“One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.” ~Maya Angelou
Last night I went for a walk in my favourite neighbourhood park, Henteleff Park, a long narrow strip of native grasslands and forest along the Red River. Just after entering the park, a movement at the edge of the woods caught my attention. I glanced over to see a dark animal, and because I could only see the top of its back and because I am mostly accustomed to seeing deer in that park, I thought it was an unusually dark deer.
I stepped off the path I was on and ducked through the trees to get a closer look and it was only then that I discovered that it was a bear. A BEAR! Within city limits! Just 5 minutes from my home! Just 20 feet from where I was walking!
Now, for many people, that would have been a rather terrifying discovery that would have sent them quickly back home. For me, though, it was quite exciting. I wanted more! Though I stepped back onto the path and didn’t go directly into the woods were I saw it disappear, I wandered the park for another half hour, hoping I might spot it again. I never did.
What occurred to me after wandering through the woods by myself (there are rarely other people in that park), slightly nervous but not overly concerned for my safety, is this…
Courage looks different for each of us.
After reading my story of bear-seeking, your thought might be “Wow! She is really courageous!” But the truth is, it didn’t take a lot of courage for me to keep walking in the park. I grew up wandering in the woods by myself, and I have always been a camper and hiker, so it didn’t feel like foreign territory for me. It felt familiar, with just a touch of adrenaline. Black bears are not particularly dangerous unless you provoke them.
You may never wander in the woods where you suspect a bear might be found, but there are probably things that you do quite naturally that would seem extremely courageous to me. Maybe you’ve grown up in a place where there are rattle snakes or tarantulas and they hardly phase you but would terrify me. Or maybe you’re way more comfortable wading into situations where there is conflict than I am. (I am admittedly rather conflict-averse.) Or maybe you’d go spelunking in a dark cave where I wouldn’t be caught dead. (Dark claustrophobic spaces are my version of hell.)
There are no universal yardsticks for courage.
There has been much hubbub lately about Caitlyn Jenner being awarded ESPN’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award after making her first public appearance as a woman. There is at least one meme floating around social media where her Vanity Fair cover photo is seen alongside a photo of soldiers in battle, suggesting that REAL courage can be found on the battlefield, not on the pages of a fashion magazine. Now, I’m not interested in arguing whether or not she was the right choice for the award, but I do want to say that it is a false construct to try to compare one version of courage with another.
What looks like courage for one person may not be courage for another person.
Sometimes, in fact, what we interpret as courage may in fact be the lesser of two evils for a person. A soldier, for example, may be on the battlefield because he is running away from something that really scares him at home. Gunfire may feel less risky than shame, rejection, or family conflict.
For some, it may take more courage to come out as transgendered or gay than it takes to join the army.
For others, the most courageous act might be to take a leap of faith and leave a job in a toxic workplace.
For still others, it might take years to work up the courage to speak their truth in front of people who disagree with them.
Courage is a very individual thing and nobody can define it in your life except you.
If you try to measure your courage on someone else’s yardstick, you will never learn to be true to your own life.
Only you can decide what courageous step you need to take in order to be true to yourself.
Don’t try to take someone else’s step – take your own.
And don’t sell yourself short when you take that courageous step. Celebrate it!
“The moment we commit ourselves to going on this journey, we start to encounter our three principal enemies: the voice of doubt and judgment (shutting down the open mind), the voice of cynicism (shutting down the open heart), and the voice of fear (shutting down the open will).” – Otto Sharmer
Lessons in colonialism and cultural relations
Recently I had the opportunity to facilitate a retreat for the staff and board members of a local non-profit. At the retreat, we played a game called Barnga, an inter-cultural learning game that gives people the opportunity to experience a little of what it feels like to be a “stranger in a strange land”.
To play Barnga, people sit at tables of four. Each table is given a simple set of rules and a deck of cards. After reading the rules, they begin to play a couple of practice rounds. Once they’re comfortable with the rules of play, they are instructed to play the rest of the game in silence.
