Punishment, Performance, and Perfectionism – all rooted in systems of trauma

The more I understand trauma, the less I am okay with the dismissal and/or glorification of where it originated.

I toured a medieval castle this morning. As I walked from room to room, in this massive stone structure that has stood for 900 years, I listened to the voice of the man on the earpiece telling me stories of the history of the place. “This is where they lowered people into the dungeon. Then, from this hole, they would dangle meat over the prisoners and yank it back when the prisoners reached for it.” “This is where people waited to find out what punishment they would receive for their crimes. Would they lose a hand or a foot, or would they have a screw put through their tongue?” “Down these stairs is the torture chamber. You can use your imagination to figure out what form of torture each of the things hanging from the walls was used for.”

The narrator seemed to relish the many stories of torture those walls held. In between stories of torture and punishment were stories of how the castle had been defended against the enemy. “Those gaps along the wall are where they would drop stones or pour hot oil on anyone trying to scale the walls.”

It was all a bit much. Sometimes I had to skip through sections of the recording, or turn away from the pictures or objects hung on display.

Ever since I started researching my own lineage on European soil, I have not been able to take lightly the ways in which people have been tortured here. In the 14th and 15th centuries, not far from this castle, my ancestors were being tortured for their beliefs by the dominant churches (Roman Catholic and Dutch Reform). A few years ago, I spent hours reading through the accounts in Martyrs Mirror about the many ways Mennonites were punished and/or killed – tongue screws, burning at the stake, drowning, etc. I am alive today because at least some of my ancestors were able to escape, first to Russia and then to North America.

We can laugh about the stories and treat them as entertainment, as the narrator enjoyed doing, but then we overlook the fact that these stories still live in our bodies and the trauma inherent in them still shapes our cultures, centuries later.

Resmaa Menakem wrote about this in his book, My Grandmother’s Hands. Much of the trauma that lives in white bodies, he says, has its origins in the brutality of Medieval Europe. Bodies still carrying memories of torture brought that trauma with them to the lands they colonized and they passed that trauma on to brown and black bodies. Out of that, colonization, white supremacy and slavery grew, because traumatized bodies traumatize other bodies and then they create systems to carry on that legacy. Now here we are, with cultures that are still trying to heal and transform the ancient trauma embedded in our inhumane systems.

Once you see the through-line, it’s so easy to see the ancient trauma and mistreatment of bodies in nearly every system that exists. It’s embedded in what we euphemistically call our “justice system” which is really a system of judgement and punishment. It’s in our attachment to prison systems and policing. It’s in our education systems, healthcare systems and religious systems. It’s in the way we punish trans bodies, fat bodies and queer bodies. It’s in cancel culture on social media. It’s in our perfectionism and the punitive ways we treat ourselves and each other when we fumble.

We are not as far away from the days of excessive torture as we like to think we are. Our cultures are not as gentle as we pretend they are, especially where marginalized people are concerned.

The narrator at the castle didn’t see it that way, though. “We are no longer as vigilant as our medieval ancestors had to be,” he said, again with a chuckle under his breath. “Imagine walking past a wall like this and having to pay attention to whether a stone might be dropped on your head. Now the only thing I need to be vigilant about is whether the yoghurt in my fridge has expired. Last week I had to throw some out because it was a day past expiration.”

I beg to differ. We may know little of stones falling from castle walls, but our bodies are still vigilant. We are vigilant for the ways we have to perform in order to be seen as worthy within our capitalist systems. We are vigilant for the ways our bodies might be ridiculed and/or victimized. We are vigilant for the ways we might be canceled on social media. We are vigilant for the ways our communities might reject us if we fail to meet expectations. We are vigilant to the expectations of grind culture and perfectionism.

I am here in Europe on what I’m calling my liberation and tenderness tour because I want to be intentional about healing this kind of trauma embedded in my body and lineage and I want to divest myself of the systems that continue to pass it from body to body. Instead of punishment, performance, and perfectionism, I am embracing tenderness, rest, and imperfection. It’s much more that self-care – it’s disruption and resistance.

Walking out of the castle this morning, I stood in the sunlight and paused for a moment to shake the trauma out of my body. I couldn’t help but wonder… how do we build monuments of tenderness that help offset the balance of these castles where the glorification of our generational trauma is on full display for the sake of entertainment? Or, at the very least, how do we create re-entry portals through which to pass when we’ve been to historic sites where torture was part of the narrative? At the Canadian Human Rights Museum in my hometown, they’ve built a garden of contemplation where you can sit quietly to regain your humanity after witnessing so much inhumanity – perhaps we need more of that. But honestly? I think we need far more.

One answer to my question came when I crossed the street into the town square to wait for the tram. At my feet was a sign etched into the concrete: “These streetlights are connected to the maternity hospitals in the city. Every time the lights slowly flash, a new baby has been born.” Aaahhh… new babies have a way of bringing my tenderness back. I appreciate the collective care and celebration embedded in the act of notifying the community with flashing lights.

I think, on this journey of liberation and tenderness, that I will seek out more places like that – where new life is being honoured with flashes of light – and fewer places where objects of torture are fodder for entertainment. I believe that we must remember the inhumanity, the way we do in human rights museums, for example, but I don’t believe we should ever make light of it or forget that it still lives in our bodies and our systems. More than anything, we should work to heal it and disrupt it so that we pass less and less of it on to the generations that come after us.

 

What do I mean when I talk about Liberation and Tenderness?

morning journal-writing time in Chartres

I’m on my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. After selling my house and putting my personal things in storage, I set off on what is likely to be a 5-6 month adventure, starting in Europe. (You can follow along on social media – #liberationandtendernesstour.)

