I remember the day clearly. I don’t remember the date, but it must have been a warm summer day, because I was wearing my favourite turquoise summer dress.
I was walking home from church pushing a double stroller with a toddler and infant inside. I was glad that my children couldn’t see me because I was crying.
I was lonely. I’d just been to a new church because I was seeking some form of community, but it hadn’t happened that morning. I’d had to spend the whole service in the nursery caring for my children and there had been no opportunities to make the kind of connections I was craving. I’d slipped out of church when nobody came to speak with me after the service. I was feeling too insecure and overwhelmed to reach out to them, so when they didn’t come to me, I left.
That was the loneliest period of my life. With two small children and a full-time job, I had little time for a social life. Most of the friends I’d had before children were either busy with their own children or were childless and didn’t understand my new reality. At work, I’d moved into a management position, so didn’t feel as welcome in the lunchroom conversations as I once was.
More than anything, though, I felt like I no longer knew HOW to make friends. I’ve always been better at deep connections than small-talk, so the brief conversations with other parents at the playground did little to feed my hunger. At work I wasn’t making deep enough connections either, because the further I moved up in management, the more it seemed that people were guarded and not interested in really knowing each other.
This week, I thought back to that young woman crying on the sidewalk, walking her children home, and I teared up at the memory. How lost and lonely she was! How much she craved depth and meaning and friendship!
I’m not that young woman anymore. This past week, as I traveled from Portland to Ashland to L.A. to Reno, connecting with some of my closest friends and sparking new friendships along the way, I realized just how far I’ve come since that moment. I now have an abundance of deep friendships, both at home and in places as far away as Australia. In fact, I’ve built a business on deep conversations and holding space, and so the very things I once craved are the things that are now the core of my work.
That’s how it works, sometimes, and that’s why I don’t regret those lonely moments. I wouldn’t know just how beautiful this life is if I’d never glimpsed the opposite. And I wouldn’t be able to relate to my clients if I’d never known loneliness or loss or disconnection. Those moments in the liminal space helped to shape me and teach me and prepare me for this work.
Last week, I was in Reno for a few days, connecting with my dear friends Lorraine and TuBears, who I met five years ago at Lake Tahoe at the annual gathering for Gather the Women. While I was there, we had such a beautiful connection, that we decided to share one of our conversations with you. In the video, we talked about what kind of conditions help to create the kind of trust and depth we enjoy in our relationship.
Since then, I’ve been thinking more about those conditions for deep and meaningful friendships. Here’s what I came up with:
1.) Do your own work. Though meaningful friendships can and should help support growth, you can’t rely on friends to do your inner work for you. Showing up with too much neediness and not enough sense of your own responsibility to work through your weakness, jealousy, anger, fear, etc. will either destroy the friendship or make it so lopsided it won’t hold the kind of depth you crave.
2.) Let your friends do their own work. Just as you can’t rely on a friend to do your work, you can’t do theirs either. Let them take responsibility for their hang-ups, mistakes, and emotions. And when they’re feeling lost, walk beside them and offer a light to illuminate the path, but don’t take responsibility for their journey.
3.) Take chances. Deep friendships are built on trust and you can’t build trust if you don’t take some risks, share some secrets, and open your heart just a little more than what feels safe. This doesn’t happen all at once, but as you build trust, keep offering a little more of yourself so that your friend can help hold what you might not share with other people.
4.) Be trustworthy. Guard your friend’s secrets, show up when you say you’re going to show up, and apologize when you mess up. Be the kind of person they can trust, who’s dependable and faithful. And take responsibility for it when you fail so that you can begin to rebuild the trust.
5.) Be an advocate and an ally. Sometimes friendship is about standing up for each other or at least standing alongside each other when there are forces working against you. If your friend faces discrimination that you don’t face, learn to be the kind of ally that they most need and want (that may look different for each person). If they face abuse and are having trouble standing up for themselves, find ways of advocating for them without taking their power away.
