(Note: There is a free resource at the bottom of this post.)
“Not only did she survive, but she kept rewriting her stories until she found enough space in them for all of the wounded to be held.”
I’ve embarked on a new project recently. I’m writing a collection of personal essays that will eventually become my next book.
This year, I’m spending time in an intentional liminal space, taking time to imagine the next part of my life. With no more dependents, no partner, and no parents still alive, I have no need to live in the house or city where I currently live and can make choices solely for myself. I’m asking myself what I value, what I no longer need, and what matters most to me. As I look around my house, I’m imagining what kind of space I want next, which of my furniture suited the old part of my life but isn’t needed in the next, and which things I love too much to ever part with.
This seems like a good time to also consider the non-tangible things I want to bring with me into the next part of my life. One by one, I’m excavating the stories that shaped me into who I am – the heartaches, the triumphs, the traumas, and the failures – and I’m holding them up to the light to see what new things they have to reveal, and which parts are no longer relevant. It’s a little like digging through the attic for the family’s antiques to see if they should be polished, repurposed, given away, or discarded.
This isn’t an entirely new process for me – I did something similar when I got divorced and was intentional about turning my home from the sometimes-unsafe place it had been into a sanctuary of healing for my daughters and myself. This time, though, I’m doing it largely for myself (with only a little consideration for what support my daughters still need) and feel more free to share pieces of that journey with you, my readers (if I choose to).
Already, only a short way into the process, the stories are shape-shifting and becoming things I didn’t expect them to be. Some are taking on more nuance, depth, and meaning, and some are revealing to me that I’ve been stubbornly hanging onto tired old versions of them that should have landed on the rubbish heap.
One thing that’s surprising me is that this process is not only changing my view of myself, but also my view of the other people in some of the stories. In some cases, I see them more clearly for who they have always been instead of the way I so badly wanted them to be, and that’s allowing me to be clearer about my boundaries. In other cases, I’m better able to see the whole picture instead of just my part of it, and that allows me to extend a little more mercy.
The first story I took on was in some ways the hardest and in some ways the easiest. It’s the story of how I was raped as a twenty-two-year-old by a stranger who climbed through my window. It’s the hardest because it was pivotal in my life and it’s heartbreaking to more clearly see the many layers of trauma that came from carrying that story forward into my life and marriage. But it’s easiest because the only other player in the story is a stranger and I don’t have to worry about hurting anyone else in my life by telling my version of the story.
The line at the top of this post is from that piece. I wrote it after wrestling for several days with the story, when I realized that the process of writing had allowed me to hold my rapist differently. In the end, as I witnessed my own triumph, courage, and resilience in that narrative, I was also able to more gently witness the brokenness and pain that my rapist must have been tormented with (and is likely still tormented with, if he is still alive). How much hatred and shame must one be carrying to climb through a stranger’s window to fulfill their own sexual desires? That’s a burden I would never want to carry.
I am reminded, as I work with this story, that “my liberation is tied up with his” (in the words of Lilla Watson). If I want to be truly liberated, no longer carrying the shame and pain of that narrative, than I have to release my rapist from the story so that he has the potential to be free of it too. (That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be justice or accountability for such a crime – simply that the justice should be restorative, and healing should be the goal.)
As I said in the above quote, the rewriting process is allowing me to find enough spaciousness in those stories and in my attachment to them for all of the wounded to be held. Whether or not they choose to heal is none of my business – I simply release them to their own choices and find my own healing that requires nothing of them.
I am now working on other stories – the ones in which there are people who played longer and more complicated roles in my narrative. I don’t know yet how those stories will shape-shift, but I will hold myself tenderly so that I have the strength to make space in the stories for their healing too. I will not gloss over the hard things or try to justify other people’s actions – I will simply try to tell the truth in a liberated way that isn’t weighed down with bitterness or a need for revenge.
