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.
I didn’t rake the leaves off the lawn this Fall. My climate activist daughter regularly sends me articles about how the dead leaves create biodiversity in the backyard, serving as places for insects (including pollinators) to hibernate, and then, in the Spring, bringing more birds and flowers to the yard. As for the leaves I needed to clean off the patio and walkway – I built a backyard composter where they can rot into food for the soil.
The neighbours on both sides of my yard raked their leaves, so there’s a clear line between their property and mine – crunchy leaves on one side, grass on the other.
As much as I believe in more healthy symbiosis with the natural world, I will admit I struggled with the decision not to rake. Nobody wants to be THAT neighbour – the one whose cluttered yard is talked about in whispered tones because of the way it brings the property values down. Though I don’t need it to be pristine, I wanted it to be at least as orderly as the neighbours’. (Somebody in our neighbourhood once gave their next-door-neighbour $500 to temporarily clean the clutter from the yard while their house was up for sale.)
I recognize how vain this makes me sound – that I would make decisions that could negatively impact the environment based on what the neighbours think. But it’s the truth, isn’t it? Even when we pretend we’re not paying attention to our neighbours, friends, and family, we’re always at least somewhat aware of the ways that we stand out, the ways we’re seen as odd, and the ways we’re judged for not having our lives together. We do it in our neighbourhoods, at our schools and workplaces, and online. We don’t really grow out of our childhood need to fit in.
But change doesn’t happen until someone is willing to be the outlier, and so I’ll leave my leaves and if they ask about it, I’ll tell them about the insects and the birds. And if my leaves blow onto their lawns, I’ll offer to rake them back onto mine.
This decision, while a minor one in the grand scheme of things, is making me think about the many ways that we choose to hide our messes so that the neighbours don’t see them and so that we conform to the (often unspoken) collective norms and expectations of the places where we live and work. Even if our lives are messy behind closed doors, we want to project the appearance of having shiny, happy, orderly lives.
It’s a cultural thing (especially in wealthier western countries), it’s a neighbourhood thing (especially in the suburbs), and it’s a capitalist thing (especially among those who want others to see that they have the kind of success that is valued within capitalism). In an era of social media, it’s even more prevalent, because we are always peeking into the virtual windows of other people’s curated lives. (Be honest – how often have you moved things out of the frame before you’ve taken a photo to post on social media? The pressure is real, isn’t it?)
On an interview for a parenting podcast, recently, the interviewer asked me to speculate on why, when change is such a constant in our lives, so few of us are truly equipped to handle change in our lives. My answer was some version of this… “Change comes with disruption and messiness. And we have been led to believe, in our culture, that truly successful lives are those without the messiness. When the mess shows up, and we don’t have control over it, we assume we must be doing something wrong.”
We are always comparing our own lives to the curated versions of other people’s lives. If they don’t show their messes, we assume that they don’t HAVE messes. But they do. We all do. Life is messy. We break things. We spill things. We hurt people. We get hurt. We get overwhelmed and incapable of the simplest tasks. We get triggered back to the less mature versions of ourselves. We get resentful of our kids who NEVER clean up after themselves. We get angry with ourselves because “WHY didn’t we teach our kids better?!” We get depressed. We get anxious. We fumble. We fail. ALL OF US.
What if we showed more of that messiness? What if we divested ourselves of the toxic values systems of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy and we stopped trying to perform to some ridiculous and unreachable standards of perfection? What if we let our bulges spill out over our jeans, left our leaves on the lawn to make happy homes for the critters, left the dirty dishes in the sink when we’re taking photos to share on Instagram, and let people know when it feels like the world is crushing us? What if we agreed to no longer play by the rules that place value on curated lives? What if we invited people into our homes even when we haven’t dusted the furniture in weeks (and then didn’t apologize)? What if we wrote letters to all of the marketers who try to tell us our lives aren’t good enough and we told them we’ll never buy anything from anyone who markets from that kind of manipulative, scarcity mindset?
Maybe then we’d nap more, play more, eat more, and laugh more. Maybe then we’d crawl around on our hands and knees and stare at the pretty bugs gathering under our scattered leaves. Maybe then we’d lean into new ways of being in relationship, where value is placed on presence and not perfection. Maybe then we’d be less hard on ourselves and we’d smile at ourselves when we look in the mirror. Maybe then we’d wake up and realize how much we’ve been manipulated into the kind of shame and self-judgement that keeps us from being real.