6.) Be open to change. Friends change us and we change them. When a relationship grows, it creates the possibility for something new in each person and in the space in between – the “we space”. Be willing to learn from the other person and from the places and ideas that you explore together. Don’t cling to an old identity – evolve along with the relationship.
7.) Support each other’s greatness. The best kind of friends are those who aren’t intimidated by someone’s success or strength. There might be moments of jealousy now and then, and the sense that you’ve been left behind (we’re all human, after all), but don’t let that get in the way of your friendship. Don’t assume that they don’t need you anymore, because the truth is that they probably need you MORE. Success can feel like a surprisingly scary and lonely place sometimes. Be there for them through the success AND the failure and trust that they’ll be there for you too.
8.) Pay attention to what they need and be honest about what you need. Friendship is symbiotic and reciprocal. It’s not transactional (ie. I give you something and then you owe me something in return) – it’s an ebb and flow of meeting whosever needs are most relevant in the moment, with as much balance as possible. When trust is built, you can be more honest about what your needs are and when you think those aren’t being met, and you can receive the honesty of your friend in the same way.
9.) Respect their boundaries and communicate your own. In a friendship, there is usually some unspoken agreement about what is acceptable and unacceptable. It can be helpful to speak it out loud so that all involved have clarity and know how best to respect each other. If, for example, you have a family commitment on Sundays that means you aren’t available to your friends, let them know that Sundays are off limits and expect them to respect those limits. Or if you don’t like receiving text messages after 10 p.m., say so and then don’t respond to their late night texts. And if your friend communicates similar boundaries, don’t make fun of them or push past them – respect them.
10.) Don’t run away from conflict. At some point in every friendship, conflict bubbles to the surface. Instead of running away, try to see it as an opportunity to deepen your friendship. The deepest friendships are those that weather a few storms, so step into the conflict and see what it has to teach you. Perhaps the conflict will help you to better articulate a boundary that was inadvertently crossed. Or your friend will figure out how to talk about the trauma that was triggered unknowingly. Sometimes conflict is generative instead of destructive.
There is no perfect friendships because there are no perfect people. No matter how strong your friendship is, you may still fail or betray your friend and they may still do the same to you. And sometimes, even with lots of friends, you’ll still have lonely moments (which I have, occasionally, when I’m the only single person at a party full of couples). But regardless, life is richer when you make the effort to invest in deep and meaningful friendships.
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Want to know more about growing deep and meaningful relationships? We talk a lot about this in the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program AND you’ll have the added bonus of growing friendships with people from all over the world who enrol in the program with you. If you’d rather study with me in-person, join me in B.C. or the Netherlands.
Yesterday I had the privilege of participating in a sharing circle for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A few years ago, our government apologized to our First Nations people for the injustice that had been done for generations, when young children were taken away from their families and forced to live in residential schools. These circles offer all of us an opportunity to seek healing as a country.
In the circle, we were asked to share how we had personally been impacted by residential schools, what we believe reconciliation means, and how our countries and communities can heal. Only a few of the people in the circle had been to residential schools themselves, but all of us have been impacted by the deep wounds our country bears.
I sat with tears in my eyes as I listened to the stories. One woman shared about how bewildered she’d been as a four year old when her older sister had disappeared from their home, and then how she too had one day disappeared. Another women talked about the abuse she’d suffered at the hands of her alcoholic husband who’d been a residential school survivor. A young man, who works as a videographer at sharing circles like this one, talked about how the priests and nuns at some of these schools had put needles into the tongues of children who were caught speaking their indigenous language while at school.
Almost every First Nations person who talked expressed the shame that the residential schools system had instilled in their culture. Whether they’d been to residential schools themselves or been raised by parents or grandparents who were survivors, each and every one of them carried the burden of being an oppressed people, made to feel less than their oppressors. It was a painful reminder that healing from oppression takes many generations.
As the talking piece rounded the circle, I wrestled with what I would offer into the circle. Did I have any right to say anything in the midst of this pain? And yet… did I have a right to remain silent?