Though this post focuses primarily on the writing and rewriting of these stories, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the words on a page only represent part of the process. While writing is my first love, it’s best when it doesn’t stand alone, especially as a path toward healing. I also have regular therapy sessions with a therapist who incorporates somatic healing practices. And, as I’ve learned from modalities such as Narrative Therapy and Family Systems Constellations, I sometimes practice rearranging the story with physical objects that represent the players in those stories. I am also fond of rituals that help me mark and energetically move through important moments and shifts, like when I burn something that represents an old version of a story I’m releasing. (Perhaps I’ll share more about those practices in another post.)
A year from now, when I have (hopefully) a clearer picture of what this next part of my journey will be, I want to be on the journey with more lightness and liberation. This is not a perfect process (stories have a way of popping back up long after I think I’ve let them go) but I’m okay with the imperfection of it. Whatever emerges from my imperfect process, I hope to share it with you.
Are you currently in your own liminal space and want a tool that will help you? I’ve created a free resource that you can download (in PDF): Journal Prompts for the Liminal Space. (After you click on it, you can save it for future use.) And if you want even more, check out my online self-study program, Write for Love and Liberation.
I want to write something for you today, dear readers. I want it to be wise or gentle or provocative or joyful or challenging or peaceful. Or maybe it can be all of that at once – whatever you need it to be.
I want it to stir something in you, to touch a tender part of you, to make you feel less alone, to awaken your passion. I want it to sparkle with originality, to shine with inspiration, to bubble with truth.
I want my words to create a warm cave for you to crawl into, where you will feel cozy and safe. Or maybe they can be a torch that you will carry with you when you step into dark places. Or perhaps a buffet table overflowing with goodness that will nourish and delight you.
What do you need today, dear reader? I want my words to offer you a little of that.
I am sitting by my window, watching yellow leaves flutter in the breeze, hoping inspiration will land in my heart and make its way to my fingertips. I want this because I want to send you a gift, with your name embossed on it, to remind you that we are connected and there is a thread that stretches from my heart to yours. To remind you that whatever you are going through, there is another person, perhaps on the other side of the world, who’s thinking of you and wanting goodness for you.
But today the words aren’t coming. Today there is only the dappled sunlight through the leaves. Today there is a mother on the sidewalk tugging her small son behind her in a blue wagon. Today there is this cozy blanket keeping my bare feet warm. Today there is the silence of a home without daughters. Today there are geese flying over my house to their winter homes in the south. Today there are feathery clouds in a blue sky and squirrels gathering provisions for the winter.
So, today, I will sit here in this gentle moment and send you kindness that doesn’t need to be wrapped in words. I will send you hope and peace and a little of the magic I see outside my window. I will send you the courage and fortitude of the geese who have so far to travel. I will send you the joy of the little boy in the blue wagon. I will send you the resilience and resourcefulness of the squirrels gathering what they need for darker times. I will send you the peacefulness of the tree releasing its leaves to settle into the long rest of winter.
I will sit here in this sunlight and hope that some of the light will bounce off me and be reflected in your direction.
And I will hope that you, like the squirrels, can gather some of the goodness buried under my meagre words and store it up to feed you in the lean months.
I washed the windows this past weekend. Well… I washed MOST of the windows. And those that I washed, I had to do twice.
I am remarkably bad at washing windows. If there’s an opposite of a “superpower” mine would be window-washing. I have never, in my fifty-five years on this planet, had a streak-free window.
After washing the outside of the windows of the front and west side of my house, I came back inside and saw that they still looked like they were covered in at least a year’s worth of grime and dust. I gave up and tossed my squeegee aside in frustration. The next day I tried again – this time with the stepladder and various cloths for scrubbing and drying (as the experts on the internet told me to do). When I finished the last of those (with reasonably good results), I smashed my finger in my stepladder and was in so much pain, I gave up on the rest. Perhaps the windows on the east side will be cleaned before the snow falls and perhaps they won’t. I make no promises.
Sadly, I’ve been dealing with some self-doubt recently that comes with the territory when I’m in the kind of liminal space I mentioned in my lasttwo posts. When I’m feeling this way, my brain quickly slides into a self-doubt spiral… and so… I am bad at washing windows, therefore I suck at keeping my house clean, therefore I don’t really deserve to own a home, therefore I am a bad parent, therefore I have failed my daughters, therefore I am bad at all of the important things in life, therefore I must suck at my work, therefore I am a horrible person, therefore… Sigh. You get the picture. Perhaps you’ve been there too? (It’s a little like the children’s book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie”, but instead it’s “If You Give an Overwhelmed Brain a Self-Doubt”.)