After 15 or 20 minutes of playing in silence, the person who won the most tricks at each table is invited to move to another table. The person who won the least tricks moves to the table in the opposite direction. All of the rules sheets are removed from the tables.
The game begins once again, but what people don’t realize until they’ve played a round or two is that the rules are different at each able. At some tables, ace is high and at other tables it’s low. At one table, diamonds are trump, at another clubs are trump, and so on.
Newcomers (ie. immigrants) have now arrived in a place where they expect the rules to be the same, find out after making a few mistakes that they are in fact different, and have no shared language to figure out what they’re doing wrong. Around the room you can see the confusion and frustration begin to grow as people try to adapt to the new rules, and those at the table try to use hand gestures and other creative means to let them know what they’re doing wrong.
After another 15 or 20 minutes, the winners and losers move to new tables and the game begins again. This time, people are less surprised to find out there are different rules and more prepared to adapt and/or help newcomers adapt.
After playing for about 45 minutes, we gathered in a sharing circle to debrief about how the experience had been for people. Some shared how, even though they stayed at the table where the rules hadn’t changed, they began to doubt themselves when others insisted on playing with different rules. Some even chose to give up their own rules entirely, even though they hadn’t moved.
In the group of 20 people, there was one white male and 19 women of mixed races. What was revealing for all of us was what that male was brave enough to admit.
“I just realized what I’ve done,” he said. “I was so confident that I knew the rules of the game and that others didn’t that I took my own rules with me wherever I went and I enforced them regardless of how other people were playing.”
It should be stated that this man is a stay-at-home dad who volunteers his time on the board of a family resource centre. He is by no means the stereotypical, aggressive white male you might assume him to be. He is gracious and kind-hearted, and I applaud him for recognizing what he’d done.
What is equally interesting is that all of the women at the tables he moved to allowed him to enforce his set of rules. Whether they doubted themselves enough to not trust their own memory of the rules, or were peacekeepers who decided it was easier to adapt to someone else who felt stronger about the “right” way to do things, each of them acquiesced.
Without any ill intent on his part, this man inadvertently became the colonizer at each table he moved to. And without recognizing they were doing so, the women at those tables inadvertently allowed themselves to be colonized.
If we had played the game much longer, there may have been a growing realization among the women what was happening, and there might have even been a revolt. On the other hand, he might have simply been allowed to maintain his privilege and move around the room without being challenged.
Making the learning personal
Since that game at last week’s retreat, the universe has found multiple opportunities to reinforce this learning for me. I have been reminded more than once that, despite my best efforts not to do so, I, too, sometimes carry my rules with me and expect others to adapt.
Yesterday, these lessons came from multiple directions. In one case, I was challenged to consider the language I used in the blog post I shared yesterday. In writing about the race relations conversation I helped Rosanna Deerchild to host on Monday night, I mentioned that “we all felt like we’d been punched in the gut” when our city was labeled the “most racist in Canada”. Several people pointed out (and not all kindly) that I was making an assumption that my response to the article was an accurate depiction of how everyone felt. By doing so, I was carrying my rules with me and overlooking the feelings of the very people the article was about.
Not everyone felt like they’d been punched in the gut. Instead, many felt a sense of relief that these stories were finally coming out.
In the critique of my blog post, one person said that my comment about feeling punched in the gut made her feel punched in the gut. Another reflected that mine was a “settler’s narrative”. A third said that I was using “the same sensationalist BS as the Macleans article”.
I was mortified. In my best efforts to enter this conversation with humility and grace, I had inadvertently done the opposite of what I’d intended. Like the man in the Barnga game, I assumed that everyone was playing by the same set of rules.
I quickly edited my blog post to reflect the challenges I’d received, but the problem intensified when I realized that the Macleans journalist who wrote the original article (and who’d flown in for Monday’s gathering) was going to use that exact quote in a follow-up piece in this week’s magazine. Now not only was I opening myself to scrutiny on my blog, I could expect even harsher critique on a national scope.