Perhaps you want to know what I mean when I talk about Liberation and Tenderness? I’ve been thinking about these themes for a long time, but I don’t always articulate what I mean by them. While sitting on the train yesterday, somewhere between France and Belgium, I started writing a list of what each term means for me at this moment in my life. Here’s what I have so far:

Liberation means:

  • Releasing the expectations of other people;
  • Allowing all parts of me to be seen (when I want those parts to be seen);
  • Divesting from harmful systems and institutions that don’t have my best interests (or other people’s) at heart;
  • Recognizing the ways I’ve been socially conditioned to behave and letting go of those that are harmful;
  • Healing and releasing internalized oppression such as misogyny and fat phobia;
  • Healing codependency and letting others carry their own burdens;
  • Allowing myself to live according to my own rules (and breaking some that are imposed on me);
  • Testing my comfort/discomfort with certain things (like travelling alone) to see if I’m limiting myself based on other people’s fears and social rules or my own;
  • Walking away from spaces/communities/institutions/individuals that don’t care about me;
  • Believing in my own worthiness and right to care and comfort, despite the measurements for worthiness that exist in my culture;
  • Releasing all of the “shoulds” attached to being a middle-aged mother and caring for my daughters in the ways that feel right for me and for them;
  • Releasing the expectations of perfectionism, productivity, and all of the other pressures imposed by capitalism;
  • Accepting my neurodivergence and not putting pressure on myself to behave and think like neurotypical people do;
  • Reclaiming body trust and not accepting the restrictive eating that is part of diet culture;
  • Choosing adventure when I want it, and stillness when I want that instead; and
  • Making decisions about where I want to live and/or travel based on my own longings and my joy.

Tenderness means:

  • Loving my fat body without shaming it;
  • Loving and caring for all of the wounded parts of me;
  • Pushing back against the punishment and judgement of a patriarchal, colonial system, and choosing grace and compassion instead;
  • Refusing to allow the rules of the systems I am divesting myself of to be part of the spaces where I work;
  • Offering myself grace and forgiveness when I mess up;
  • Offering others grace and forgiveness when they mess up;
  • Making repairs when necessary and expecting the same from others, but not making punishment one of the steps to “righteousness”;
  • Recognizing and soothing the trauma caused by systems, generational pain, etc.
  • Trusting my body;
  • Making loving choices on behalf of my body and my heart;
  • Slowing down and being mindful;
  • Spending lots of time in solitude and contemplation, usually in nature;
  • Holding space for ALL of my emotions when they surface;
  • Honouring the complexity of holding both joy and grief simultaneously;
  • Being soft and honouring softness;
  • Recognizing that some of my resilience is born of trauma and letting myself be less resilient when I feel beaten down;
  • Soothing myself when my trauma gets triggered;
  • Having healthy boundaries that protect my tenderness;
  • Seeking out people who honour my tenderness and hold me that way;
  • Healing the parts of me that are reluctant to trust people;
  • Letting people care for me; and
  • Letting go of the dread that something bad is always waiting – just around the corner – to ruin my joy.

As you can see, there are several themes that overlap in the lists. I’ve come to the conclusion, as I consider these themes, that they are inextricably intertwined. You can’t fully liberate yourself (in the way that I’m defining liberation) without tenderness. And you can’t really be tender without holding a core value around liberation. They are companions, supporting each other along the journey.

I am sure that I will learn much more about liberation and tenderness as I continue on this tour, and I hope that you will come along for the learning. One of the places I’ll be making the most intentional dive will be at the Liberation and Tenderness retreat in Costa Rica, November 29 to December 4. Perhaps you want to join me there?

You’ll also learn more about what brought me to these themes if you join our Holding Space Foundation Program, starting the week of October 4th.

On Cultivating a Lifestyle of Joy

“We create most of our suffering, so it should be logical that we also have the ability to create more joy. It simply depends on the attitudes, the perspectives, and the reactions we bring to situations and to our relationships with other people. When it comes to personal happiness there is a lot that we as individuals can do.” ― Dalai Lama XIV, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World
 
In The Book of Joy, which consists of a week-long conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmund Tutu, the two spiritual teachers talk about how they approach joy not as a feeling, but as a lifestyle – one which they’ve each learned to cultivate even in the midst of extreme hardship. Both have been through wars and have been exiled from their countries, and yet, when you watch them together in their advanced years, you can’t help but be drawn in by their playfulness and delight in the world and each other.
 
With them as my inspiration, I am doing my best to cultivate a lifestyle of joy. I am intentionally chipping away at some of the old stories that tell me I am not worthy of joy, I am working to heal the trauma that gets triggered when too much joy is present, I am removing things in my life that actively serve as thieves of my joy, and I am finding daily practices that help to grow a strong foundation of joy.
 
If you have been following along on my journey over the past several months, you will know that, after helping my daughters launch into their own lives, I have sold my house, packed my belongings into a storage unit, and set off on a nomadic journey for at least six months. I’ve got some in-person workshops to do in Europe and then in Costa Rica, and then… I don’t know where I’ll settle (or if I’ll choose to wander for a while longer). I’m letting my heart be my guide. Right now, I’m in a seaside town in Spain, and though I planned to spend only a week here with a friend, I’ve already booked additional days because my body feels so relaxed and peaceful here. That’s how I intend to make decisions for the next six months (and hopefully the rest of my life) – by checking in with my heart and body and not just my often-overactive mind.
 
I am calling this my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. I want to continue to liberate myself from old stories and limiting beliefs and I want to find more freedom from the bounds of oppressive systems like the patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism. I’m doing my best to challenge things like internalized fatphobia, misogyny, martyrdom, and shame. I believe that tenderness is the path toward the liberation I seek, and I believe that joy is the outcome. In other words, it’s not hedonism I’m talking about, but a deep, intentional, and sturdy joy.
 