Seriously though?! WHAT does washing windows have to do with parenting or running a business? Since I’ll never make a living as a window-washer, there is NO logical connection! (I hereby banish you to my messy basement, self-doubt gremlins! You can make friends with the dust-bunnies down there. Be gone!!)
Here’s the thing… When we’re in the middle of liminal space, where things feel uncertain and the future looks murky, our brains try really hard to simplify the world by casting it in absolutes.
It doesn’t matter WHAT that absolute is, just so long as it is clearly black or white and it’s dependable and solid and it’s not as murky as the rest of the world looks at the time. That gives the anxious brain something to land on in liminal space. I am ABSOLUTELY a failure. The world is ABSOLUTELY going to hell in a hand-basket. One of my family members is ABSOLUTELY going to die of this pandemic. Our government leaders are ABSOLUTELY failing to protect us. There are ABSOLUTELY evil masterminds in the world trying to control and destroy us.
That’s why we become increasingly polarized during a time like this. It’s why we’re more likely to find an enemy to blame when we’re stressed out (or we turn ourselves into the enemy, which is often my tendency, as the window-washing story reveals). We lose our capacity for nuance and for seeing the grey-zone because the whole WORLD looks like a grey-zone and that’s SCARY! The higher-functioning, rational parts of our brains give way to the more immediate demands of the freaked-out amygdalae and, in our fight for survival, we simplify whatever we can so that it’s easier to navigate and easier to make decisions. We can’t see that someone (or something) is “sort-of bad and sort-of good”, we can only see GOOD and BAD and nothing in-between.
This is not something we do consciously and often we’re completely unaware that we’re doing it. (I, for example, was only aware of how I’d done it a few hours AFTER the window-washing debacle.) But I would venture to guess that if you were to do a media scan of how differently media reports the news during a crisis compared to when we’re not in crisis (or even how differently we communicate on social media), you’d be able to see the pattern of how things get more simplified into binaries and absolutes during times when more people are scared and overwhelmed with the uncertainty (including those people reporting the news). Dig deeply enough and you’ll likely find that this is an explanation for much of the conflict in the world – we get scared, we lose sight of nuance, we turn people into enemies, we justify our own righteousness in black and white terms, and we attack in order to defend our safety.
What starts with “that person make a questionable decision” soon deteriorates into “THAT PERSON IS BAD AND I MUST DEFEND MYSELF AGAINST THEM.” Or the internalized version… “I failed at this particular task” deteriorates into “I AM A COLLOSSAL FAILURE.”
My window-washing story was a benign example of this, just to make a point, and fortunately I didn’t create any enemies or even break any windows. I bring it up for a good reason though – it helps us see the patterns in ourselves in moments that are relatively benign so that we’re more able to see those same patterns when there’s a lot more at stake.
When I’m not in liminal space, I’m able to laugh off my lack of window-washing skills, ignore the streaks, and still see the big picture. I can acknowledge that I’m good at other things and therefore my streaky windows don’t tell a very important part of the story of who I am. And I can do the same for others – I can see them as complex and flawed and still doing their best to be good people.
But in the liminal space? All of that is harder to see. That’s when the streaks in the window REALLY matter.
The more we know ourselves, the more we see these patterns in ourselves and the better we’re able to soothe ourselves so that we don’t make destructive choices. The more capacity we have for holding space for ourselves (and finding others to hold space for us) during liminal space, the less we find ourselves trapped by binary thinking and the less tempted we are to lash out at the “enemy”.
Because I’ve witnessed this pattern in myself again and again, I was able to step away from the window-washing to regain my perspective. I went for a walk and instead of looking through streaky windows at a murky world, I appreciated the bright sunlight and could clearly see the way the natural world greeted me with its imperfections and beauty. I witnessed the changing leaves on the trees and remembered that the world is cyclical and always changing and there are no absolutes. Eventually I felt grounded again. On my walk, I reminded myself of how insignificant a skill window-washing really is in the big picture of my life and I came back feeling much better about myself. By the time I was home, I had regained my capacity for nuance and complexity as well as my ability to see myself as imperfect and yet beautiful. (And now I’m looking up from my desk at a streaky window and it makes me chuckle.)
