“She was always selfless, sacrificing everything for other people.”
How often have you heard something like that said at a funeral? I know I’ve heard some version of it at the funerals of many people in my lineage – aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents. It’s often the kind of thing we say to praise people once they’ve passed. “How wonderful these people were in caring for other people so well!”
In Gabor Maté’s new book, The Myth of Normal, he talks about regularly reading the obituaries in the newspapers and noticing that what’s said about people in their obituary is often one of the clearest clues about the maladaptive patterns that they developed to survive the trauma in their early lives. Those who sacrificed everything, for example, were taught by their trauma that they didn’t have a right to boundaries and their access to safety and belonging was directly correlated to their acts of service for other people. Those who abandoned their own needs for the needs of their families weren’t given the kind of unconditional love needed to develop healthy attachment systems.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot since I read it, recognizing the truth of what he’s saying. I can see it most clearly in my mom and in what she passed down to her children. She was one of those people who was praised for how much she did for other people and for how selfless she was. We grew up quite used to her always feeding people, bringing wounded people into our home to stay, and giving up her own time for anyone who needed it. On her deathbed, one of her greatest regrets was that she never figured out how to rescue the foster child we’d once had, who was believed to have disappeared into homelessness and drug addiction.
I spent much of my early-adult life feeling at least somewhat guilty that I’d never live up to the selflessness of my mom. When I became a mom, I struggled with a fair amount of self-criticism, thinking I wasn’t doing it right because I wasn’t giving everything up for my kids.
It took me a long time to recognize what Gabor Maté was talking about – that my mom’s selflessness was not necessarily a personality trait that I’d failed to inherit, it was a response to the trauma in her early life. Her own mom died when she was just six years old, leaving her with a gaping abandonment wound – it’s not hard to understand why she spent so much of her life trying to compensate for it and trying to prove, through self-sacrifice, that she was worthy of love.
Sadly, there are deeply embedded beliefs in our cultures around the value of self-sacrifice, which is why it shows up in so many obituaries. We revere those people (especially women) who are the best models of it, and, partly because we all benefit from it and it helps our systems and families to function, we rarely ask the question that Oprah asked in the title of her book on trauma… “What happened to you?” Those of us who see it in our parents and grandparents mostly assume it’s a personality trait and we don’t think to dig more deeply to see it as a maladaptive response to trauma. Many, like me, end up dealing with self-criticism because we feel the pressure to live up to that kind of example.
One of the ways that this Liberation and Tenderness Tour that I’m on is serving me is that I’m spending intentional time looking more deeply at my own patterns, examining which ones might be trauma responses and social conditioning rather than personality traits, letting go of those that I inherited and don’t want to continue carrying, and choosing the way that I want to live instead. Although I wish I’d done more of this work years ago, to avoid unintentionally passing this baggage on through the lineage to my daughters, I am grateful for the years that I’ve been doing it and grateful that I can talk openly with my daughters about it and let them know that I wish for something different for them.
For the last three weeks, I’ve been in Costa Rica staying at my friend Mary’s farm. It’s a beautiful place in the jungle, with a workspace overlooking the river and a magical swimming hole not far away. There is currently a sloth in a tree about 50 feet from where I work, and about an hour ago, half a dozen red-tailed macaws flew over. Yesterday, we spent most of the day in an unbelievably beautiful natural hot springs in the jungle. It feels decadent to be here, enjoying this peaceful time, not having to look after anyone else’s needs but mine, enjoying deep rest, only doing the work that’s necessary and not overextending myself in any way.
Sometimes, the old stories in my head start to replay, and I feel guilty about not doing more, or I compare myself unfavourably to those people who spend more of their energy looking after other people. “Perhaps you’ve enjoyed more than your fair share of pleasure and rest this year already?” the voices in my head ask. “Do you really deserve to be in so many beautiful places this year without making a greater contribution to those who are suffering in the world?”