Cultivating a lifestyle of joy doesn’t mean that I expect to be always happy. No, life continues to have its challenges, and I don’t intend to gloss over anything with spiritual bypassing or avoid feeling the hard stuff when it comes. At the beginning of this journey, for example, I spent a few days with my beloved friend Randy, who is dying of ALS, and I carry the grief of that anticipated loss with me everywhere I go. Instead, like the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop, I want to create a bedrock of joy that offers a solid foundation for whatever may come.
 
“’Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say,’ the Archbishop added, as we began our descent, ‘save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.’” – The Book of Joy
 
Last week, when I was in Italy enjoying a week-long food, wine, and art tour in the Abruzzo region, I noticed exactly what the Dalai Lama talks about in the above quote. As I opened myself to more joy, I was feeling ALL of the things more deeply. I stood in the crypt of a twelfth century abbey and felt the grief and longing of centuries of spiritual seekers who’d stood there before me. I stood in a cattle barn, and the familiar smell flooded me with grief over the loss of my dad. The grief was real, and yet… none of it diminished my foundation of joy. If anything, the moments of grief made the joy even more vibrant.
 
I don’t believe you need to pack up your belongings and set off on a quest like mine to cultivate a lifestyle of joy – I believe you can do it right where you are, right now. Here are some of my thoughts about how you can begin to cultivate a lifestyle of joy:

  1. Make peace with the fly. For this piece of wisdom, I must credit my friend Randy, whose body has been ravaged by ALS. When I spent time with him just before leaving for Europe, the mobility in his arms and hands had become limited to about five inches of movement in his left arm. He is now completely dependent on other people for all his physical needs. Yet even in his dying and dependency, Randy embodies the kind of joyful lifestyle that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop talk about. His eyes still sparkle when I walk in the room and his grin still frequently flashes across his face. “I was lying in bed one day and there was a fly in the room,” he said to me, in one of the brief moments when he had enough energy for conversation. “It kept landing on my face, and I could do nothing to chase it away. I simply had to practice accepting the fly.” For Randy, after years spent cultivating a rich spiritual life and mindfulness practice, the fly became his teacher and the practice became acceptance of what was. Ever since that conversation, every time I experience a frustration (a person who annoys me or a situation that’s outside of my control), I try to ask myself “can I simply accept the fly?”
  2. Laugh at broken doorknobs. This point is a lot like the last one, but it’s worth mentioning separately. On my second day in Italy, in the bedroom of an Airbnb I was sharing with some people I’d just met, the doorknob on the inside of my bedroom door broke off in my hand and I was left trapped, with no other escape route. Fortunately, I had my phone with me and could text the other occupants of the house to come and rescue me, so I wasn’t trapped for long. We shared a good laugh when they opened the door, and it became a shared memory that we could go back to later in the week when other situations seemed outside of our control. Sometimes you simply have to surrender to the ridiculousness of a situation, let other people rescue you, and then have a good laugh.
  3. Let other people’s emotional journeys be their own. Some of the greatest thieves of our joy are other people’s problems – or rather, our attachment to their problems. Because many of us have codependent tendencies, we attach our own emotions to those of the people we love and we think we can only be happy when they are happy. We try to fix their problems because their problems become our problems and their anxiety becomes our anxiety. And sometimes, if we’re too happy, codependent family members or friends become resentful or afraid we’ll abandon them, and they try to drag us into their drama because it makes them feel more safe. But nothing is truly served in sacrificing our joy for other people. We can’t make them happier by giving up our happiness. We can hold space for them and help to soothe their fear of abandonment, but they must find their own pathway to joy. Holding space, as we teach about in the Foundation Program, is all about loving detachment.
  4. Slow down and be mindful. Many North Americans (and probably other places in the world, but I can only speak of what I know) are addicted to busyness. In a culture built on capitalism, where productivity is highly valued, we think we only have worth when we are busy and making a meaningful contribution. But busyness numbs our emotions, keeps our nervous systems on high alert, and makes it hard for us to listen to the deeper longings of our hearts and bodies. Deep, embodied joy is cultivated in slowness and mindfulness, when we take the time to breathe deeply, smell the flowers, slow our nervous systems, listen to the music, and enjoy the flavours of a lovingly prepared meal. Last week, in Vasto, Italy, with a guide who understands what it means to live a good and intentional life – a life not driven by capitalism – I learned to make homemade pasta, to savour the flavours of olive oil from ancient trees, to bake bread in a brick oven, and to paint with the petals of a flower on the side of a mountain overlooking the sea. All of it was slow and mindful and all of it helped to soothe my nervous system and give my body a place to feel safe and at home.
  5. Pluck only the chin hairs that matter. If you’re over 50 and living in a female body, you know about the chin hairs. Nobody told me that this would be a thing! When I arrived in Italy, after spending a very busy couple of months packing up my belongings and helping my daughters settle into new places, I looked in the mirror and realized how little time I’d spent tending to my appearance. There was a vast array of long hairs sprouting from my chin. Since I was about to spend time with a dozen women I’d never met, I pulled out my tweezers and started plucking. As I stood there, looking at myself in the mirror, I made a very intentional choice. “I will only pluck the chin hairs that matter,” I said to myself. “I’m going to leave my eyebrows bushy, and I’m not spending a lot of time fussing over my hair or putting on makeup.” It wasn’t just about chin hairs, though. It was about accepting my body as it is and treating it with tenderness. It was about liberating myself from the pressures to conform to a patriarchal beauty standard. In the week that followed, my commitment went far beyond chin hairs. When other women on the tour criticized their own bodies, talked about how they needed to “earn” their gelato with exercise, or worried about the pounds they might put on because of the abundance of food we were offered, I stayed silent. I was determined not to speak one word of critique of my body, not to contribute to the talk of food restrictions or body shame, and simply to be in loving relationship with my body. (For more on this, I recommend the brand new book Reclaiming Body Trust, by Hilary Kinavey and Dana Sturtevant.)
  6. Let go of martyrdom and performative acts of sacrifice. This has become one of my most important areas of personal growth lately. I was raised with a very strong narrative around the value of martyrdom and acts of sacrificial service. I continue to unpack the ways in which my religious and family lineages taught me that sacrifice is next to godliness and I continue to question the ways that I act out of a subconscious belief that I only have value when I am being sacrificial. While I was traveling with other women last week, I could see so clearly how some of them had been raised with a similar value system. They were eager to give up the best room to someone else, eager to be the first to jump up to do the dishes, and eager to be of service even when that service was not requested, plus they expressed guilt when other people served them. As I witnessed this and noticed the same tendency in myself (especially when surrounded by others doing it), I tried to be mindful of what was genuine generosity and what was rooted in martyrdom as a conditioned response (for myself – I tried not to make assumptions about others’ reasons for doing it). There’s a fine line between generosity and martyrdom and I’m trying to find that line in myself, trying to allow myself pleasure and accept generosity without rushing to sacrifice myself for others. There is a way, I believe, of being of service to other people while also unapologetically receiving service from others and welcoming pleasure without guilt. (Just before I finished writing this post, the friend who I’m staying with in Spain decided to go for a swim at the beach just outside our front door. At first, I was going to stay inside and finish this post, but then I asked myself why I was denying myself the pleasure of a swim, and I closed my laptop and went outside.)
  7. Stop trying to change other people. One of the other thieves of our joy is our attachment to the way that others should behave. Other people should be kinder, more patient, less angry, more generous, less chaotic, more playful, more mature, less serious, less critical, etc., etc. In other words, they should be more responsive to our needs and create a world that is safer and more comfortable for us. But when we attach our joy to other people’s behaviour we become, in a sense, enslaved to them. And… let’s face it… everyone has their own problems and insecurities and they’re all trying to get their own needs met just like we are, so they won’t always behave in the way that suits us. Last week, in a moment in which I noticed some agitation with other people’s behaviour, I looked around and could suddenly see the little child in each of the others I was with – a little child who had developed behaviour that was simply an adaptive strategy to help them cope with whatever they’d faced in their childhood. That awareness helped me be more patient and accepting of them, knowing that I too have such a child within me. To cultivate a lifestyle of joy, instead of trying to change people, we need to stop allowing their behaviour to control how we feel, and we need to “tend our own membranes”. (That’s a term that comes from my book, The Art of Holding Space: A practice of love, liberation and leadership.) Through a lifelong practice of self-exploration, we can become more aware of our own needs, we can discover who has the capacity to help us meet those needs and whose behaviour hinders us from having those needs met, and then we can develop healthy boundaries that help protect us from the behaviour that is harmful to us. “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” – Prentis Hemphill