An interesting thing happened around the diverse and multicultural circle. Those who shed the most tears were often the people of caucasian descent. It was clear that the shame in the circle was not only among the indigenous people. Those who are descendants of the oppressors also need to be healed from the pain that their ancestors have caused.
By the time the talking piece finally reached me, I knew what I needed to say.
“My name is Heather… and… more than anything, I don’t want to be racist. And yet… there is one thing I know and that is that reconciliation needs to begin with me. Before I can be part of the healing process, I need to peel away the layers of my own stories, find the seeds of the oppressor buried in me, and address them.”
It’s easy for me to say that the residential schools are not my burden to bear. I didn’t pull any children out of their homes or pierce their tongues with needles. I don’t need to carry the blame for that.
And yet… as the writers of The Shadow Effect remind me, we cannot escape the shadows of our ancestors. The darkness that was in them still exists in us. The shadow that caused them to take brutal action against others remains rooted in our culture and we cannot expect it to go away unless we address it head on.
We are all oppressors.
We are all colonizers.
We all have the shadow in us.
We can’t fight the shadow and we can’t bury it. The only way to address it is to befriend it, to peel away the layers that keep it hidden, look it directly in its face, and take the lessons we need to learn from it.
Here is a piece of my shadow that I hate to look at… I am a racist. I judge other people based on their race. I don’t do it overtly, and I fight desperately hard not to do it at all, but I know that when I see a homeless person on the street, or I sit on the bus next to someone who smells funny, a tiny little shadowy voice inside me whispers in my ear that it has something to do with their race. That’s what oppression does – it infects generations of descendants on both sides of the divide whether they want to admit it or not.
Recently I heard Bishop Desmond Tutu talk about the post-apartheid days in South Africa. He’d been a leader in the movement to end apartheid, but one day he realized how deep the roots of oppression had grown in his own heart. In an airplane one day, he’d discovered that the pilot was a black African man. His first thought was “Isn’t this great? We’ve finally arrived! We’re able to fly planes now!” But then, when the plane hit turbulence, the instantaneous thought that entered his mind was “is a black man capable enough to keep us safe?” That’s when he realized that deep in his heart, he’d let the oppressors convince him that his people had less value.
That’s how insidious oppression is. Even when we don’t recognize it, there can still be tiny hints of it that emerge in our most threatened or vulnerable moments.
When I look at the roots of my own personal battle with racism, I can find the stories in my past that helped it grow. When I was twenty one years old, I was raped by an Aboriginal man who smelled of glue and rubbing alcohol and had a large tattoo of a naked woman on his arm. He climbed through my window and destroyed my innocence and illusions of safety in my own home.
Now, as I look back at that event in my life, through the thickening lens of the many years that have passed, I can see how that pain story (and others like it) has contributed to the way that I have lived and the way I have treated people.
There are so many complex layers of pain in that story – both my pain and that of my rapist. That’s what oppression does – it builds layers of pain on us as individuals and us as communities of people, layers we can’t easily shake. My rapist, bearing the burden of addiction – most certainly as the result of the oppression he’d born and his ancestors had born before him – becomes the aggressor. The oppressed becomes the oppressor as he attempts to colonize women’s bodies through acts of rape and by tattooing their naked bodies on his skin. Pain is infectious – it wants to spread from one person to the next.
I, in turn, a child of privilege and a descendent of oppressors, in that moment became the oppressed – the victim. It’s a vicious cycle.
The next bit is the tricky part… do I let that pain story continue unchallenged? Do I justify my racism, and continue to look down my nose at the homeless First Nations people I encounter on the downtown streets? Do I toss everyone into the same category as my rapist? Do I continue the cycle of abuse?
Or do I take a good hard look at the shadow and see what I can learn from it?
This is not an easy story to tell. I want you to think that I have never acted out of racist intent – that I have been kind to every person I’ve met, regardless of their race or social status. I want you to believe that I am above that and have never perpetuated the cycle of abuse. I have very good relationships with people of many cultures and I try desperately hard to treat them all with respect and equality. In fact, in my university days, my best friend was a Aboriginal man, and I am now married to a Metis man. See? I have overcome the cycle! That’s the story I want you to know about me.