I quickly sent her a note asking that she adjust the quote. She was on a flight home and by the time she landed, the article was on its way to print. I felt suddenly panicky and deeply ashamed. Fortunately, she was gracious enough to jump into action and she managed to get her editor to adjust the copy before it went to print.
Surviving a shame shitstorm
Last night, I went to bed feeling discouraged and defeated. On top of this challenge, I’d also received another fairly lengthy email about how I’ve let some people down in an entirely different circle, and I was feeling like all of my efforts were resulting in failure.
At 2 a.m., I woke in the middle of what Brene Brown calls a “shame shitstorm”. My mind was reeling with all of my failures. Despite my best efforts to create spaces for safe and authentic conversation, I was inadvertently stepping on toes and enforcing my own rules of engagement.
As one does in the middle of the night, I started second-guessing everything, especially what I’d done at the gathering on Monday night. Was I too bossy when I hosted the gathering? Did I claim space that wasn’t mine to claim? Were my efforts to help really micro-aggressions toward the very people I was trying to build bridges with? Should I just shut up and step out of the conversation?
By 3 a.m., I was ready to yank my blog post off the internet, step away into the shadows, and never again enter into these difficult conversations.
By 4 a.m., I’d managed to talk myself down off the ledge, opened myself to what I needed to learn from these challenges, and was ready to “step back into the arena”.
Some time after 4, I managed to fall back to sleep.
Moving on from here
This morning, in the light of a new day, I recognize this for what it is – an invitation for me to address my own shadow and deepen my own learning of how I carry my own rules with me.
If I am not willing to address the colonizer in me, how can I expect to host spaces where I invite others to do so?
Nobody said this would be easy. There will be more sleepless nights, more shame shitstorms, and more days when my best efforts are met with critique and even anger.
But, as I said in the closing circle on Monday night, I’m going to continue to live with an open heart, even when I don’t know the next right thing to do, and even when I’m criticized for my best efforts.
Because if I’m not willing to change, I have no right to expect others to do so.
I want to tell you about last weekend’s sweat lodge, but each time I sit down to write something, I delete it. The words just don’t come out right. This was an experience beyond words.
What I’m about to share doesn’t come close to expressing it, but it’s the closest I’ve come…
It was intense. It was emotional. It was hard. It was frightening. It challenged me in ways I didn’t expect to be challenged.
I didn’t last inside the whole time. It was too much for me – the tightness, the steam, the extreme heat, the intensity of the drumming and singing, the bodies too close together, the emotions, the fear, my own tendency toward claustrophobia, the memories of trauma. I came out, sat (shaking and weeping) for awhile, and thought I’d go back in, but I couldn’t. When I climbed back inside the open door, my whole body went into panic mode and I had to remove myself.
All I could do was sit outside and weep. I wept and wept. I couldn’t stop the weeping. There was so much that my body wanted to release. Some of it was my own fear, trauma, and grief, and some of it was as ancient as the stones at the centre of the sweat lodge. I was carrying something bigger than myself.
And then, in between the body-wrenching sobs, there was something else. An invitation. A calling. A longing.
There was a whisper in the steam and the drumming and the tears. “It’s time,” it said. “It’s your turn to step forward and become a warrior. It’s your turn to be brave, to be fierce, and to be strong. The earth that you sit on needs you to be. The people you gather in circle need you to be. Your racism-scarred city needs you to be. Everyone is waiting for you to be a warrior.
“But first you have to face this fear. First you have to hold this grief. First you have to prove to yourself that you are strong enough for what this work will require of you.”
That’s why I spent the next few days in silence. Because the sweat lodge is asking much of me.
This is the first piece of writing that emerged, two days after the experience.
Invitation from a sweat lodge
Can you carry the sadness of the world in your tattered basket without being pulled in and smothered by its hungry hands?
Can you hold the container for others, tenderly weaving the edges so they hold fast, while trusting that you are held by invisible hands?
Can you create the space where hard secrets and ancient tears are shed like old snake skin and left at your feet like an offering?
Can you enter the story without the story consuming you? Can you walk through the door without losing your Self?
Can you crack open your heart and let the tears flow when the basket becomes too heavy and the sadness needs to spill out through you?