When those voices come, I pause for a moment to offer tenderness to the wounded parts of me that still think I have to prove my worthiness so that I can protect myself from abandonment or abuse. I know that there are many reasons why the worried parts of me have been so well-trained for martyrdom and selflessness. Not only did it come through my mother’s trauma wound, it’s also part of the way that systems like capitalism and patriarchy have helped to shape me and keep me in line. That’s a lot of baggage to try to unload – no wonder it’s taken me so many years to unload it.
I am determined that, when I die, a different story will be told about me. I don’t want to model self-sacrifice to my daughters. I want them to witness me loving myself and believing in my right to boundaries, rest, and pleasure. I want them to live rich and beautiful lives and to believe they have the right to those lives because they saw their mom claiming hers.
Next week, I’ll be in retreat, here in Costa Rica, in a circle of people who are gathering to explore these concepts of liberation and tenderness. While I haven’t done the resting and pleasure-seeking that I’ve done in order to be of better service to them (because that would still mean I’m putting their needs ahead of mine and only doing it because THEY are worthy), I know that I do my best work when I am well-rested, grounded in my own self-love, and in touch with my internal sources of joy and wisdom. That’s when I offer it from a place of generosity and love, not from a place of duty or sacrifice.
This I now know to be true: when I care for myself, I am caring for the collective. When I love myself, I am loving the collective. When I liberate myself, I am liberating the collective. When I honour my own boundaries, I am also honouring the boundaries of the collective.
It’s been a year. I don’t quite know which adjective to put in front, so I’ll just say that – it’s been a year. A year in which the last of my daughters moved away from home, quickly following her two sisters. A year in which I sold my home, gave away most of my furniture and belongings, put my personal items into storage and intentionally stepped into the liminal space of homelessness. A year in which I set off on my “love and liberation tour”, starting with a few weeks across Canada and then three months in Europe. A year in which I journeyed with a dear friend toward his medically assisted death. A year in which I wrote the final chapters of a book of personal essays in Costa Rica and Spain and then sent it off to the publisher. A year in which I returned to teaching in-person workshops in two European countries after two and a half years of only online work during a global pandemic.
The personal growth and healing that happened this year felt monumental. I let go of some old beliefs, learned to be more and more tender with myself, practiced acceptance in a more profound way, and stretched myself into increased courage.
I’m in a rented apartment back in Winnipeg where my daughters (who live in cities spread out across the country) and I have gathered to close off the year together. My daughters are still all asleep and I’ve put the kettle on for tea as I sit here reflecting on some of the things I’ve learned and relearned this year. Here are some of those things:
Spend time with dying people. Few things in my life have impacted my growth more than time spent with dying people (see my viral blog post about my mom’s death) and this year I had the indescribable gift of walking with my friend Randy along his journey with ALS and toward his death. Our weekly Zoom calls and my two trips to visit him softened me, stretched me, challenged me, and grew me. Sometimes I watched him wrestle with the frustration of what he was losing as his body deteriorated, but mostly I witnessed the grace and acceptance as he chose to spend his final year in joy and connection. On the day that Randy was dying (with medical assistance), I was in Brussels, serendipitously traveling with my friend Brenda who is living with cancer that will likely kill her, and she was able to hold space for me in a special way because she has her own relationship with death. As I become more and more intimate with death, I am learning to be more fully alive.
Accept the fly. In my last visit with Randy, this was one of the final teachings he offered me. ALS had ravaged his body and he had little movement left. He told me about the time he’d been lying in his bed waiting to be moved into the chair where he spent his days, and a fly kept landing on his face. He had no ability to chase the fly away, so he turned it into a spiritual practice. “Can I accept the fly?” he asked himself, and then he practiced simply being present with the fly instead of being irritated by it. I have repeated that question to myself many times since, whenever something or someone is irritating me. “Can I simply accept and co-exist with this person/situation/challenge/inconvenience/etc.?”