 
Admittedly, I am far from perfecting any of these points, but some of my joy comes from accepting myself as a work in progress. I take solace in the fact that I still have several years to catch up to the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop. I’ll be patient with myself and keep practicing. I invite you to do the same.

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Learn more about holding space for yourself and others, and about cultivating the lifestyle and relationships you want, in our upcoming online Holding Space Foundation Program.

You can also learn from me in-person at one of my in-person workshops.

The lessons I’m learning about holding space and letting go in the middle of a big life change

I’m at the airport, ready to fly from the west coast of Canada to the east coast (where I’ll spend time with some dear friends), and then, next week, I’m heading to Europe for a few months, followed by some time in Costa Rica. I drove to the west coast from my home in the middle of Canada to move my youngest daughter back to university, and then I left my car with my middle daughter. All that I will wear and use for the next six months is packed into carry-on luggage.
 
If you’ve been following along on social media over the last few months, you will likely know that I sold the house I’ve lived in with my family for twenty-four years (where I raised my children), gave away most of my furniture, and packed my personal belongings into an 8’x10’ storage unit. All three of my children have left home over the last year, and now it’s my turn to leave the nest. In about six months, I expect I’ll be looking for another place to live (in a new city), but for now I’ll be living out of a small suitcase and smaller backpack.
 
It’s been a year of big transitions for me. Last year, I wrote about letting my daughters go. Now, in the wake of that big change, I have let my house and most of my belongings go. It was hard, but it was time. I knew the house had served its purpose in our lives and the next chapter of my life belongs in a different place – a place I will find when the time is right.
 
Someday I will write more eloquently about what it’s like to release as much as I have, but right now it’s still difficult to articulate. Some of it was good, some of it was hard, some of it was healing, and some of it was painful. The last four days in the house felt especially gruelling, when I (together with two of my daughters) worked from sun-up to sun-down, sorting and cleaning and carrying and donating and dismantling and packing and releasing. Part of me wants to block the memory of that hard time from my memory, but a wiser part knows it’s important to hold space for it all. It’s the kind of transition that changes a person.
 
As best I could, I tried (and continue to try) to walk through this time with mindfulness and intention, paying attention to whatever emotions came up, being tender with myself whenever necessary, and making choices that align with my values and needs. I am, as always, intent on living a mindful, liberated, tender, intentional life.
 