When I teach people in the Holding Space Foundation Program, I hear again and again from people that what surprises them most about the program is what they learn about themselves. The second module, on holding space for ourselves, is always the most profound because people learn to see themselves differently and they begin to recognize (and learn to hold space for) the patterns that drive them. They witness their own tendencies in the middle of liminal space, they see how and when they are tempted to reach for absolutes and binaries, they see their social conditioning and they recognize how all of that may have resulted in unconscious bias and/or self-destructive behaviours. It’s one of the most beautiful things to witness, because when people learn to treat themselves differently, they learn to see the world differently, and then they’re able to treat others differently.
The more clearly we see ourselves, the more capacity we have to face the world even when it feels uncertain and scary. The more we can hold space for our own nuance, complexity and imperfection, the more we are able to do the same for others.
And this is where I can’t resist returning to the metaphor… It really doesn’t matter how good I am at washing windows. Because I am much more focused on helping people see themselves and each other more clearly than I am on streak-free windows.
P.S. If you’d like to join us in the Holding Space Foundation Program to learn more about your own patterns, there’s still time to sign up for the session that starts October 25, 2021.
When you go white-water rafting, if you’re a novice, your guide will spend some time teaching you how to sit in the boat, how to hold your paddle, how to adjust your centre of gravity, and where to plant your feet so that there’s less chance that you’ll get tossed out of the boat when you hit the rapids. Then, once you’re floating down the river, your guide will watch the river and warn you when the rapids are coming so that you have time to adjust your posture accordingly. An experienced guide will have been down that river many, many times, so they know how to navigate whatever’s coming.
Once you’re through the rapids and you get to a smooth spot on the river, your guide will let you know that you can relax your posture and enjoy the view.
A skilled leader has the same set of skills as that guide. They’re out front watching for rough water, and they’ve prepared their people so that they know how to adjust their posture to meet the needs of the moment. They warn people when necessary and then they help create the conditions for people to feel safe when the rapids subside.
This past year, there’s been a lot of metaphoric white-water rafting for all of us as we’ve had to adapt to the rough water of a pandemic without any guides to tell us when and how to adjust our posture so we don’t get tossed out of the boat. It’s hard to know what’s coming when nobody has been down this river before. Most of our leaders have felt just as confused as the people in the boat, and some of them have given us false information so we’re not always sure who to trust.
When you don’t have a guide you can trust, and your boat is floating down a river you’re unfamiliar with, it’s likely that your body will stay in the posture of hyper-vigilance. You want to be prepared for the rapids because you don’t know when they’re coming. After one set of rapids has passed, you don’t know if you can trust the stretch of smooth water enough to relax and enjoy the view.
As we near what we hope is the end of this pandemic, many of us will find it hard for our bodies to fully relax. We might be a little more edgy and anxious than usual. We might not be sure who we can trust or what circumstances are safe.
Recently, I was lying in my hammock trying to read a book and I noticed that, although there was no imminent threat and I couldn’t possibly be in a safer situation (in my own backyard on a beautiful day in a hammock with the gate closed and nobody else around), there was still tension in my body as though I were preparing for rapids. I scanned the things in my brain to try to figure out if there was something I was forgetting to do or some situation I was worried about, and I couldn’t find anything that should result in the posture of readiness in my body. I concluded that it was just the residual effect of a year and a half of hypervigilance without a guide to tell me when the smooth waters could be trusted. (I went through a similar thing the year before and the year after my divorce, to the point where I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue because there’d been so much adrenaline pumping through my system for so long, trying to keep me prepared for fight/flight/freeze.)
This summer, I’m taking time away from my work and from social media and it’s my hope that it will be what my body needs in order to more fully relax. I know from past experience that for this kind of long-term hypervigilance to leave my body it takes a considerable amount of time and intentional release. I’m giving my body and heart what they need – rest, companionship, fun, and nature.