People often ask me why it’s so hard to hold space for other people when they’re going through the mess of the liminal space, and I usually say “When you can become more comfortable with your own mess, then you can become more comfortable with other people’s messes. When you stop seeing yourself as someone who needs to be fixed, then you’ll stop trying to fix other people. And when you stop believing that you only have value when you’re DOING something productive and meaningful, then you’ll become better practiced at simply BEING with another person.”
There is a LOT of value in being the kind of friend who is unphased by the mess, who can sit with someone and deeply listen, seeing through to their heart without being distracted by the things that are out of order. There is a LOT of value in being silent when someone simply needs a listening ear and not advice. There is a LOT of value in your presence and your acceptance and your love. And yet… so often we overlook that value and only focus on the value of that which feels more active, productive, and “useful”.
Another question I’ve been asked a few times on interviews recently, and which seems related, is “What about cancel culture? Can we truly have deep and meaningful conversations, and wade into conflict (especially online), when we’re all afraid of saying the wrong thing and being canceled?” Here are my thoughts on cancel culture… It wouldn’t exist if we didn’t live in a culture rooted in capitalism and patriarchy that has placed so much value on perfectionism, ease, order, and power. If we hadn’t developed this skewed belief system that, with the right work ethics, the right thoughts, the right courses, the right purchases, and the right intentions, we can all have perfect, easy lives, we wouldn’t be at risk of being ‘canceled’.
If we all showed our messes more regularly, then we wouldn’t have these ridiculous and unattainable standards of perfection that lead to inevitable failure. If we were open and honest about our fumbling and failure, took responsibility for the harm we’ve done, made amends, and didn’t have so much fear of having our messes exposed, then we would no longer be at risk of being torn off the hollow pedestals that were never meant to hold our weight in the first place.
Take J.K. Rowling, for example – I believe that if she had truly listened, early on when she was first challenged about trans rights, and that she’d been willing to fumble in her attempts to understand what she was being challenged with (and make necessary repairs), then I don’t think there would have been so many people ready to tear her down. We tear down those who don’t live up to our expectations of perfection – expectations that have been skewed by our celebrity-worshiping, humanity devaluing culture. We also tear down those who don’t take responsibility for messing up.
We are not meant to be perfect people. None of us are – not even the celebrities our culture elevates to ridiculous heights. We’ve been manipulated into striving for that perfection, believing it’s attainable, idolizing it when we see glimpses of it in others, and spending more and more of our time and money trying to at least create the illusion that we are close to it.
It’s all a lie. It’s a messed-up fairytale that you’ve been taught since childhood so that you’ll spend more of your money on useless things and abdicate your power to those you believe have greater value than you do.
It’s time to divest of those belief systems and the cultural systems that prop them up. It’s time to live more honest and messy lives. It’s time to stop trying to fix ourselves and other people. It’s time to stop spending our money on things that don’t truly bring us joy. It’s time to stop changing our bodies to meet some ridiculous standards of beauty.
It’s time to let our leaves rot so that they can nourish new life.
If you’d like to learn more about how to live with the messiness of life and hold space for yourself and others in the midst of it, there is still time to sign up for the Holding Space Foundation Program that starts next week.
We’re now a couple of months into The Great Pause. We’ve baked all the bread, learned to cut our own hair, logged too many hours on Zoom, built elaborate islands on Animal Crossing, adapted to the new protocol at the grocery store, rewatched our favourite series on Netflix… and here we are… just waiting for when this might end. Waiting, as Dr. Seuss says, “for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No, or waiting for their hair to grow.”
How do we stay in this waiting place, when there is still so much we don’t know about what’s on the other side? How do we maintain our sense of well-being and not spiral into despair and fear when we don’t yet know when we can see our loved ones, gather with our communities, or send our kids back to school?