Here are some of the things I’ve been noticing about what it means to hold space for myself during such a time:

  1. Even when you’re choosing something that you really want, there will be periods of grief. It can be surprising when the grief sneaks up on you, but it’s normal. There are losses even in a joyful transition. I was ready to leave my house and had planned for it for several years as I helped my daughters launch into their lives, but there were still moments when I simply needed to sit down on the floor and cry over all of the memories that were held within those walls. I wasn’t just letting go of a house – I was letting go of the last home where I’d live with all of my children, and the last place either of my parents would ever visit me. I was leaving the place I’d built my business, written my book, gotten a divorce, grieved my parents’ and son’s deaths, and loved and been loved abundantly and well. Each room I cleaned and each piece of furniture I moved out held a myriad of stories, and those stories had emotional triggers attached, so I grieved and released.
  2. Fear shows up with many disguises, especially during big life changes. Fear can masquerade as anger, frustration, immobility, impatience and/or difficulty making decisions. “Look over there!” fear says, to distract us away from the truth that’s hidden underneath. I had moments when I’d suddenly be irritated with my real estate agent, belligerent with caring people who were asking questions I didn’t know the answers to, or unable to make a simple decision over what to do with a favourite bookshelf. When I’d get quiet with myself, I’d almost always find that fear was at the root. Whenever I’d give fear a voice, it would settle and release some of its hold, so I’d listen, soothe, make adjustments if necessary, and carry on. I tried not to shame myself for the fear or get too attached to it but to simply let it surface and then let it go. In the quiet space after the fear was finished with its blustering, I could usually make my way back to my original intentions and reasons for making the decisions I had.
  3. The emotional waves will come and sometimes you’ll feel like you’re drowning, but when you treat yourself with tenderness in the midst of it, the tidal waves pass and soon the seas are calm again. I can’t tell you how many emotional roller coasters I’ve been on lately. There have been far too many to count. (The last one was just hours ago when I said good-bye to two of my daughters who I likely won’t see for six months.) Almost every day for the last few months I’d get knocked over by the waves at least once. When I tried to push the emotions away, they’d eventually find a way to resurface, but when I’d meet them with tenderness and mindfulness, soothing myself and not getting overly attached to the feelings, they’d pass and soon I’d be back on solid ground again. “This too shall pass” seems like a trite mantra, but it works. No emotions ever last forever.
  4. Sometimes joy surprises you in the most unexpected way at the most unexpected moment. One of my favourite moments, in those last few unrelenting days in the house, came in the most unexpected way. We couldn’t decide what to do with all of the food in the pantry or the cleaning products or the random things that we hadn’t found homes for yet and we were running out of time. Two days before we had to be out of the house, I set up a table in front with a sign “FREE – I’m leaving the country – PLEASE take my stuff!” and then we filled the table to overflowing with canned goods, dry pasta, spices, cushions, etc. My daughter posted a photo and invitation on Facebook Marketplace, and within fifteen minutes, people were streaming to the house, happy to take anything we’d give them. While I was bringing out more things, I stopped to chat with some of the people. Many were newcomers to Canada, some having arrived as political refugees from the Ukraine, Algeria, and Chile. Though our conversations were brief, they were all lovely – human lives touching other human lives. Because many of them had, fairly recently, been on their own life-changing journeys, they all wanted to know about mine and they offered encouragement and support. One lovely man who’d sold his home in Chile to give his children a more safe life in Canada offered gracious advice about the grieving process. He and his wife then offered to help clean my house in exchange for the chairs and barbecue I gave them. At one point, when the table was almost empty, my daughters noticed that a family had come by taxi. “Mom!” one said. “We can’t let them waste a taxi ride! We have to find more stuff!” So we rooted through the cupboards and fridge for whatever was left and they took it all. I don’t think my daughters or I will ever forget how much joy it gave us to simply give things away and connect with the people who needed those things. It reminded me of my childhood, growing up poor on a farm, when I got a windfall – a couple of bags of barely used clothes that were just my size, dropped off by a neighbour.
  5. The bigger the transition, the more you need to be intentional about prioritizing time for processing, rest, and tenderness. It’s tempting to keep ourselves overly busy to avoid the feelings that want to come up, but in the end, we’re able to meet the transition with more grace if we give ourselves space. One of the best things I did during the month of August was commit to a morning bike ride to the park with my journal and give myself time to process whatever was coming up. Even though it sometimes felt indulgent, especially on those days when I had the most to do, I knew how much I needed it and how cranky and disoriented I could sometimes be without it. Sitting by the river every day, watching the waves below and the hawks above, helped me to stay grounded and less wobbly when the emotional waves threatened to overtake me. Because I’m introverted, it also helped to resource me for the times when I’d have to face numerous interactions with lawyers, bankers and other service providers.
  6. In the words of Elsa in Frozen, “Let it go, let it go, let it go.” With so many changes going on, not only did I need to let go of a lot of stuff, I also had to let go of expectations, let go of plans, and let go of a vision of the way things “should” turn out. As I’ve already written, the letting go started when I made less money on the house than I’d hoped. It continued from there. When construction workers showed up to tear up the street in front of my house weeks before the move, I had to let go of my plans for a garage sale and a backyard party. Then I let go of most of my expectations that I’d make money off my furniture and gave most of it to an organization that helps support Indigenous families who are trying to get their kids out of foster care. “Let it go” became the theme of my summer as box after box of things left my house to go to local charities, friends’ homes, and then the homes of strangers who responded to our FB Marketplace invitation. I can’t say it was always easy, but I can say that the less I resisted the letting go process, the happier I was for the freedom and lightness that followed and the more I could appreciate the fact that others were making good use of the things they’d received. Sometimes I had to grieve the letting go (and that often happened during my morning times with my journal at the river), but once I acknowledged the feelings, I was able to face the adjusted reality with a measure of courage and grace.