Be tender with yourself. The tenderness practice that I started in 2021 has grown into one of the most meaningful things in my life. Being intentionally tender with myself has helped me learn to love and accept myself in ways I didn’t think were possible. It’s helped me cope with anxiety, course correct when I start spiraling into self-doubt and shame, and pause when I’m slipping into the Three P’s – perfectionism, performance measurement, and punishment. You can learn more about it in my free webinar, in the upcoming course Know Yourself, Free Yourself, or in retreat with me in Costa Rica.
“Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” After I listed my house for sale and prepared to embark on my liberation and tenderness tour in the Spring, I got the above line from the Mary Oliver poem, Wild Geese, tattooed on my arm. I wanted a daily reminder to honour what my body most wants and needs, to choose my own body’s version of love, and to let go of the social conditioning that taught me to shame, punish, restrict and ignore my own body while looking after everyone else’s needs before my own.
Let go of things and give them to people who need them more than you do. When we were nearing the end of our packing and purging process, just before transferring ownership of the house to strangers, my daughters and I lined up all the things we didn’t know what to do with along the sidewalk in front of our house, put a “free stuff” sign on it and posted it on Facebook marketplace. In our brief conversations with the many people who came, we heard stories of refugees who’d fled war in their countries, single moms on fixed incomes trying to create home for their kids, and international students setting up apartments for the first time. It felt meaningful to be able to support so many people in creating a sense of home even as I was dismantling the one that had meant so much to me for twenty-four years.
Be honest with yourself. As I transition into this new era, with no dependent daughters living with me, I am asking myself a lot of questions about what I most want and need, what makes me happy, which relationships matter the most, and how I want to live. I am learning to be more and more honest with myself, honouring myself in ways I didn’t know how to in the past. Sometimes this new honesty surprises me and sometimes the choices that come with it don’t make sense to other people, so there is growth and some discomfort involved, but in the end, I believe it’s all worth it. “Tell the truth to yourself,” sing the Avett Brothers, “and the rest will fall in place.”
Wonder, wonder, wander. This is a personal practice I wrote about a couple of years ago and I put it into even more practice in the latter part of this year. First, wonder as a noun… “a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.” Second, wonder as a verb… “desire or be curious to know something.” And third, wander… “walk or move in a leisurely, casual, or aimless way.” (Read more about it here.) I did a lot of wandering in Europe, for hours at a time in several countries, and all the wandering helped me find myself in new and meaningful ways. It also helped my body find its equilibrium.
Stay a little longer in the places where your body feels ease. When I was in Sitges, Spain, a beautiful seaside town that’s one of the most queer-friendly places in Europe, I felt my body relax into the kind of ease I hadn’t felt in quite some time. There’s something about large bodies of water that almost always soothes my nervous system while also making my body feel more alive and vital. Add that to the welcoming, safe feeling of the town, and I noticed a perceptible difference in the unsettled feeling I’d been experiencing since the move out of my house in the summer. Instead of moving on to my next destination, I gave my body the gift of a few more days by the sea.
Fly across the country for a friend who matters. My friend Randy lived on the east coast, thousands of kilometres away from me, but when he told me he was dying last year, I made it a priority to visit him (once in the Spring and once in the Fall just before leaving for Europe) and those are trips I will never regret spending money on. Friendships that are worth flying across the country for are immeasurable treasures and I will NEVER take them for granted. One of the things I appreciated most about Randy was the way that he showed his delight in people, showering them with a special kind of love, and I was glad that I could give that love back to my dear friend in his dying year. Invest in friendships and hold onto the people who delight in you. Those are friendships that help you see your own beauty.
Witness the world through the eyes of someone losing their sight. When I was in the Netherlands, I spent a few days with my friend Cath, a visual artist who is losing her eyesight. Cath is a reflective person (and grief therapist) who’s learning to witness the world differently as her eyesight declines and incorporate that into her art. My time with her helped me to be more aware of both the gift and the limitations of living with and navigating the world with a disability. Cath regularly shares images of the textures and colours that she sees on her walks through the city on social media, and it’s changed my perspective on the world and on what it means to live in a disabled body.