And yet… the shadow still emerges sometimes. I can’t deny it. I hurt people by not honouring their dignity. I let my fear keep me from looking people in the eyes sometimes. I avoid neighbourhoods where I might encounter my shadow.
As I sat in that circle last night, I wept for the pain that I had born and the pain that I had caused. I wept for the colonizers and the colonized. I wept for the pain stories that all of us carry and all of us continue to perpetuate, even in small and seemingly harmless ways. I wept for the shame of being a child of the oppressors. I wept for my rapist and for his family – for the pain they continue to carry. I wept… and then I offered an apology for all of the little ways that I had perpetuated the cycle.
Before it was my turn, two young Aboriginal men had shared their stories of trying to rise above the oppression and become leaders and change-makers in their communities. Their stories inspired me, and – more importantly – offered me one more piece of my healing journey. Seeing young men who are willing to stare down the shadow, rise above it, and bring their people’s pain stories into the light offered me a different paradigm for Aboriginal men than my rapist had imprinted on me. It was an honour to sit in circle with them.
After the circle had ended, I asked each of those men if I could give them a hug. They both were more than willing to accept. Perhaps in that gesture I have offered them a bit of healing too.
The last question each of us was asked to address was our thoughts on how our country will be healed. That question is far too big for me. I don’t know what it takes to heal a country and I don’t think anyone does.
I do know, however, that what heals me begins to heal a country. And the thing that will continue to offer me healing is the opportunity to sit in circle. Sitting in circles peels away the layers of hierarchy that we are all so used to in our culture. Sharing stories offers us the opportunity to see each other through new lenses. Befriending people who are different from us helps us shift our paradigms and change the world one friendship at a time.
Circles give us the chance to sit in equal positions, looking into each others’ eyes, listening deeply to each others’ stories, and re-building a bit of that trust that has been destroyed by so much of our history.
We need more circles. We need circles in our classrooms, circles in our governments, and circles in our homes. We need circles and we need friendship. That’s where healing begins.
One of the things I love most about the work that I now do and the learning I do to support it, is that I’ve had the opportunity to develop deep and beautiful friendships with many amazing women of all generations. As I wrote in this post, I believe that we must all take responsibility for being conduits of this wisdom work – both receiving support and wisdom from women of older generations, and passing it down to the generations following us.
One of the women who has served as mentor and friend to me (and, truth be told, I have also had the opportunity to return the mentorship, so it’s a mutual benefit thing) is Margaret Sanders. I met her last year at a circle/story workshop, and I was drawn in almost immediately by the warmth and wisdom I saw on her face. She is an amazingly gifted educator, mentor, host, and wisdom-sharer.
It has become increasingly clear to me that we, as middle-aged (and younger) women, need strong role models in the generation ahead of us. We need women like Margaret who have forged a new path for women in leadership to support us, encourage us, and lend us their wisdom. I am grateful that I have Margaret in my corner, believing in what I do and challenging me to continue to move forward.
I asked Margaret to share a bit about her life as she steps into this new stage of “active wisdom”, and this is what she wrote…
I am a woman who turned 65 this year, and it rocked my world! Not just a minor tremor. It’s been a full-scale earthquake.
I believe there is significance in my story for others, because I have come to realize that I am at the front line of a surging crowd of baby boomers who are about to face the same thing.
This is my story from the front line:
I don’t see myself as a senior person, but other people do. The arrival of my Canada Old Age Benefit Card in the mail (seriously – who knew?) confirmed my new status as a person. Over the past year, colleagues who valued my presence in working with them or mentoring them have moved on in their careers, and that has caused me to question what I ever could do – or did know. I have been mired in the ditch of questioning whether and where I have value to contribute to this world.
I left my job as a school principal to care for my mother when my father died. She suffered from dementia, and needed “mothering” until her death a few years ago. I successfully reinvented my professional work to be able to give her the kind of loving attention she gave me all of my life.