  7. You have to be prepared to drop the balls that bounce. A time of transitions is NOT the time to prove we are a superheroes who can do ALL the things. Instead we have to take on fewer responsibilities, say no to more commitments and set healthy boundaries, prioritizing our own well-being. If you’re anything like me, you will likely need more energy and time than you expect to need, so be meticulous about guarding what you need. I had high hopes, for example, of throwing a big backyard party to say good-bye to my friends. I had to let go of that plan largely because the construction on our street made it too difficult for people to find parking but letting go was for the best because I know I would have exhausted myself trying to host people in the midst of the chaos. I let go of other things too (like responding to email on a timely basis), acknowledging my own limits during a stressful and exhausting time. I’m still letting go of things, even as I set off on my adventure, because I know that I now need rest and restoration to replenish myself after an exhausting few months. (If you’re waiting for an email reply, please bear with me – I’ll get to it.)
  8. Sometimes you need to send out a distress signal to remind yourself that there are people who care for you. On the morning of the last day before the new owners took possession, my daughter convinced me not to try to be a superhero about doing everything ourselves and to hire a cleaner to come after we’d gotten the last of the things out of the house. Once she got the okay from me, she hired someone to come at five o’clock and all day we kept counting down the minutes until we could rest and let someone else finish the work. Just before five, I made a last trip to the storage unit, and when I came home, I expected my daughters would have let the cleaner into the house. That isn’t what happened, though. When I pulled into the driveway, both daughters were sitting on the front step looking dejected. There had been a mix-up and the cleaner wasn’t coming. Now here we were, weary to the bone, and still had hours of cleaning work to do. “It’s time to call in reinforcements!” my other daughter said, reaching for her phone. “Everyone ask at least one friend to come and we’ll have it clean in no time.” So that’s what we did – we sent out a distress signal and within minutes, there were four friends in our house scrubbing our toilets and washing our floors. We were still there for a few more hours, but a surprising amount of energy returned to our bodies when we were surrounded by friends lending their energy to ours. Plus the shared Chinese food feast at the end was a good finale to a hard day.
  9. Trust yourself. Trust your own resilience, your courage, your wisdom, your strength, and your ability to adapt to changes. In the midst of the hardest moments, I found resources I didn’t know I had. I saw the same in my daughters. Even when our bodies were ready to give out, we found inner pools of strength and courage that got us through to the next moment. Whenever I felt overwhelmed, doubtful, depressed, or afraid, I was always able to reach deep down for what I needed for that moment (though sometimes I needed to break down and cry first). Though it’s not really fair to compare what we did with an extreme endurance race by people who seem to have superhuman strength and courage, I sometimes found myself thinking about the show World’s Toughest Race (on Amazon Prime) where teams compete around the clock in some of the most gruelling conditions imaginable. Even when their bodies seem broken, they rally the strength for one more challenge. Though it’s not good to push ourselves in this way on a long-term basis, in critical moments, we find what we need to get through. We are surprisingly adaptable and resourceful human beings.
  10. When transitions feel too big to process all at once, and the feelings are too complicated to articulate, a ritual can help. There were so many layers to this transition that made it feel complex. I wasn’t just selling a house, I was leaving the city where I’ve spent almost all of my adulthood and the province where I’ve spent almost all of my life. I was also removing the safety blanket from my young adult children who won’t have a back-up home to retreat to when their lives feel hard or even a mom in the country for the first six months. (We haven’t figured out Christmas yet.) And I was moving away from my business partner and having to figure out how to transition our business relationship to virtual-only. And I was leaving behind my sister and some close friends who mean a lot to me. One day, I was feeling particularly restless and unsettled, so I decided to make a solitary drive out to the small town where I grew up, where both of my parents are buried. At the last moment, I took along a basket of stones that I had decorated several years ago and wasn’t sure what to do with in the move. On the way to my hometown, I came up with an idea for a ritual to help mark the places that had helped shape me as a child. At each place, I left a small cairn (a pile of stones meant to mark a significant place). It turned out to be one of the most meaningful things I’ve done in a long time. (You can watch a video of it here.) It helped me release some of what had been weighing me down and by my last stop (a beach where I used to attend summer camp), I was ready to let go of all of the remaining stones and walk away with a lighter load. Something changed in me after that ritual and I felt much more at peace with my uncertain future.
  11. Lean into Mystery. In my book, The Art of Holding Space: A practice of love, liberation and leadership, I talk about how holding space is like “being a three-layered bowl” with the outer layer of that bowl being what you lean into. The two elements that make up that outer layer are Mystery and Community. I already talked about leaning into community above, but the other aspect is also important – Mystery. Mystery can be defined however you want to define it – God, Allah, Spirit, Universe, nature, Love, your higher power, Tenderness, etc. Whatever name you use for Mystery, especially in the midst of a big life change, it is helpful to have a sense of something bigger than you, holding you and caring for you. I have a tendency to become quite self-reliant in times like this (some of which is related to trauma and social conditioning), but I have learned that I am stronger when I lean into trust that not everything has to come from my own internal resources. In the hardest moments, I would try to lean into a sense that someone wiser than me was maintaining some sense of order in the universe and all would eventually be well.
  12. Let yourself recuperate and integrate. To be honest, this is the one thing on the list I haven’t yet done. After emptying the house, I drove across the country to move my daughter into her university dorm and then did lots of mom-things like stitching up a duvet cover and making multiple trips to IKEA and Walmart to help her get what she needs for the year. The next stop is a visit with a friend whose health is deteriorating, and then I’ll spend time with my oldest daughter in Toronto (also helping her settle into a new space). In other words, I haven’t gotten to the “recuperate and integrate” phase of this process yet. I’ve barely found a moment to myself in the last two weeks. I’ll get there, though, because I know it matters. My first two weeks in Europe will be all about food, wine, beaches, and relaxation. In October, I’ll start teaching a series of workshops, but first I will rest, play and recuperate. I will give time for my body and soul to recalibrate after an intense summer.