Can you hold the inherited ache of your burning sisters and silenced mothers without wounding your growing daughters?
Can you sit on the earth, feel Her deep pain and betrayal and let it vibrate through your body without letting it shatter you?
Can you be the storycatcher, the fire-eater, the wound-carrier, without being consumed by the flames?
Though I spent quite a bit of time in solitary silence after the sweat, I knew enough about this kind of deep journey work to know that I needed support. I sent a message to four people who would hold me from afar – an Indigenous elder, a reiki healer, a soulsister/mentor, and a co-host in conversations about trauma and grief. As soon as I shared it with them, I felt lighter and more able to move forward.
Those four women created a container to hold what I was going through. They prayed, they sent messages to check on me, and they cheered me on from afar.
Once again, I am reminded of how important these circles of support are. We need our communities. We need to serve as each other’s containers when we go through difficult journeys. We need to stand side-by-side as we do hard work. We need to find the people with whom, as the quote at the top of the page says, “we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors.”
I can become a warrior because I stand shoulder to shoulder with other warriors.
If you are on a similar journey, going deeper into your own calling, excavating the depths of your most authentic self, I want to help create a container for your growth. That’s why I’ve re-opened Pathfinder Circle. This feels like urgent work. We need more changemakers to stand shoulder to shoulder, holding each other when we are weak and cheering each other when we triumph.
It is my hope that six people who want to do deep work, to tap into their own longings and calling, will come together in a virtual space and support, challenge, and encourage each other. Will you be one of them?
We’ve found a rhythm, he and I. On beautiful Fall Saturdays, he says “let’s go fishing”, and I say “sure”. He grabs his fishing rod and tackle box, I grab my book, camera, and journal, we pack a lunch and drive to his favourite lake.
When we get there, he heads toward the dock, and I head into the woods. At some point, we meet for a shore lunch, but most of the day we enjoy our separate solitudes.
Today after wandering as far as the path would take me, I found myself drawn into the shadows.
First it was a ladder of light climbing the moss on the side of a rock that pulled me away from the shore. Then it was the lichen on a decaying branch. Like a tiny white forest perched precariously on a cliff.
The closer I looked, the more I marveled at the intricate beauty growing in the shadows.
My curiosity drew me further into the woods.
Crouching down in the moss, a whole world unfolded under my gaze.
There were mushrooms that must certainly house mythical creatures at dusk when humans have gone home.
There were mosses in a thousand shades of green.
Each a tiny tree, dwarfed in the shadows of the giant trees all around it.
My knees were soon green and moist with reverence.
There was no end to the beauty, no end to the shadows.
And as I marveled, I knew that I had opened an doorway into a universal truth.
I knew that it wasn’t only in the woods that wonder waits in the shadows.
Once again, the woods were teaching me, tapping me on the shoulder and saying “Pay attention. This is important.
“There is beauty in the shadows. Things grow there that you don’t expect.”
In the darkest of days, the unexpected shows up and offers grace.
Like mushrooms and lichens and moss, there is wonder and beauty and wholehearted life that is available to us when we open ourselves to growth in the midst of shadows.
Last week, our family held our annual celebration of my son’s short life. Every year, on the day that he was born (and died), we visit the common grave where his cremated remains are buried with those of many other stillborn babies. Some of us left mementos on the gravestone, some of us shed tears, and all of us wondered what he’d have been like as a fourteen-year-old.
the shared grave where Matthew is buried
And then we did what we always do – we went for ice cream. Because visits to graves are best followed with ice cream. Because it’s celebration and not just sorrow that marks the place he had in our lives.
Fourteen years ago, his short life ended quietly in the night, after I’d fallen asleep listening to lullabies. “Sleep sound in Jesus” played in my earbuds as I drifted off to sleep, trying to block the noises of the hospital. Some time after that, his heart stopped beating. In the morning, the ultrasound showed a lifeless baby. That afternoon, I gave birth in the usual labouring-through-pain way, knowing all the while that I was birthing death and not life. The next day we went home with empty arms. The next week my full breasts finally realized that there would be no babe suckling on them.