Here are some of my thoughts about ways to sustain ourselves in the midst of liminal space:
1. Soothe your flooded nervous system. There’s a reason why so many of us are baking bread and why I haven’t been able to find any yeast at the grocery store for the last few weeks. (In my home, it’s my daughters baking bread and I just have to buy the ingredients.) Bread is comfort food and we all need soothing when we’ve been living in this state of heightened anxiety and uncertainty. But bread can’t be the ONLY thing we turn to for soothing. Nor can wine or chocolate or Netflix (as much as that may be tempting right now). A soothing technique can quickly become a way of bypassing or numbing if we rely on it too heavily.
My new friend, Dr. Robin Youngson, recently introduced me to a practice that has become my favourite soothing technique. It’s called havening touch and it’s designed to mirror the way that a mother soothes a distressed infant (except you can do it for yourself). There’s a series of three soothing caresses that you repeat – running your hands down your arms, rubbing your hands together, and stroking your face with both hands. You can watch Dr. Youngson demonstrate havening touch on these videos.
2. Name and grieve the ambiguous losses.An ambiguous loss (a term coined by researcher Pauline Boss) is a loss that occurs without closure or clear understanding. It’s the kind of loss that is felt when a child is abducted and the parents don’t know whether they’re dead or alive. Or the loss of a marriage when the other person is still alive and yet you grieve the loss of what you once dreamed the marriage would be. Or (as my friends on Facebook shared) the kind of mixed emotions that a parent might feel when a child undergoes gender transition. (You can listen to Pauline Boss talk about it on this podcast.)
We are all experiencing multiple ambiguous losses right now, as we wait to see what the new normal will be. Not only can we not do many of the things we’re used to doing, we really have no idea when we can do them again and whether they’ll look the same when we do. If you’re a church-goer, for example, will you have to sit six feet away from your friends in the sanctuary and avoid hugging them or shaking their hands? Will you get to go dancing with friends or sing in choirs, or will that have to wait until there’s a vaccine? What about your job? Will it be waiting for you or will you face unemployment?
It’s okay to grieve those losses. Even though you might be inclined to shame yourself for having “less significant” losses than the people who are losing family members, your loss is legitimate. Let yourself grieve. You might even want to develop some kind of ritual to mark those losses. When I talked about ambiguous loss on Facebook, Lori-Marie Boyer said that she has a practice she calls “list and sit”. “I’m keeping a list of what we are missing and sitting with it for a bit each time as a way to just keep naming and honoring.” It seems like a good way to grieve and release.
3. Discharge built-up energy without aiming it at anyone. The frustration can build up, when there is so much outside of your control and you don’t know when this will all end. When, for example, you’ve got young kids in your house all day every day and you’ve suddenly become their parent, teacher, playmate, AND therapist, you might feel like a pressure cooker about to explode. Or when you’re not sure if your business will survive, or if the money will reach to the end of the month, or if the sick family member you’re not allowed tovisit will get better, the tension in your body can feel like too much to bear. Despite your best efforts at self-soothing, in those moments, you might find yourself fighting with people on Facebook, or yelling at your kids, or throwing your wine glass across the room.
That’s when you might need some fairly aggressive (but not harmful) activity to help you to release the tension. Try pounding your feelings into something that won’t bear the scars. Go dig in the garden, or dance vigorously, or swing a hammer, or wash the floor, or go for a run, or scream into a pillow. I have a particular fondness for power tools, partly for this reason – they let me be aggressive without harming anyone. I also like to jump in my car, go for a drive, and, at the top of my lungs, sing/cry/scream to Nothing Stays the Same by Luke Sital-Singh.“Cry your eyes out, Fill your lungs up, We all hurt, We all lie, And nothing stays the same.”
4. Practice impermanence. One of the things that this pandemic is teaching us is the impermanence of that which we assume we can rely on. For those of us living in developed countries (and especially those living without disabilities), we’ve come to assume the accessibility and reliability of things like grocery stores, doctor’s offices, restaurants, churches, etc. We’ve also come to assume that we can visit our elderly parents whenever we want to and that our children can go to school every day.
It’s a shock to the system when what you rely on is taken away. Some of us may already be adapted to that (those who are disabled or who grew up in poverty or conflict zones), but for many of us, this is fairly new and unfamiliar and it can be quite scary. I remember the first time I went to the grocery store after the new social distancing rules were in place – it felt a little like I’d landed on the moon instead of my neighbourhood grocery store.