I hope that you can find the time to let your body relax fully as well. Let’s be gentle with ourselves and let’s acknowledge how hard it is to go white-water rafting without a guide. We’ve done well just to survive without getting tossed out of the boat. Hopefully we’ve hit some smooth water that we can trust.
of or resembling a nebula or nebulae in deep space; nebular
When the lockdown is over, I will go back to the float spa. When I climb into that white pod, turn off the lights and music, and lie down to float in the warm saltwater, I will drift away into a nebulous field where there are no edges, no beginning and no end, no division between water, air and body. I will be, once again, an astronaut who’s climbed out of the spaceship and is floating in zero gravity. Sometimes, as I float into semi-consciousness, I wonder if the umbilical cord that tethers astronaut to ship is still holding me or if I’m floating in the ether alone, without it. Surprisingly, it’s never an anxious thought, just a curiosity. The floating feels good and safe and free.
My life became less and less tethered this year. I am beginning to float more. My youngest daughter graduated from high school. My oldest graduated from university. All three are perched on the edge of the nest, ready to fly off into broader spaces. They are loosening their tethers to the mothership. They make plans, they speak of new lives in new cities, for when the pandemic no longer holds them here. And in the meantime, my relationship with them shapeshifts into something new.
What happens, I wonder, to the mothership when the astronauts no longer need the tether? When they have found other people, other places in which to anchor? Does the mothership take flight too? Does she become young again, and drift off into unexplored territory, waving at her children as she passes? Or does she simply become one with the void?
My body of work is finding ways to become less tethered to me as well. A new business partner is tending to many of the threads that keep the work grounded. She waves me along as I float further and further away from the ground, into new spaces, new ideas. “Go. Explore,” she says, as I put on my spacesuit and open the spaceship door. My teaching work, too, holds me down less and less. New teachers come in behind me, they hold the space I once held, and they infuse it with new energy and new wisdom. My voice, while still needed, is now part of a chorus and no longer a solo act. I have new freedom to float into uncharted territory.
My book, too, has untethered itself from me. Like cells splitting to grow into organisms, the words that once belonged to me and were only on my screen replicated themselves thousands of times, in digital and print form, and landed in homes and hearts and classrooms and libraries all over the world. Those replicated versions pass from hand to hand without me, untethered to me, living lives of their own. They hold a memory of me, the stories of me, but grow into other things, plant seeds for new ideas, without me. Some even in languages I don’t speak. “Go. Explore,” they say, as I climb out of the spaceship door.
I wonder about this virus. Tiny. Invisible. Floating through the air from body to body. Untethered and free to roam. No umbilical cord holding it in place. If we could anthropomorphize it, give it a mind, a voice, and a purpose, what would it tell us? “I want to kill you.” Or “I want to wake you up.” Or “I want to thrive.” Probably, simply, “I’m just doing what I’m meant to do – find ways to live.”
Would it teach us how to live? Teach us how to thrive? Teach us how to be present and mindful and connected and interdependent? Would it teach us how to protect each other, to be less selfish, to work together toward a common purpose? Or would it scoff at us for the many ways we refuse to change, and the many ways we give it easy access to bodies in which to grow and pathways in which to travel?
I find myself drawn to the darkness this winter. I go for long walks on snow-covered paths, long after the sun has set, after all of the neighbours have headed indoors. I walk quiet streets and venture further and further into shadowy parks and unlit paths through the woods. The darkness feeds me, nourishes me, wakens me, grounds me.
The deer are shadowy ghosts on the frozen river, and one night a nebulous shape moves toward me through the darkness on a quiet street. Is it a dog? A large cat? I don’t see clearly until our eyes meet. It is a coyote, darting from shadow to shadow at the edge of the road, claiming the neighbourhood when the people are gone. I stand, still and breathless, and watch the trickster until he disappears into the grey at the edge of my sight. This feels like gift sent from the mothership. A thin place, where the veil between heaven and earth dissolves. But only for a moment.