We’d tried so hard to save him. Three weeks earlier, the same doctor who delivered him had guided a young intern in the surgery that failed and resulted in my water breaking. After that, I’d spent most of my time in a hospital bed, trying to keep still to avoid labour, being injected with steroids to increase his development, and hoping against hope that he would beat the odds and survive.
Matthew’s tiny clothes
Now, fourteen years later, I look back on those three weeks and know that my life is different because of them.
When I landed in that hospital bed, something cracked open in my heart. Leading up to that time, I’d been on a trajectory toward “success”. I had a job with an impressive title, employees I enjoyed working with, two beautiful daughters, a good marriage, a house in the suburbs, a camper at the lake, and the kind of financial security most people envy. Suddenly though, when I could do nothing but sit quietly to try to save my baby, I came face to face with the truth about my life.
I felt empty.
My life was full, but my spirit was empty.
I’d followed a path that was not my own. I’d pursued a career that seemed like the right fit because of the way it allowed me to use my skills in writing, leadership, and communication, but I was telling the wrong stories. I was communicating about things that didn’t really matter to me. More importantly, though, I’d ignored my own spiritual well-being for the pursuit of wealth and success.
Those three weeks in the hospital awakened a spiritual longing in me. I began writing in my journal again. I prayed. I meditated. I had deep conversations with people about things that mattered. I sat in silence and listened to the whispers of the Spirit. Most of all, I paid attention.
“When you are stuck in a spiral, to change the aspects of the spin you only need to change one thing.” – Christina Baldwin
That hospital stay (and the grief that followed) changed the direction of my spiral. Outwardly, my life didn’t change dramatically right away (I stayed in that career for a number of years before I was ready to leap into something new), but inwardly everything changed. I started a quest that lead me to the work of Christina Baldwin, Ann Linnea, Margaret Wheatley, and many other wise teachers. I began to explore the Feminine Divine and I fell in love with circles, spirals, labyrinths, and mandalas. I found opportunities to travel the world and to listen to women’s stories. I learned about The Circle Way and The Art of Hosting. I found the kind of friendships that fostered my spiritual quest and had lots and lots of meaningful conversations. I started teaching workshops on creative spirituality and self-discovery and eventually I launched my own business.
In all of that questing, something incredible happened. I found myself.
I discovered who I was when the masks were taken off, when the outward success didn’t matter anymore, and when I was honest about what I wanted in life. I discovered what was at the heart of my longing and I learned to pay attention. I have never looked back since.
Do I wish my son had lived? Of course I do. Do I regret that he lived such a short time and that his death changed my life? Of course I don’t. His death was the catalyst for an incredible journey that helped me find my way back to myself.
Ever since Matthew died, I’ve known that the impact of his short life was going to reach further than just me and my family. I knew that I would eventually write about his story and use it to help other women find their own paths back to themselves. I tried to write a book about it a few years ago, but then my mom died, and I wasn’t quite happy with the way the story was taking shape, so I set it aside and decided to wait until it felt more right.
But now, the story is burning in me and I know it’s time to share some of the wisdom I’ve gained in this 14 year quest.
I’m in the midst of creating a new program called The Spiral Path: A Woman’s Journey to Herself.
the artwork for The Spiral Path journal
Inspired by the labyrinth, this simple online course will invite you to take an inward journey, spiraling closer and closer to your own authentic heart. It will encourage you to sink into the kind of stillness I had in that hospital room, where the longings you’ve been ignoring can finally be heard.
I’ll be launching it next week and the class will start November 1st. There will be 21 lessons that you can choose to receive all at once, once a day, or once a week. You’ll also have options for connecting with other women taking similar journeys. And I’m creating a special journal and some Story Stones that can serve as your companions on the journey.
I hope that you’ll consider stepping onto The Spiral Path. I feel confident that this could change your life. To be the first to hear about registration opening, add your name to my email list below. When you subscribe, you’ll be sent a link to download your free copy of A Path to Connection.