It’s startling to realize that I am in this situation as a pioneer; I have no role models in my family history for what it means to be a professional woman. As a woman who has been successful and highly regarded for her expertise, who must re-find her place in the world upon seeing opportunities for paid “work” vanish, coincidentally, as the 65 year mark arrived.
Because I have been a new kind of mother model for my 40ish age children, they are extremely competent and confident professionals, spouses and parents who have no need of mothering. I’ve done myself out of that historical elder role.
I have Wisdom, expertise, energy and good health, and I am not sure what to do with those gifts in the currents of today’s world.
My views are broad, wide and long-term and I have come to see things in the way of Proust’s simplicity on the other side of complexity. Younger professionals are focusing on the absolute necessity of meeting today’s challenges. Their lives are frequently frenetic, and they have little time to “waste. ” [We live on completely different planes, and necessarily so – but my deepest instincts tell me that my wisdom has potential for changing their lives.]
I have lots and lots of things that I want to do to remain stimulated and independent and contributing over the next few years. There is a cost associated with all of these things. I want to continue to be paid for the value that I possess. I am trying to figure out how that might work.
So, I am at the point of reinvention again. Unlike all of the other transition points in my life where things seemed to resolve fairly quickly, it is taking a while to rebuild who I am and what I am about. But the good news today is that I know my experience is going to add up to something significant. And my reason for that today is that we have a new 46 year old premier-elect in Alberta, Canada and for the first time he is a woman. I am one of the shoulders upon which she stands. (Her mother died a few days before her election, and the one person she wanted to call first with the good news was her mother.) Invisibly, from behind this front-line head-line news, my experience and the experiences of the women surging behind me, enabled this new story to begin unfolding.
We baby boomer women have stories to tell, and our stories are changing the world. That may be where I come in …
I’m in Calgary. Yesterday I drove for 13 hours to get here, and tomorrow I’ll be awake very early in the morning to start the three day walk.
This commitment is not for the faint-of-heart. Right from the moment I said to Cath “I want to walk with you,” I’ve know that it would require a lot of me. First I had to take the risk to say to someone (whom I’d never met in person), “your story – the loss of baby Juggernaut – has touched a vulnerable place in me and the only way I know how to respond is to drive half-way across the country to walk 100 kilometres with you.”
Then I had to commit the time to drive across the country, the time to train for all this walking, the agony of a dozen or more blisters on my feet, the cost of driving here, the time to fundraise and promote the Kidney Raffle, the cost of new shoes, socks, and blister-prevention aids, and, last but not least, the emotional energy to care about and offer compassion into other people’s stories.
No, it’s not for the faint-of-heart.
Lest you think me an altruistic do-gooder, though, let me admit… there’s a part of me that is doing this for entirely selfish reasons. For one thing, for an adventure-loving wanderer like me, it doesn’t take much to convince me to travel anywhere. Driving 13 hours across the prairies all by myself? Delightful. What’s not to like? Especially when I get to stop at dusk for photos like this one:
But there are other, deeper reasons.
Reasons like these:
– It’s a pilgrimage. Walking for hours and hours feels holy to me. It’s sacred time, when I find those “thin places” that the Celts talk about, where the veil between God and me gets thinner than usual.
– It’s a time to connect deeply with beautiful people whose stories already have special niches in the corners of my heart. We will have deep and honest conversations and we will change each other.
– It’s a vision quest. I know that the deep meditation of putting one foot in front of another for three days in a row will bring clarity and revelation to me that will surprise and challenge me. It will be yet another journey that will help reveal to me my unique medicine in the world.
– It’s part of my personal search for beauty in the world. We will walk in some of the most beautiful surroundings in the world, with the Rocky Mountains always at the edge of our vision. Beauty opens me – it cleans me.
– It will challenge me – push me to the edge of my endurance. I honestly don’t know if I can finish 100 km. After walking 32 in training, my feet felt like they were ready to give up on life. I am interested in seeing how I will handle this challenge, and I know that if I conquer it, I will feel invincible.
