOT of value in your presence and your acceptance and your love. And yet… so often we overlook that value and only focus on the value of that which feels more active, productive, and “useful”.
Another question I’ve been asked a few times on interviews recently, and which seems related, is “What about cancel culture? Can we truly have deep and meaningful conversations, and wade into conflict (especially online), when we’re all afraid of saying the wrong thing and being canceled?” Here are my thoughts on cancel culture… It wouldn’t exist if we didn’t live in a culture rooted in capitalism and patriarchy that has placed so much value on perfectionism, ease, order, and power. If we hadn’t developed this skewed belief system that, with the right work ethics, the right thoughts, the right courses, the right purchases, and the right intentions, we can all have perfect, easy lives, we wouldn’t be at risk of being ‘canceled’.
If we all showed our messes more regularly, then we wouldn’t have these ridiculous and unattainable standards of perfection that lead to inevitable failure. If we were open and honest about our fumbling and failure, took responsibility for the harm we’ve done, made amends, and didn’t have so much fear of having our messes exposed, then we would no longer be at risk of being torn off the hollow pedestals that were never meant to hold our weight in the first place.
Take J.K. Rowling, for example – I believe that if she had truly listened, early on when she was first challenged about trans rights, and that she’d been willing to fumble in her attempts to understand what she was being challenged with (and make necessary repairs), then I don’t think there would have been so many people ready to tear her down. We tear down those who don’t live up to our expectations of perfection – expectations that have been skewed by our celebrity-worshiping, humanity devaluing culture. We also tear down those who don’t take responsibility for messing up.
We are not meant to be perfect people. None of us are – not even the celebrities our culture elevates to ridiculous heights. We’ve been manipulated into striving for that perfection, believing it’s attainable, idolizing it when we see glimpses of it in others, and spending more and more of our time and money trying to at least create the illusion that we are close to it.
It’s all a lie. It’s a messed-up fairytale that you’ve been taught since childhood so that you’ll spend more of your money on useless things and abdicate your power to those you believe have greater value than you do.
It’s time to divest of those belief systems and the cultural systems that prop them up. It’s time to live more honest and messy lives. It’s time to stop trying to fix ourselves and other people. It’s time to stop spending our money on things that don’t truly bring us joy. It’s time to stop changing our bodies to meet some ridiculous standards of beauty.
It’s time to let our leaves rot so that they can nourish new life.
If you’d like to learn more about how to live with the messiness of life and hold space for yourself and others in the midst of it, there is still time to sign up for the Holding Space Foundation Program that starts next week.
Listen to me read this…
I am a meaning maker. A word warrior. A truth teller.
To me, the written word is like a flashlight, illuminating the darkness just enough so that I can see the next place my foot should land on the path. When I read other people’s words, they light the path for me. When I write my own words, I hold the flashlight for myself. And when I share those words, I turn the flashlight back and light the path for those who come after me.
Right now, I want to have words. I want to read them, write them, and share them. I want to cling to them like a lifeline.
I want to make sense of this strange world we’re living in. I want to illuminate the liminal space of COVID19 — with other people’s words and with my own. I want to know where to put my feet and I want to shine the light so that others will find firm footing too.
I turn to the poets and they lend me some comfort and meaning, but none of their poems fully satisfy the ache. I turn to my journal, but mostly I stare at a blank page. I turn to the stack of books on my nightstand, but none resonate with the tuning fork of this particular moment in history.
More than anything, I want to give a name to this thing that’s taken up residence in the pit of my stomach.
To name it is to tame it, I tell myself, as I wrack my brain for the right words for these emotions. Fear? Existential dread? Claustrophobia? Anxiety? Grief? Agitation? Restlessness? Loneliness? Emptiness? Malaise? Distrust? Despair? Anger?
What about the spaces in between the emotions, or the spaces where they overlap? Is there a word for grief-anxiety? Or loneliness-agitation? Is there a way to capture the way they swell up in me, one on top of the other?
What about the times when the emotions settle into little more than a dull ache – like mild indigestion in the pit of my stomach? And… is that joy that’s unexpectedly peaking through now and then? Or hopefulness? Peace? Ease? Restfulness? Are those things real or am I just imagining them?