Having a practice that embraces that sense of impermanence is helpful in processing all of this and learning to let go of attachment to the illusion of certainty. This is something I learned from the Buddhist teachings on impermanence – that to practice an art form in which you detach from what you produce and simply be fully present for the process is to better accept the impermanence of the world. (Consider the way that Buddhist monks make elaborate sand mandalas and then sweep them away and pour the sand into a body of water.) In my basement is a large canvas where I practice my #messycovidartprocess which I shared about in this post. Every few days, when I feel anxiety or frustration build, I go to the basement and paint (with my hands) another layer onto the canvas. I focus only on the process, and always end up covering up whatever might be pleasing to the eye. I intend to continue this as long as we are confined to our homes. I don’t know yet what I’ll do with it then – perhaps I’ll burn it.
5. Nurture the seeds that want to grow. Perhaps by now, after the initial shock and stress of this has settled somewhat, you’re beginning to wonder how this Great Pause will change your life, our culture, and perhaps our relationship with the natural world. Maybe you’ve now got some space in your brain not just for survival but for curiosity and possibility. Maybe you’ve become inspired to start new art projects or to create new ways of gathering people online – projects that aren’t just about surviving the here-and-now, but that might help us live into a new future beyond COVID-19.
A few days ago, I co-hosted a call with former participants of my in-person workshops in the Netherlands, and I sensed a different energy than any of the calls I’ve had since this all started. Though there was still some grief present, I sensed that people were beginning to imagine the new things that can grow out of this time of disruption. A few days later, a similar thing happened on the calls for my Holding Space Practitioner Program. There’s a shift and people are beginning to see hope and not just despair.
When you feel ready for it, bring your “beginner’s mind” (another Buddhist teaching which refers to an “attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject”) to bear. Look around you at how your life has been disrupted and notice the ways that you don’t want to go back to how things were before disruption. Consider that, after COVID-19, you might have a new opportunity to choose how you want to live and interact with the culture around you. Maybe you have new ideas to contribute to your neighbourhood about how to organize around local needs and local capacity. Maybe you’re beginning to imagine a more equitable way for your business to function or your church to serve its people. We don’t have to go back to the way things were before – we have this opportunity to imagine something new into existence.
To foster this practice, first bring awareness to what’s growing and where you can plant and/or nurture seeds to grow. If you live in the Northern hemisphere where it’s now Spring, you might want to play in the garden or wander through the park taking pictures of new leaves and baby geese.
6. Find circles that can hold space for complexity. People are at different stages of this journey and have different levels of capacity for holding space for the complexity of this time. Some of us, because of necessity or trauma or fear, can function only in survival mode – getting through what’s needed day-to-day – and can’t hold space for grief or for the kind of transformation and possibility mentioned above. Those may not be the people you’ll turn to for deep conversations or for wrestling through the emotions or questions that are surfacing.
But some people – particularly those who have navigated challenging life circumstances in the past and have learned to meet those challenges with curiosity and openness – have great capacity for holding shadow, grief, fear, transformation, anticipation, loss, and birth. Turn to those people, gather them in circles for storytelling, deep conversations and imaginative dreaming. Invite them into the depths with you, feel the complexity of your feelings together, dare to be playful with new ideas, and notice how your body and heart are transformed in the process.
Yesterday, I sat on two calls with the participants of the Holding Space Practitioner Program and I marvelled at what beautiful things can show up on Zoom calls when there is a strong container in place that can hold complexity, curiosity, and depth. We’re nearing the end of this eight month program, and I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the capacity that these people from all over the world are growing (and I along with them) is exactly what is needed for times like this. (Note: This program will be re-opening in July, under the new banner of the Centre for Holding Space.)
7. Release, receive, return. I have found myself, more often than usual, visiting the labyrinth this Spring. Partly I go because that’s the place where I notice the earliest signs of Spring and it gives me a sense of hopefulness. It’s near a pond where the frogs begin to sing as soon as the ice melts, and there are wild crocuses that are the first flowers to bloom on these northern prairies.