Talk to your inner child. Part of my tenderness practice involves witnessing the younger versions of myself that show up when I am triggered, anxious, disconnected, or overwhelmed. I’ve learned to pause to give that younger version of myself a voice, to allow her to express her concerns and needs, and to give her what she didn’t know how to (or wasn’t allowed to) ask for. Sometimes I sit on a park bench with my journal writing conversations with a younger version of myself or writing letters to her. It’s been a healing and empowering practice, integrating all parts of myself into who I am and who I’m becoming.
Talk to your emotions. Another part of my tenderness practice is to have conversations with my emotions. When I feel afraid, for example, I ask my fear what it is trying to tell me. When I am excited, I let that excitement have a voice rather than trying to dampen it with “grown-up” sensibility. (You can read more about this in The House that Tenderness Built.) I’m learning to feel more safe with any emotion when it arises and to course correct when my trauma wants to send me into dissociation.
Ask for what you need. This goes along with the above practices about being more honest with myself and witnessing my inner child. I’m learning (and relearning) how to honour my own needs and to ask other people to help fill them when necessary (without becoming too attached to an expectation that they do so). It’s brought up some discomfort and has forced me to confront some of the social conditioning I have about what it means to be a “good woman” who minimizes herself in service to others, AND it’s also helped me to have healthier boundaries and to be more tender with myself. Just last week, when the first AirBnB I’d rented for my daughters and I was a sad and dirty place, I practiced asking for what I needed by requesting a refund and finding a better place.
Stop trying to change people. This is one of those life-long learning things that didn’t just land in 2022, but seemed to gain more clarity this year. Perhaps it had something to do with my daughters all setting off into lives of their own while I supported each of them in making choices that were best for them. This year, I practiced internalizing a mantra I’ve heard my friend Michael say many times: “Nobody and nothing has to change.” When I let go of the expectations that other people would show up in the way I wanted them to show up and leaned further into an acceptance of just who they were, I became more resilient in the face of their inability to meet my needs AND I learned to turn elsewhere to have the needs met that they weren’t able to meet.
Let go of beliefs that don’t serve you. Again, this is lifelong stuff that gained increased clarity in 2022. I spent quite a bit of time this year interrogating my belief systems and asking myself which of my beliefs were genuinely mine and which ones belonged to my parents, my culture, my lineage, my trauma, etc. (There will be lots more about this in the book I’ll be publishing in the coming year. It’s also an important part of Know Yourself, Free Yourself, a course I’ll be offering again in March – registration opening soon.) Some of the beliefs seemed worth hanging onto, some seemed like they were holding me back in my evolution into the next part of my life, and some I continue to wrestle with. This is all part of the “liberation” that I’m referencing when I say I’m on my “liberation and tenderness tour”, and it will be part of the upcoming retreat in Costa Rica. (Join us at the end of January – there are still spots available.)
Learn to love your own company. As I’ve grown older, I’ve grown increasingly comfortable with solitude. In fact, I crave it whenever I’ve been with people for too long. I spent much of my time in Europe (especially the last month, after the teaching portion was finished) in solitude and I genuinely loved it. Many people assume that traveling solo is second best when you can’t find anyone to travel with you, but I love it just as much as I love traveling with friends or family. (I’m happy to have a mix of both.) I like making choices that are solely focused on my own comfort and delight. I like exploring places by myself. I like being alone with my thoughts for hours and hours. Most importantly, I like ME.
Go on a quest to find the version of you that wants to evolve next. This year when my daughters left, I stepped into an intentional liminal space that felt like a vision quest. I let go of familiarity, let go of home, let go of routine, and let go of my comfort zone. I wandered into unknown places to meet myself in a new way, I asked important questions of myself, I followed my curiosity, I sat with discomfort, and I played with new ideas and possibilities. I called it my “liberation and tenderness tour” because I was liberating myself of old baggage and old stories and learning to be increasingly tender with myself. It has already been life-changing and it’s not over yet (I leave for Costa Rica next week). I would highly recommend some version of this for anyone who’s going through an important transition, especially for those whose children are moving into their adult lives.