What about the collective emotions? Is this thing in the pit of my stomach only mine, or am I holding a piece of something much bigger than me? How does this shadow of fear that’s spread over the whole planet feel when it lands in my own gut? What about my children’s emotions – do they swell up in my body the way their tiny bodies once lived in my womb?
I feel the questions fill me, but I don’t find any answers. I ponder, for a moment, whether we need a new name for this emotion – something to mark the newness of the place we find ourselves in. Covidaphobia? Coronanxiety? Is there something that will capture the many layers of uncertainty and loss and instability and unfairness and complexity? Is there something that speaks to the macro (the number of people who will potentially die or have their lives destroyed from this) and the micro (the small day-to-day ways that I and my family are impacted)?
No answers land. No words show up on the page. There is nothing that makes sense in this senseless landscape.
And so I go to my basement and pull out the large canvas I’d been saving to someday make something pretty with. But I don’t want to make it pretty today. I want it to hold the things I can’t put into words. I want it to be messy and unfinished and liminal and therapeutic.
I splash paint on the surface and, foregoing the paint brush, thrust my hand into the paint, swirling it around, spreading it to the edges of the canvas. It feels good to have my hand covered in paint.
At first I have to resist the urge to make it meaningful, to make it “say” something. My old ways of making meaning bubble to the surface and I want to translate what I’m feeling into something that makes sense – something logical and with shape. Would an ocean with waves represent how this feels? Is it the heart of coronavirus I want to express on the canvas? Is it a spiral? A globe? A labyrinth? A cave?
But every time I try to make it familiar and understandable, I feel constricted and frustrated. This is something different. It’s messy. It’s a process. Its meaning is in the doing, not in the outcome.
It’s sometimes ugly and sometimes beautiful. It’s sometimes dark and sometimes light. There are moments when I love it and moments when I hate it. There are moments when it cracks me open and the grief erupts like a volcano from my body. There are moments when it stills the churning in my body and I finally find the peace that has eluded me in many weeks. There are moments when I feel myself dancing with lightness as I paint and moments when I want to burn it all to the ground.
I’m tempted to stop in a moment when I like what’s on the canvas. But that feels like cheating – like falling back on an old pattern – so I pour black paint on my hand and drag it through my favourite bits on the canvas. The black feels like truth.
When my body tells me there’s nothing left in me to express, I stop. And in that moment I look down and realize that what’s left on my hand is the most beautiful part.
The next day, I go back to the canvas. Again, I spill more paint and drag it across the canvas. This time a shape emerges. Sometimes it looks like a giant eye, sometimes it looks like lips. Again, I drag black through it. And then silver. And then I drag my finger nails down the page until it looks like everything on the page is caught behind prison bars. And then drops of red, like blood dripping down the canvas.
The emotional waves rise and fall, but they feel easier to hold this time – less constricted. Whatever shows up in my body shows up on the canvas. I don’t try to give anything names – only colours.
Whenever I look down at my hand, I see that it is beautiful. I resist the urge to give that meaning – instead I simply notice it.
The canvas never makes sense. But at the same time, it makes all the sense in the world.
I will keep going back to it, again and again, adding layer upon layer as long as this liminal space keeps us in this shapeless, senseless void. I will let it tell my body things that my brain can’t understand.
I will pour my feelings out through my hand onto the canvas and I won’t wrestle them into meaning.
I will simply let them be.
Saturday was going to be a perfect day. I didn’t have much planned, so I could get some of my long overdue cleaning done, and then enjoy the irresistible Spring weather with a bike ride, a wander in the woods – maybe even a trip to the zoo. Maddy was vying for ice cream. It was going to be full of ease and fun, mixed in with a little bit of cleaning.
Saturday turned out to be a far-from-perfect day. After deciding it would be best to start the day with a bike ride, Maddy and I headed to the garage for our bikes. I never made it to my bike. At the bottom step into the garage, my ankle collapsed (I think I stepped on the edge of something on the floor), my foot hit the floor at a weird angle, and I was suddenly face to face with the concrete, writhing in pain.