The other reason I go is because the labyrinth teaches me one of the most useful spiritual practices for a time such as this. It teaches me to release as I walk into the labyrinth – to empty myself of the burdens, expectations, fears, disappointments, etc. that want to cling to my spirit and drag me down. It teaches me to receive as I stand at the centre of the labyrinth – to allow in the voices of Spirit, the Earth, and my own Soul which are often stifled in my crowded life. And it teaches me to return as I leave the labyrinth – to take with me all of the gifts that were entrusted to me at the centre and carry them back to my village, the people I’ve been called to serve.
When I can’t get to the labyrinth, I try to spend time focusing on my breath, reminding myself of the same three-part process. Or I use a finger labyrinth like the one I made (which I gave instructions for here).
To stay grounded at a time when the world feels wobbly and unreliable takes extra commitment and determination. It also takes a combination of the above practices – self-soothing or discharging when necessary – so that you can be more fully present for the mindfulness of release-receive-return.
8. Don’t forget to laugh. When I was growing up and Readers Digest arrived monthly in our home, I remember flipping to the section called “Laughter is the Best Medicine” and reading through the jokes people had sent in. Back then, I just thought it was a cute title, but now I understand the truth of it. Laughter doesn’t just boost your mood by releasing endorphins, it helps to diminish pain and strengthen your immune system. Regularly finding time for laughter also helps you to cope with the needs of your children and it gives you a higher tolerance for the frustrations of dealing with red tape or opinionated people on Facebook.
My extended family gathers occasionally on Zoom and we’ve had some good laughs over online versions of Pictionary or our former fashion choices in old photos of our rare family trip to California (apparently I had a penchant for tucking my pant legs into my socks back then). My daughters and I have been sharing some laughs while making our way through the seasons of New Girl on Netflix.
Even in the midst of deep grief and fear, laughter has a place. It doesn’t just offer temporary relief, it helps strengthen you and make you more resilient to cope with the hard stuff.
9. Focus on what’s right in front of you and do the next right thing. This world is a big place, and it can feel overwhelming to open the floodgates of social media and let it all come in. When your news feed is full of stories of heartache from all over the world, and you’re hearing the voices of politicians and scientists and each one seems to have a different opinion, the complexity of this situation can knock you flat. Whose voice do you listen to? Which expert has your best interests at heart? Whose stories do you you let into your heart?
While I don’t think it’s wise to keep your head in the sand too long, lest you lose touch with the world and begin to think only of yourself, there are times when you have to shut out the rest of the world and just be in your own little bubble. There are times when the best you can do is get out of bed in the morning and make sure your family has enough to eat.
Narrow your focus when you need to and ignore the needs or concerns of anyone outside of your home. Feed your cat, play with your kids, or curl up with a good book and look after nobody but yourself.
One of the best decisions that I made at the beginning of the pandemic was to stay offline entirely on Sundays. I’ve kept it up for two months and I intend to continue even after life settles into the new normal. I did it at the beginning because I noticed how much mental load I was carrying by the end of the week, trying to focus on my kids’ needs, my own needs, my clients’ needs, and my business’ needs while also trying to process all of the new information and anxiety surrounding the pandemic. Even after my initial anxiety and overwhelm had settled, though, I realized how much I appreciated the peacefulness that a day off the internet gave me.
10. Extend kindness to yourself and others. It may seem cliched to focus on kindness, but I believe that it’s one of the things that will get us through this time. Kindness helps us turn our attention away from worry and frustration. Kindness helps us focus our energy on positive things instead of negative things. Kindness helps us build communities and bond families.
When you focus on bringing someone a little spot of happiness or a moment of ease, you get back almost as much as you give. It’s a win-win situation.
Kindness might be sending an overwhelmed mom a gift certificate for a meal delivery service. Or it might be paying for the order of the car behind you in the drive-through. Or it might be packaging up the books you’ve finished reading and sending them to a friend who’s getting bored alone at home. Or it might simply be smiling at the neighbour on the sidewalk, or letting a person cut in front of you in the grocery store lineup.
In these unusual times, I think that it’s also an act of kindness to wear a mask in public so that the person selling you groceries has one less chance of exposure. Or it might be tipping the food delivery person extra for the increased risk they’re taking. Or it might simply be staying home to help decrease the spread and not overburden our healthcare workers.
And don’t forget that one of the people you should be extending kindness to is yourself. Recognize that you’re under an unusual stress load right now (we all are) and offer yourself compassionate care in any way that you can.