Thank you for journeying with me in 2022 in whatever way you have, even if you’ve just discovered my writings recently. I hope that what I have offered will inspire you to live with more courage, intention, liberation, tenderness, and ease as we step across the threshold into 2023.
“Can the liminal space also be joyful?” Someone asked me that recently, at the end of a talk I gave to facilitators of Deep Democracy in Belgium.
“Yes, definitely!” I said. “I’m in such a liminal space right now!”
If you’ve read my book or taken my courses, you know that when I talk about liminal space, I usually talk about emotions like confusion, fear, loneliness, and grief as part of the journey out of an old story and into a new one. As this person pointed out, though, the liminal space can also be a time of joy. In fact, it can be a time when we prioritize our joy as the guide that leads us into the new story.
As I write this, I’m in a cozy little apartment on the western coast of Italy. After I finish writing, I will likely walk down to the water for a while and, if it’s warm enough, I may sit at an outdoor café with a cappuccino for a few moments before I join a Zoom call this afternoon. It’s a good life I’m living, in the middle of this liminal season.
At the end of August, I stepped into the liminal when I walked away from the house I’d lived in for twenty-two years, gave away all of my furniture, packed my personal items into a storage unit, and started living out of a small suitcase. I’m calling it my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. I could also call it my Prioritizing my Own Joy Tour.
When I ask myself why I did this – why I gave away so much and walked away from a home I’d poured a lot of love and care into – I come up with a few answers. For one thing, I no longer felt a strong pull to live in Winnipeg, especially since none of my daughters live there anymore and neither of my parents are alive, but I wasn’t sure where I wanted to live next. For another thing, I crave adventure and I love to travel, so when a few invitations to teach in Europe lined up, it seemed a good time to have a longer visit here. And for a third thing… I wanted a lighter and more agile life, with less attachment to things and less need to worry about the maintenance of a house.
But there’s something else too – something deeper. I think I knew, intuitively – like the caterpillar knows when she crawls up into a tree and surrenders to the process of metamorphosis – that it was time for change. There was a growing restlessness – a sense of something new wanting to be born in me.
Like a vision quest, or even like a gap year where students go away for a while to figure out who they are, I felt the need to re-explore my own identity and discover the ways in which I am being reshaped. For one thing, my relationship with my daughters is being reconfigured, now that they are all adults living away from me, and I need to explore who I am when less of me is shaped by motherhood. For another thing, my relationship with my work has been reconfigured, now that I am in a business partnership and we have a teaching team running our online programs. And for a third thing, I’ve completed my next book which will take my work in a slightly new direction and which is an even more deep dive into my personal stories than I’ve shared in the past.
Where does joy enter into all of this? Well… it became more and more clear to me in recent years (especially as I was writing my new book), that, in whatever ways I was going to reconfigure my life at this pivotal moment, I wanted to be more intentional about placing joy at the centre. As I talk about in the book (which will come out next year), there is a deep vein of martyrdom and unworthiness living in my body, inherited through my lineage and the systems I’m part of, and I wanted to be intentional about disrupting that narrative and living into a new story. Like the girl in the Velcro dress, I wanted to strip away the things I was carrying that weren’t mine to carry.
That’s why, on this season of liminality, I am leaning into joy to help guide me into the new story. I am being intentional about noticing what gives me joy each day and what steals my joy. Each day is different – sometimes I find joy in solitude, sometimes I find joy in companionship, sometimes I need hours of walking, and sometimes I need a day spent in bed. I’m trying not to judge those needs or desires – I’m being mindful of them and responding in the best way I can.
(It should be mentioned here that prioritizing joy does not mean that it is ALL joy. I haven’t banished any of the other emotions that pop up – especially when my dear friend Randy died in October. I let myself feel the complexity of emotions and do my best to turn my face back toward joy.)