– The connection with Cath and her story will re-connect me with my own story of personal transformation through baby-loss. For three days, I will be remembering Matthew, whose 11th birthday/death-day is coming up on September 27th, and little Juggernaut, whose 1st birthday/death-day is only a few weeks later.
And so you see, the commitment is worth it. Yes, there will be moments of pure pain and exhaustion, but I know the experience will change me and I’m ready to be changed.
Because my word for the year is joy, I’m keeping a joy journal, and I’ll be sharing some of that joy on this blog. Here’s hoping joy is contagious and you catch a little piece of it.
The painting above brought me joy today. It’s not about the finished product (I’m not even sure I like it that much, though it’s growing on me), but rather about the process. I started it last night at my painting class, and then spent this afternoon happily lost in a world of colours and patterns. Joy, joy, JOY!
But to be honest, when I think about joy this week, it’s all about the people. My “joy people”.
A few months ago, when I was moaning about how I didn’t like networking and I wasn’t sure how I’d build a clientele for my business, my straight-shooting friend Desiree, who’s way smarter about some things than I am, said “Girl, you’ve gotta stop thinking about it as NETWORKING. Instead you’ve gotta think about how you’re going to attract your JOY PEOPLE – the people you want to be connected with. The people whose business you want because you love what they stand for.”
She was right, of course. It’s about my joy people. And let me tell you, this past week I seem to have attracted a lot of them! Not that I have a bunch more clients, but I DO have lots of good people who want to help me or work with me in some way or another, or just hang out and be my friend. Plus a few who want to hire me! It’s been pretty darn amazing.
Here’s a little taste of my joy:
– My friend Jo-Anne who sat with me over chai lattes and listened to me talk about my book, and loved it like she would if it were a real live baby, and then helped me see some wisdom that I’d been missing.
– My friend Michele who came to speak to my class last week about the amazing work she’s doing and reminded me of why I’m so fond of her.
– My friend Desiree who gives me the straight goods in such a loving and humorous way and helps me see my path. Last week she said “You don’t really want to be a consultant, you want to write a book. So write the damn book already!” Okay, I’ve been told.
– My friend Susan who has been such a great support in the last few years as we both went a little deeper in our leadership journeys, and who believes in my crazy dreams.
– A few Twitter and Facebook friends who just happened to be in the right place at the right time to encourage me and share wisdom with me.
– My talented designer friend Segun who offered to do some work for me AND accepted a last minute invitation to be a guest speaker in my class. (Which he ROCKED, by the way!)
– A client who hired me to be her story coach and then was so excited about my feedback that it made me want to help more cool people with their writing projects.
– A few online friends who’ve become in-person friends who sent me lovely affirming/connecting emails.
– The powerful women in my circle of practice who made last week’s conference call such a warm, amazing experience.
– The people in my journal club who challenge me to ask deep questions and think deep thoughts.
– A favourite author who is just so kind and gracious and responsive to emails.
– My students who challenge me and affirm me and let me know that they appreciate my teaching efforts. AND the administration who trusts me enough to hire me for a few more teaching opportunities!
– My art teacher at Forum Art Studio who has such a genuine spirit and wonderful humanity about him, I can’t help but feel a lovely sense of trust in his guidance.
– All of the people who have commented, emailed, tweeted, etc. to say “You really MUST write that book! We WANT it and it needs to be out in the world!” You’re all amazing. Yes YOU.
– A bunch of people (too many to name) who are contributing to an exciting little project that I will be revealing in a few weeks.
That’s a lot of people! I can hardly tell you how blessed I’m feeling.
How about you? Who are your joy people?
And if you’re wondering “HOW do I attract my joy people?”, it’s pretty simple – just be yourself. Be authentic and the people who value what you stand for will be drawn to you.
Oh… and there’s one other thing… start saying your dreams out loud. Let people know what you want to do and how you want to serve the world. It’s been amazing how people have been responding when I’m honest enough to admit what’s in my heart of hearts.
To paraphrase a certain movie, “if you speak it, they will come.”