A few hours later, after the pain got increasingly worse, an emergency room practitioner told me that I’d broken a bone in my foot. I limped back out into that irresistible Spring weather on crutches and in a cast. No bike ride, no wandering in the woods, no trip to the zoo.
It got worse. That evening, limping into the bathroom, I suddenly felt very dizzy. “I think I might pass out,” I shouted to my husband, and then woke up on the floor, my face next to the toilet.
It got worse. My husband and daughter got me onto the toilet, and then the vomiting started. And more passing out. And more vomiting. (This is not new – when I vomit, I usually pass out at least once. Nobody knows why.) In between the vomiting and passing out was the weeping and extreme self-pity. “Why is this shit happening to me?” I wailed. I suspect I got food poisoning from the creamy coleslaw my husband picked up at the grocery store.
I’d like to say I’ve been in a perfectly good place since then – that I came to terms with the injury, put it into perspective, and cheerfully adapted my life around this inconvenience. Because I’m just that evolved. That would be a lie.
Sure, there have been moments when I’ve had a remarkably good attitude, when I tell people “I guess the universe thought I should sit down for awhile,” or “just when I was teaching a lesson on surrender for my Lead with Your Wild Heart program, I got a bonus lesson myself,” or “perhaps this will be a good time to work on my book, since I can’t do much more than sit.”
But there have been lots of moments in between those good-attitude-moments when waves of self-pity wash over me. “Isn’t it enough that my mom died and my husband had a heart attack in the last six months – do I really need ANOTHER challenge in my life?” or “Doesn’t God know that I really, really need those Springtime walks in the woods to help heal me from an extremely tough winter? How can this be fair?” or “I have two trips, half a dozen classes and workshops to teach, AND my annual visit to the Folk Festival coming up in the next month and a half – how the hell am I supposed to do all of those things on crutches?!?” or “I just want to phone my Mom and let her feel sorry for me for awhile. It is so FUCKING unfair that I can’t phone my Mom anymore!”
The waves come and the waves go, and I try to weather them all. Self-pitying-whiny-woman, super-spiritual-accepting-woman, angry-bitter-why-me-woman, stoic-and-determined-not-to-let-this-get-the-better-of-me-woman – all of those people reside in my head, along with a few of their friends.
Here I am, sitting in the middle of all of that, trying to find the simplicity in the complexity of these voices, trying to be okay with what shows up, and trying to extend grace to every version of myself as she appears.
This is my practice.
Telling super-spiritual-accepting-woman that she doesn’t need to make so much effort to find the path straight to the deeper learning. And when she retorts with “But… I’m a TEACHER! Teachers are supposed to be wise and find lessons in things and…” simply smiling and telling her that it’s okay, the learning can wait.
Holding the hand of stoic-and-determined-not-to-let-this-get-the-better-of-me-woman while she tries to figure out a way to prove to the world that she is superwoman and can still cook supper, teach her classes, and accomplish great things, and letting her sink into her weakness for awhile instead. “It’s okay – your husband and kids are perfectly capable of fixing supper and doing the laundry. And – just look at that! They’re doing it willingly!”
Choosing not to beat up on self-pitying-whiny-woman when she needs to feel sorry for herself, but just letting the tears flow for awhile, observing the hurt that is behind them. “You’re human – you’re allowed to have human emotions.” While she cries, just trying to be the compassionate mother I would be to my own children, or that my mother would be to me if she were here.
Biting my tongue against the platitudes that are intended to fix angry-bitter-why-me-woman, like, “it could be so much worse – you could have broken BOTH feet!” and “what right do you have to complain about First World problems when people are starving?”, but rather letting the waves of anger pass and extending kindness to her in the moment. “Fixing” usually turns out to be more like “putting a bandaid on a wound that needs air”.
This is my practice.
Being present for what is.
Simply noticing the emotions – the hurt, the anger, the frustration, and the sadness – and letting it all pass.
Letting the healing and beauty show up in little moments – the way the light makes the leaves outside my window glow – instead of desperately clinging to my need to walk in the woods.