Back in the Spring, when I was in the process of selling my house, I got the following line from a Mary Oliver poem tattooed on my arm: “…let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”. I’m paying attention to what the soft animal of my body loves and I’m trying to give her more of that.
In the past, I might have read a post like this and dismissed it as the empty pursuit of hedonism (especially since I was raised with a great deal of consciousness around sin), but that’s not what I’m talking about. This isn’t the blind pursuit of pleasure that obscures the needs of others and the injustices around me. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
What I’ve been learning, as I explore the themes of liberation and tenderness on this trip, is that an honest pursuit of joy that includes a disruption of the narratives around martyrdom and unworthiness, can be the most radical act of defiance against the oppressive systems that cause the injustices we’re all surrounded by. To love ourselves, to free ourselves, to live joyfully, and to treat ourselves and each other with tenderness is to dare to create alternatives to those systems that seek to bind us in their trauma and oppression.
We have been raised in systems that teach us to measure our own bodies against other bodies in order to prove our own worth. We’ve been taught by our schools how to measure our intellect and our athletic ability. We’ve been told by the media and by our institutions which bodies have more merit and which ones deserve punishment. We’ve been taught by capitalism how to determine our worth based on our productivity, wealth and status.
Performance measurement, perfectionism, and punishment… those are the themes that run deeply in these systems of hierarchy and oppression. All three are rooted in trauma and we pass that trauma from generation to generation, upholding the systems as we do so. We learned these patterns in our infancy and they’ve been so present all of our lives that we don’t even notice the ways we’ve internalized them. We are largely blind to the ways that they inform our own relationships with our bodies.
Diet culture is one of the ways we punish our own bodies and measure our performance. (For more on this, read Reclaiming Body Trust, by Hilary Kinavey & Dana Sturtevant.) Grind culture is one of the ways we sacrifice our bodies on the altar of capitalism and we internalize the perfectionism of that system. (For more on this, read Rest is Resistance, by Tricia Hersey.)
I’m no longer going to willingly participate in things like diet culture or grind culture. I’m intentionally choosing to liberate myself from those patterns of harm and I’m seeking a new path. I’m treating my body with tenderness and challenging myself every time I hear a voice in my head telling me I’m not worthy of that tenderness. I’m being tender with my fat belly, my crooked teeth, and my fussy feet that can only wear the most functional of footwear. I’m prioritizing rest and play. I’m letting my inner child speak the things that she wasn’t allowed to say. I’m honouring the longings that I’ve so studiously silenced in the past. I’m pulling away from social media whenever it sparks feelings of “not-enoughness”. I’m being especially kind to myself whenever I fumble.
I let go of a lot of physical baggage in August when I moved out of my house, and, in the months since, I’ve been working to let go of a lot of psychic baggage. I am carrying less martyrdom, less unworthiness, less self-criticism, less anxiety, and less trauma. Just as I hoped, I am living with more lightness and agility, in more ways than one.
I’ve been inspired by the writings of many wise teachers on this journey toward more liberation and tenderness. Here’s a list of some of the books that have especially inspired me:
If you, too, have a growing awareness that it’s time to liberate yourself from some of the patterns you’ve learned from your lineage and the systems you’re part of, and it’s time to treat yourself with more tenderness, perhaps you’d like to join me in Costa Rica in January for Liberation & Tenderness: A Gathering for Seekers, Lovers, and Dreamers? It will be a special time in a beautiful setting when we’ll collectively explore the burdens we no longer need to carry so that we can ALL live with more lightness and agility. We’ll do our best to put joy at the centre of our circle, while also honouring all of the feelings that might surface in the process.
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:
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.
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.
Tucked into the corners of the mirror in my bedroom are two photos of me. In the black and white photo, I’m a young child, reaching across the table to dip my finger into a bowl of sugar. In the coloured photo, I’m a twenty-six-year-old, standing next to my sister, with a large backpack on my back and a smaller one on my front.