At the beginning of this pandemic, I was in the Netherlands. Many late nights on ancestry.com had given me the names of the towns where my ancestors lived centuries ago. Back before the torture began and they had to flee to Germany, to Russia and then to Canada, always just a breath ahead of their oppressors. Back before they became pariahs, before the establishment declared them to be dangerous for their beliefs and the genocidal agenda began.
I stood there, on those narrow cobblestone streets in little Dutch towns, and I sensed them there with me, behind me, holding me, reminding me. Their DNA, still alive in me. Their stories, their trauma, waking up in my body after a long slumber. I wondered what it was like to be a refugee, an exile, an outcast. I wondered what it was like to lose your homeland, to become untethered from the place that once nurtured you. I wondered, and yet somehow I also knew.
When I returned home from my ancestors’ homeland, I dug for pieces of me in old boxes in my basement. Threads connecting me to my past. There, buried in the boxes, on journal pages and letters home to her mother, was the traumatized twenty-two-year-old, lonely and unprotected on her bed as the rapist climbed through the window and violated her body. I cried for her as she poured herself out onto those pages, trying to heal, trying to find wholeness, trying not to be crushed under the weight of what had been done to her. I cried for her shame, her innocence, and the poison she took into her body and tried to disgorge onto the page. I cried for the way she had never been told that her body was worthy, that sex wasn’t meant to hurt, that men didn’t get to take things from her that she didn’t want to give. I ached for the way she’d become untethered, unmoored, ungrounded.
Is she still me? Am I still her? Where are the edges between her and I? Where is the line between her trauma and my healing? Or is it all nebulous, without shape, without edges, without beginning or end? When does one give way to the other? Is there a moment when trauma loosens its hold and begins to seep out of a body that wants to heal?
I like starry nights, but my favourites, right now, are the cloudy nights when the snow-covered city is held in a pinkish-grey dome. I can walk forever on those nights, navigating the nebulous landscape, venturing into parks and woodlands that hold too much darkness on starry nights. On the unlit trails between the cathedral spires of leaf-less trees, I can’t see clearly enough to know where the path ends and the deep snow begins. I lean into trust and memory and plant one foot in front of the other, hoping my foot won’t sink deeply into untrodden snow. And sometimes, when it’s snowing and I return the way I arrived, my half-hour-old footprints are already obliterated. Was I ever there, or was it just an illusion? Do I hold enough substance to even make a mark?
I am mostly alone on my night-time pilgrimages, but one night I meet a couple carrying flashlights that lend glaring light to the ten feet in front of them but make the void beyond them even darker. I want to ask those people why they spoil the gentle darkness with the light, but I stay silent. I don’t want to spoil the gentle stillness with my voice. Instead, I carry on past them, deeper into the woods, and my eyes readjust to the darkness. Once again, I recognize the nebulous shapes around me as my sturdy and reliable friends, the trees. And sometimes a deer.
People ask me if I’m not scared, out there alone in the dark. I say “My safety was taken away from me at home, in my own bed. Out there in the woods is not where my demons live.”
I am in a new relationship now. No, not new… evolved. Shapeshifted. Once a friendship, now… more. Intimacy. Care. Intention. Listening. Exploration. Holding. Touching… but only for fleeting moments. We are hundreds of miles apart, and there is a pandemic in the gap between us, so we cancel plans to spend time together, and instead we grow a relationship in the nebulous digital spaces where there is no third dimension. Only flat video images and words on a screen. We long for more shape, less nebulousness, but the pandemic stands as a sentry at the gate, guarding the gap between us. We each stay tethered to our own cities.
What is the shape of love when bodies can’t collide? How do you become tethered when there is no touch and miles of space between you? What does this make us? What do we call ourselves?
In my basement is a large canvas. At the beginning of the pandemic, when fear and confusion and overwhelm and grief were the ingredients of the soup we were all swimming in, I threw paint at the void of that canvas and then dove in with my hands, smearing the paint around in swirls and nebulous shapes. Waves of emotion came through me as I painted, layer upon layer of paint applied only with my hands. Catharsis. Release. Deconstruction.