I started this post at the airport on the west coast, but I am finishing it at the home of my friends Randy and Brenda on the east coast. Randy has long been a wise spiritual guide and generous friend to me (and some of you saw an interview I did with him for Know Yourself, Free Yourself) and now he is dying of ALS. Moments ago, in one of the fifteen-minute segments that he has enough energy for conversation, we spoke about how the journey that I am embarking on has some parallels with the one that he is taking. We are both releasing a lot of things so that we can journey forward with more lightness. We are both transitioning out of times in our lives when we were bound by duty and accepting that we’re no longer meant to be filling as many people’s needs. We are both leaning into the unknown and we are both learning to trust that we will find the resources we need and that people will care for us when we need it.

There’s at least one crucial difference, though – while I can at least make tentative plans and book flights and accommodations for the places I’ll be landing, he has to trust that wherever he arrives once his body releases his soul will be a place of peace, ease, and beauty. He’s a person with a strong sense of Mystery and he has told me that he believes that death will be a release into “pure joy” where the worries of this world no longer weigh him down. “Can you send a message back once you arrive?” I said to him just now, before he closed his eyes to rest. “Let me know what the accommodations are like in your new home.” We both laughed about what form that text message might take, when he has to find creative, non-verbal ways of getting me to hear whatever wisdom he has gained in his big transition. Up until now, we’ve always had words as our tools for communication.

I am not dying as Randy is, but I do believe that I am taking steps to invite more joy, liberation and ease into my life, and I know that I will learn many things in this big transition. I will be sure to send messages to you, my dear friends and readers, from wherever I am to let you know the lessons I learn along the way. Unlike Randy’s, mine will come by traditional forms of communication, like this newsletter and my social media feed. Watch for it and join the conversation!  

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On a somewhat related note, Krista (my business partner) and I have been grieving our Monday morning meetings when we’d talk about business but also talk about the state of the world and how we feel called to make a contribution through the Centre for Holding Space. Since we’ll no longer be able to meet in our neighbourhood coffee shop (thanks Little Sister for hosting us for several years), we’ve decided to experiment with our conversations and to share some of them with you. Eventually we will likely start a podcast, but for now we’ll be chatting with each other via short videos on TikTok (search for Centre for Holding Space), Facebook or Instagram. We’d love it if you’d follow along!  

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Also – we have lots of offerings for the Fall. I’ll be teaching four times in Europe and then I’ll be heading to Costa Rica where I’ll be teaching some brand new content at a retreat called Liberation and Tenderness (together with my friend and colleague, Mary Scholl). I’d love to see you on one of my stops! And if the in-person gatherings don’t work for you, perhaps you want to join us in the Holding Space Foundation Program which starts in October.

What I wish I knew in my twenties (and what I’m still working on in my fifties)

image credit: Helena Lopes, Unsplash

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending time in the company of a group of twenty-somethings. At the Winnipeg Folk Festival, for four evenings in a row, my daughters and their friends gathered on our tarp for the mainstage shows and I (together with my sister) got to play the role of benevolent elder, offering them food, blankets, and kindness.

It was delightful. My daughters’ friends are all interesting people whom I’ve grown fond of and being with them was easy and fun.

Watching them, I caught a glimpse of the person I was, back in my early twenties, when I first started attending the Folk Festival. There was nostalgia, grief, and tenderness in that realization.

I wanted to go back in time and give that young Heather a hug. If she’d listen to me – a ghost from her future – I would assure her that, despite her feelings of self-doubt and the many times she’d worry about finding a place to belong, and despite some of the hard stuff she was going to face in the years ahead, she would turn out alright. I might even let her know that someday, in the far distant future, she’d bring three beautiful daughters along with her to the Folk Festival, and they would bring their beautiful friends and she would feel the warmth of all of those years in tender moments on the tarp. (I probably wouldn’t tell her about those two years when the pandemic would take the Folk Festival away – she wouldn’t need that kind of burden weighing on her.)

There are a few other things I wish that twenty-something version of me knew and that I want those twenty-somethings who sat on the tarp with me to know. Here’s what I’d tell them…

  1. It’s okay to hurt your parents’ feelings sometimes in order to be true to yourself. Let me tell you something now, from my advanced years, that not many parents will tell you… Despite your expectations that grownups be, well… Grown Up, most of us still have a lot of hang-ups and a lot of insecurities and a lot of wounds, and sometimes we project that stuff onto our kids (mostly because people expected us to become grownups without teaching us how to heal that stuff). It hurts, when you’re the kid, because you just really want to be loved and accepted for who you are and your parents should give that to you more than anyone, but sometimes parents aren’t very good at giving unconditional love. Sometimes we see our own flaws and parenting failures mirrored back to us through our kids, and sometimes that triggers our self-loathing and then the shame and punishment we heap onto ourselves also gets heaped onto our kids. And sometimes we expect too much (or the wrong things) from our kids because we haven’t met our own expectations and don’t want to see them similarly letting themselves down. I’m sorry this is true, but it is. You aren’t responsible for your parents’ healing or self-love, you are only responsible for your own, so do your best to love yourself and be true to yourself despite what you’ve inherited from your parents and despite the ways in which they sometimes fail to behave like the parents you want them to be. (Also… you might be one of those flawed parents yourself one day too, so you’re going to need to learn some self-compassion and some healing practices along the way. See also #5.)

  2. You will be lonely sometimes, and that doesn’t mean you’re unworthy of love. You will have times when you can’t find a sense of belonging anywhere and you will go through moments when you’ll be fairly certain that everyone in the world is having fun with other people and you’re the only one left out. That’s normal. It happens to ALL of us (yes, even us not-very-grown-up grownups). And it’s just the lonely, wounded, self-protective part of your brain lying to you and trying to convince you that you’re not worthy of love. You ARE worthy of love, and a lot of the people who are posting shiny versions of their lives on social media are doing it so that nobody sees just how lonely they are. You know what two of the best defenses for loneliness are? 1.) Not comparing yourself to other people, and 2.) Learning to enjoy your own company as much as you can. Go out to movies by yourself, take yourself on play dates, travel alone… do all of the fun things that you’ve been waiting for other people to invite you to do. You might discover that those things are just as much fun alone as they are with other people (some things are even MORE fun), and you might even find other lonely people at those places who are fun to hang out with. (Note: Other people might feel threatened by your ability to have fun alone, and they might tease you because of their own insecurity, but don’t let their opinions become your guide.)