Mostly, I forget that the photos are there, but sometimes I catch sight of them and then I pause for a moment to remember those younger versions of me. When I’m feeling particularly reflective, as I am today, I wonder about the thoughts, fears and dreams of each of those younger versions of me.
They are both, in their own ways, reaching for sweetness. The young child, with a guilty look on her face, is trying to sneak some of the sugar before the grownups notice, snatch it away, or shame her for it. She’s already grown accustomed to being called chubby, and if she didn’t know by then, it wouldn’t be much longer before she’d find out just how undesirable it was to be fat and how shameful it was to want a little more sweetness in her life.
The young woman is standing on British soil on her first grand adventure. She’d reached for sweetness across the ocean, backpacking across Europe to feed her wanderlust. What you can’t see on the photo, though, is the engagement ring on her finger. She’s coming home from that trip to get married and settle down. It will be years before she crosses an ocean again.
Beneath the sweetness of both photos, there is an undertone of sadness. When you peel back the layers, they tell the story of a young woman who’s learning about the limitations of what she is allowed to reach for. She’s learning how far she can go before she gets pulled back. She’s learning not to want too much. She’s learning about shame and expectations and acceptability and responsibility and… all of what it means to grow up a woman.
In the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once, Evelyn Wang is a Chinese-American woman who runs a struggling laundromat with her husband, Waymond. Through a strange turn of events, she discovers that she’s living in a multiverse and that every choice she’s made throughout her life has created an alternate universe where another version of her continues to live out the consequences of the other option of that choice. (For example, in one, she chose not to marry and is living a successful life as a movie star.) In the Alpha Universe – the original universe – people have discovered the existence of other universes and they have found a way to “verse-jump” between them, to access the skills, memories, and bodies of their parallel universe counterparts. They have come to Evelyn for help.
The multiverse is being threatened by Jobu Tupaki, who turns out to be Evelyn’s daughter Joy, whose mind was splintered in the Alpha Universe when the Alpha version of Evelyn pushed her to extensively verse-jump and inhabit other bodies. Evelyn (the laundromat version) is tasked with stopping Jobu Tupaki in order to save the multiverse. To do so, she must verse-jump and briefly inhabit other versions of the person she could have been if she’d made other choices.
In the end (spoiler alert), she must repair a breech with her daughter and talk her out of a nihilistic, destructive view of life so that she doesn’t destroy the multiverse.
As I stand in front of the mirror, remembering those other versions of me, I can’t help but wonder what life could be like if either of those two younger versions of me had made other choices. What if young-child-me had chosen not to accept the shame imposed by a fatphobic culture and had learned to live a life of radical self-love right from the beginning? What if young-adult-me had admitted to herself just how much she loved to travel and how much she doubted that marriage was the right path, and she’d sent back the ring and extended her stay in Europe?
Where would I be now, if I hadn’t been trying so hard to live in a way that was acceptable to my family/community/religion of origin? What if I’d had – right from the start – the kind of safety and belonging I needed to know it was okay to make different choices?
What we only see a glimpse of in Everything Everywhere All at Once is the long-term impact of laundromat-Evelyn discovering the alternative outcomes of the choices she made throughout her life. I want the sequel, the rest of the story. Does she simply accept the status quo, accept that she’s doing the best that she can, or does she recognize the possibility for making new choices that free her from some of the restraints of the old ones? What adjustments does she make in order to live a more liberated future? How does she learn to love herself into her own wholeness?
That begs the question outside of the multiverse… Is there a moment when a person can wake up and see the past, present, and future through less clouded lenses? Is there a moment when you have both the vision and the strength to hold the possibility that your life could still turn out differently? A moment that doesn’t bury you under the weight of regret over the intervening years since those original choices were made? A moment (or, more likely, a series of moments) when you can choose a path toward a life more free of the burdens of other people’s expectations and rules, and the weight of the cultural systems that have shaped you?