Welcoming gratitude when it comes. Like when my daughters willingly show up with food or help pick me up off the floor.
Extending grace to myself, again and again.
Letting people help me.
Letting myself be wounded.
Letting my heart feel broken.
Letting myself be healed.
Seeking patience, one little moment at a time.
Seeking acceptance of who I am.
Inviting myself to keep learning.
This is my practice.
There’s a good reason why it’s called “practice”. It doesn’t come all at once. It comes only as I commit to it, again and again, and start over again each time I fail.
This morning I failed. I cried. And it was what it was.
This is my practice.
It was remarkable how many people responded to my last post, through emails, comments, and Facebook posts. Repeatedly people said some version of: “YES! This is what I need too! I’ve been feeling so lost and your post felt like permission to tear up the maps and simply surrender to the path that lays itself out before me.”
It seems a lot of people need lack-of-vision boards instead of vision boards. It seems we all need to re-learn the importance of surrender.
In our goal-obsessed, vision-board-creating, be-busy-or-be-nothing, success-driven culture, we have forgotten something that’s really, really important.
There is great value in getting lost.
It’s true. We can’t go through the journey of life without letting ourselves get profoundly lost sometimes. The places where we get lost – where we surrender to the spiritual spirals that takes us into a deeper knowing, where we give up on the expected outcome and let something new emerge – those are the places in which we are transformed.
Yesterday, I curled up in bed next to my Mom and I wept over the way cancer is stealing her body and her energy. I wept for the things we can no longer do together. I wept for the future ahead that looks foreign and unfriendly. I wept for the great loss that the end of her life will bring. I wept because I felt utterly and completely lost.
Nobody gives you a roadmap for losing a parent. Nobody teaches you a course in how to watch cancer destroy someone you love. Nobody prepares you for a detour into the spiralling vortex of grief.
This one thought gave me some comfort me in my grief… I am SUPPOSED to feel lost. I’m supposed to feel like a ship that’s lost its anchor, tossed about on these unpredictable waves of longing and loss. I’m supposed to feel like the ground has been pulled out from underneath me and I am desperately clutching for something to keep me from falling.
This is all part of the process. This is all part of my journey.
Don’t get me wrong – just because I am deeply familiar with the chaos of grief, doesn’t make this easy. It’s excruciating and I’m fighting my way through waves of anger, heartache, and bitterness. “Must I go through this AGAIN?!” I shout to the heavens. “Isn’t it enough that Dad died in a ditch and it felt like that tractor had driven over my heart and not just his? Do you have to take Mom away too?”
I rant and I rave and I cry, but at least I give myself permission to be lost. At least I don’t have any unrealistic expectations of “closure” or “acceptance” or “5 steps through grief”.
Back in June, I took part in a change lab in which we walked through Theory U, a rich and meaningful process that helps groups (and individuals) move through change by letting go of the past, “presencing” what is to come, and then, with an open heart and open mind, letting the new thing come. It wasn’t ostensibly designed to teach us about grief, but grief is part of every change process and so the two are closely intertwined. To get through any transformational change, we need to let go and let come. Like walking the labyrinth, we need to release, receive, and return.
In this profound place of loss in which I find myself again, I’m taking another deep dive into the U curve, letting go of the past, accepting the chaos, being present in the loss. All the while, I am connecting to Source, opening my heart and opening my mind to the new future.
This will change me. I will shed a lot of tears and release a lot of anger. It will tear me apart and then rebuild me into something new. It will be a stronger version of myself. I know this to be true. I am stronger for the paths of grief I have walked down. I am wiser for the loss I have suffered. I am more compassionate because I have graves to visit. I can call myself a “guide on the path through chaos to creativity” because I am deeply familiar with chaos and loss.
Remember this… You have permission to be lost. You have permission to let go. You have permission to dive into the bottom of the U, not knowing what will emerge after the surrender. You have permission to cry and rant and rave. You have permission to tear up maps and destroy the pretence of paths. You have permission to not make any goals but instead to surrender to what comes.
Let go, and then let come. And in between, keep breathing.