  3. You will make new friends and you will lose old ones. It’s going to suck, sometimes, when relationships change, but sometimes it’s for the best. Sometimes there are friendships that hold you back, and sometimes you’ll realize that you can only grow if you let go of the people who don’t have your best interests at heart. And sometimes you’ll just drift apart because your lives are heading in different directions and it’s not because anyone did anything wrong. Learn to let go without resentment or fear and be grateful for the time you had with a person even if the friendship didn’t last. And always do your best to seek out people who lift you up instead of tearing you down.

  4. You don’t have to be normal. Sometimes it will feel like you have to cut off pieces of yourself to fit in, and one day you might wake up and realize that you’ve lost yourself because of all of the pieces you’ve edited out. Please don’t lose yourself, even if you feel like that “self” is too weird or too complicated or too queer or too neurodivergent to be loved. You will find the most contentment and freedom in your life when you have the courage to be yourself. And while you’re busy learning to be yourself, look for other people who are courageous enough to be themselves too. They’ll be the right kind of people to spend time with because they won’t expect you to adjust who you are in order to suit them.

  5. You also don’t have to be exceptional. It’s okay to have an ordinary life and it’s okay to make mistakes and it’s okay to not really have a clue what you want to do with the rest of your life. (Side note: One of the dumbest things grownups ask kids is “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As if there’s only ONE thing you’re going to be! And as if you should know that One Thing when you’re still a kid! And as if your life will only be defined by a career! Yeesh. Don’t get me started. Know this – you can let that shit go.) Let me tell you a little secret… my favourite kind of people are those who aren’t afraid to let their flaws be seen, who aren’t afraid to say “I don’t know”, and who reject the pressure of perfectionism and exceptionalism. One of the most important things you’re going to need to learn is how to forgive yourself and how to love yourself with all of your fumbles and failures. Start now – forgive yourself for the most recent mistake you made and then say to yourself “Hey you – I love you. You’re human. And imperfect. And you’re pretty cool just the way you are.”

  6. Self-care is good, but you know what’s even better? Collective care. There are few things better than people learning to look after each other – people asking for what they need and offering what they can so that nobody gets left out. Look for people who want to look after you and who let you look after them. Look for people who tend to notice who’s being left out – and also try to be one of those people. Look for people who’ve got a sense of justice about who’s being marginalized and go stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those people (and the ones who are marginalized).  There’s a lot of individualism in our culture, and far too much measuring of one person’s value against another person’s, and you might find yourself buying into the hype that you should be independently successful and that you shouldn’t need other people, but you DO need other people. And other people need you too. Be honest about where the gaps are and let other people fill them.

  7. Love your body. Love your fat body, your queer body, your black body, your white body, your differently abled body, your chronically ill body, your trans body, your thin body, your clumsy body, your short body, your tall body, your awkward body, your lumpy body, your beautifully imperfect body. Love it with a radical love that accepts it no matter how other people might criticize it or expect it to meet certain criteria of acceptability. Love it despite the way our systems of dominance and control (you know – those pesky things like patriarchy and white supremacy) might try to marginalize and shame it. Love it as an act of resistance and revolution. Love it in a way that makes the older generation uncomfortable. (Note: We, in the older generation, can be kind of squeamish about too much self-love because we’ve been well-trained to punish ourselves and each other for any deviations from the norm. Please do your best to reject this pattern, even when we get pushy about passing it down to you.) And while you’re busy loving yourself that way… remember to love other people that way too. We all need it. (Yes, even us older folks.)

  8. Find people who can help you. You’re going to go through rough patches in your life. There’s just no point in pretending otherwise. Maybe you’ve already gone through rough patches and you know this to be true. Don’t try to navigate that shit alone. I hope that someone in your family will step up to help you, but if they don’t, or if they gaslight you into thinking the rough patches aren’t as rough as you make them out to be, then find other people who won’t judge you for it. Find a therapist, find a friend, find another grownup you can trust – find someone who will listen while you try to work through whatever rough patch you’re in. If you’re going through mental health struggles, find someone who can point you toward the right professional. Don’t be ashamed of needing help, even if that help comes in the form of medication. And try not to listen to that lying part of your brain that tries to tell you the rough patch will last forever. It won’t. You’ll see the light again someday, I promise. Hold on.

  9. Be happy. Don’t become one of those boring grownups who gets too serious about life and loses their sense of fun. Have fun and stay playful. You might be surprised to discover how much play can help you find yourself, bond with your friends, and heal your trauma. Pay attention to the things that make you feel joyful and do more of those things, preferably with your friends. (Unless, of course, those things become addictive and unhealthy and you’re mostly doing them to numb the pain – that’s a whole different thing. See #8.) A wise person once told me that in the same way that we have trauma triggers that send us back to painful moments in our younger lives, we have joy triggers that bring us back to the joyful moments. Find your joy triggers. If you love to make art, then make art. If you love to ride bikes, then ride bikes. If you love to play on swings, then play on swings. Be radical in your pursuit of joy. (That doesn’t mean you should bypass the grief – it just means that a fully lived life includes being in touch with ALL of your emotions.)

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P.S. Want to spend some time with me in-person this Fall? I have several workshops and retreats coming up. Plus the Holding Space Foundation Program starts again in October.

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