In the months since, that canvas calls me back, again and again. I layer on more and more paint, always obliterating whatever took shape the last time I stood in front of it. Each time I visit it, it evolves into something different than it was before. The canvas receives it all – my anger, my disappointment, my sadness, my joy, my fear, my love – and it blends it all together in swirls of colour. I am reminded that there are only blurred lines between my emotions and no single feeling speaks of only one truth.
My identity is reshaping itself in this nebulous time. Author. Business partner. I add those, like layers of paint on the canvas, to the evolving shape of who I am, who I was, and who I am becoming. I wonder if my ancestors knew, when I stood on their land at the beginning of this year, the shape of who I’d be, centuries after they died. I wonder how their identity is still alive in me, how I am tethered to them, how they witness me, if they do, from the beyond, on the other side of the thin place.
I wonder what stories DNA would tell, if we could give them voices too, like the virus. Would they sing ancestral songs of triumph and resilience? Would they chant laments in memory of the pain? Would they whisper to us, as they shape us into who we are, the secrets of the hard-won wisdom woven into them by those they shaped before us?
My son once floated in the nebulous space in my womb, tethered to the mothership, nourished through my umbilical cord. I wonder what he thought while he floated. Did he feel safe, like I do in the float tank? Did he dream of the day the cord would loosen and allow him to begin to explore the world? Or did he want to stay in there where he was safe, for as long as he could, with me?
But then, before his body had grown enough to support his journey outside of me, the membrane that held that space for him was violently torn by a doctor trying to protect him, and he was left exposed. The fluid that he’d floated in drained from my body, like a leak in the float tank. He tried to survive, and for weeks he did, but then one night, a tiny bacteria (harmless in me but dangerous in him), as tiny as the virus that is now killing thousands, entered his once-protected space and snuffed out his unborn life.
I wonder where he is now. Is he with the ancestors, on the other side of the thin place, watching, witnessing, floating? And is he telling them about the shape of me, from the inside where he once lived? I wonder what secrets his DNA whispered into my body before he floated away.
And now, perhaps something else uncovered in the shape of who I am… neurodivergent? My daughters, both diagnosed with ADHD, point toward me and say “you too, mom.” They see the patterns I don’t yet see, they point to the ways my brain works like theirs, they witness the places I fumble, forget, and get distracted. And they also see the ways I triumph, adapt and fight to thrive. They guide me into seeing myself anew. Who am I if I have ADHD? And what does it change in me if I fit into this unknown and yet familiar shape?
And there is one more layer of paint emerging in this nebulous year. Or perhaps an old layer, once submerged, now being revealed. My new relationship… it’s with a woman. She sits on the other side of my video screen, tethered to her city, separated by miles and a pandemic. Who does this make me now? Lesbian? Bi-sexual? Queer? Shapeshifter? Who was I then and who am I now? Or am I simply floating in the ether, searching for a new tether that offers the safety and belonging I wasn’t sure I’d know? Does it matter what I call myself? Or her? Do I need my identity tethered to a word? (Perhaps I do, if only to acknowledge the courage and resilience of those who came before and cleared the way so that I could float here now, in a safer place.)
I am finding that I want to play with words the way I play with paint on the canvas. I want to swirl them around with my hands, squish them with my fingers, blur them together, and make nebulous shapes in the chaos. After long months of arranging words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters, chapters into a book – and all of it into meaning, I want to remove the boxes. Remove the form. Remove even the meaning. Let the words float.
And what am I left with then, if the words flow like the paint from my hands onto blank pages? What do I hold, if there is no shape, if there are no answers, if there is no meaning, if it is all nebulous?
And perhaps this is what the pandemic offers. This nebulous space in which to float. This way of being that is less tethered to doing and completing and resolving. These long, solitary walks in shadowy places that change the shape of who we are, that blur the edges of who we encounter, that give us new identity and new connection to the spaces we’re in. This liminal landscape that allows us to transform, to shapeshift, to blur the edges, to become something new, to reclaim something old, to be reminded of who we already are.
Perhaps this is what the virus would say, if it could. “Just be.”
If you find that you, too, are being reshaped in these nebulous times, you might want to join my exploration by signing up for 52 Weeks of Holding Space.