I believe there is. Like Richard Rohr in the book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, I believe that most of us reach a threshold in midlife when something happens – a fall, a tragedy, a failure, a relationship breakdown – when we can choose to cling to the life we’ve worked so hard to construct (a life that lives up to the standards we thought were acceptable and that offered us safety and belonging), or we can lean into something more ambiguous, more openhearted, and more authentic. It’s a liminal space moment, when we can choose to fall into the abyss – to release the past, deconstruct the rules and expectations we were working so hard to follow, and dare to become more fully ourselves.
Like a giant game of Jenga, we construct our lives out of the pieces we’ve mostly inherited or constructed based on what we’ve been taught – belief systems, values, rules, cultural practices, relationship patterns, identity, career path, gender expression, and so on. Then, somewhere in the middle, a few pieces get knocked out of our foundation, or we choose to remove them, or we see that they are made of nothing but vapour. Then suddenly what we’ve constructed begins to tumble. Suddenly we see that what we’ve built is precariously balanced and not as sturdy as we’d imagined it to be.
We can choose to accept the deconstruction of the tower, sit in the messiness for awhile, and then find the courage and strength to carry on. Or we can desperately cling to what was and keep plugging the holes and propping up the tower.
Easter weekend always brings back memories of a particular moment when I knew my Jenga tower was about to crash. In 2011, on Easter weekend, we got confirmation that Mom had cancer that would likely kill her. At a family Easter gathering, just after we’d learned about the cancer, my former husband and I got into a big fight. On the way home, while I tried to keep the conversation restrained so our sleeping daughters in the back of the van wouldn’t hear, I told him I was ready to end the marriage and would only give it another chance if he would take the initiative to find us a marriage therapist. Then, on Sunday morning in church, after years of trying to hang onto the shards of my faith, I finally admitted to myself that I no longer knew how to find meaning in the version of the Easter story I’d always heard in church.
Two years earlier, I’d quit my job to start self-employment, but didn’t yet have a stable income. A few years before that, my dad died. That meant that the four foundational pieces on which my Jenga tower was built – marriage, faith, career, and parents – were all at risk simultaneously, some by my choice and some by forces outside my control.
I woke up on the Monday after Easter with an all-consuming sense of dread, terrified that my whole life was about to be destroyed and that my daughters would be taken down with me. For the next few years, I tried desperately to plug the holes and prop up the tower. I kept going to church and I kept trying to save my marriage. Five years later, though, everything was gone – mom had died, my marriage ended, and I stopped going to church. There was nothing but a pile of Jenga pieces on the floor at my feet.
In a game of Jenga, the toppling of the tower marks the end of the game. Life is not like that, though. Instead of marking the end of the story, deconstruction offers an invitation to write a whole new narrative. It’s the moment when you learn that you can let go of the pieces of the tower that don’t belong to you, and you can begin to build something much more sturdy, beautiful, and true. It’s the moment when you realize that the tower was probably also a cage.
My life was not destroyed the way my anxiety told me it would be. It was wobbly for awhile, and I woke up many mornings with that familiar sense of dread, but then I discovered that my deconstruction was liberating me from my tower/cage. It allowed me to tell the truth and to free myself of the parts of my life that didn’t feel true. I discovered I could build the kind of work that gave my life purpose and joy. I could grow relationships with much deeper and more authentic roots. I could search for the version of faith that felt most alive for me. I could say yes to what I loved and no to what limited me. I could find healing for the wounds left behind by the cage and I could grow in ways I never dreamed possible.
Today, when I look at those two photos of younger-me, with the reflection of current-me in the mirror between them, I invite them back into my life and I tell them that, from now on, I will do my best to be true to them. I will build a life that their dreams can be proud of. I will not let them be shamed for the ways in which they reached for sweetness. I will not let them be tethered to other people’s fears or limitations. I will continue to dismantle any of the pieces of the tower/cage that might still bind them.
Unlike laundromat-Evelyn, I can’t step into a parallel universe to discover the alternative outcomes of the choices made by either of the younger versions of me. But I can make choices on their behalf that honour and liberate them, choices less bound by whatever kept them caged.