We just DON’T KNOW, do we? Two months into this impossibly complex liminal space and there is just so much we DON’T KNOW. And we JUST WANT SOMEONE TO KNOW! Surely there is SOMEONE who can give us some answers, who can offer some assurances or at least a roadmap or guide for how to get through this space without losing our loved ones or our jobs or our businesses or our health or our minds. ANYBODY?!
We turn to our politicians, but every one of them seems to have a different message, one of them telling us we should stay at home as long as we can and another one saying it’s far better to open the economy and another one who seems to flip flop between messages depending on the day. And some of them are clearly being influenced by outside forces, and some of them are clearly biased against those most vulnerable to the disease, so are there really any we can trust? And aren’t some of them using some draconian methods to enforce policies that don’t entirely make sense? And do they really have any clue what’s best right now if they have no historic reference for how to get us through this? WHY CAN’T THEY AT LEAST TELL US WHEN OUR KIDS WILL GO BACK TO SCHOOL?
We turn to our scientists, but they say complicated things and it’s surprising to hear them say how much they don’t yet know about this novel virus. We want them to tell us exactly how it will behave and how soon they’ll have a cure and whether we can be absolutely one hundred percent sure that if we wear masks and stand six feet apart and wash our cans of beans and our bananas we will be protected and our loved ones won’t have to die. And we want them to tell us who will suffer the worst symptoms and who will be spared and we want to hear that once a person has recovered they’ll have immunity. But they just keep telling us they’re still doing the research and that it’s showing different results and different death rates in different parts of the world, and it will take a long time to develop a vaccine or treatment, and they’re giving us the best advice they can based on what they know. And it just seems like THEY SHOULD KNOW MORE BY NOW! And also… isn’t there a chance they’re all being influenced by big pharmaceutical companies who stand to make money off of this?
We turn to our spiritual leaders and some of them admit they don’t know much either and yet they tell us to pray and meditate anyway for our own peace and mental health, but it seems like all the meditating we do still leaves us with anxious pits in our stomaches. And others give us assurances that God is in control and that we don’t have to worry, but those with the greatest assurances gather their congregations despite the restrictions and then we hear stories of outbreaks in churches and choirs and some of those very leaders who promised God would offer protection are the ones who end up dead, along with members of their congregation. And we wonder WHY ISN’T GOD PROTECTING US and why aren’t our leaders better at guiding us through this and protecting us from harm, or at least telling us what God’s will is in all of this?
We turn to our homeopaths and healers and they tell us how to care for our bodies and what foods to eat to boost our immunity and that gives us at least some comfort that we’re doing the best we can to protect ourselves and our children. But they still can’t give us certainty about what will protect us and we hear that even healthy people are dying and the healers with the most certainty make us a little anxious because some of the information they’re giving goes against everything we’re hearing from the top medical doctors and some of what they’re saying might put our vulnerable loved ones at risk and we feel caught in between and in over our heads with too much information.
In desperation for some kind of clarity and perhaps someone to blame for this whole mess, we turn to those at the fringes of mainstream science and they tell us disturbing stories about how all of the scientists in control who have access to the media are not to be trusted because they’re in cahoots over some mastermind plot which involves artificially creating the virus and releasing it into the world and jailing all of the naysayers and holistic healers who get in the way so that they can forcefully vaccinate everyone in the world and make billions of dollars off a vaccine and possibly inject us all with tracking devices in the process. And, for a moment, it’s tempting to believe them because AT LEAST SOMEONE SEEMS TO KNOW SOMETHING. But then we realize there may be some gaps in the logic behind this narrative and they may have some motivation for misleading us, and… we STILL DON’T KNOW ANYTHING!
And in the meantime, our anxiety over not knowing anything causes us to start having arguments on Facebook because everyone seems to have a different version of the truth and we’re disappointed because our friends don’t see it the same way we do and we love them and we really need them to share our belief system to make us feel more secure. AND WHAT IF THEIR VERSION OF THE TRUTH MEANS THEY’RE WILLING TO RISK THE HEALTH OF OUR GRANDMOTHER OR DISABLED FRIENDS?
We don’t know. We simply DON’T KNOW. And nobody else knows either – not even the experts who’ve spent their lives trying to know. And that’s scary and unfamiliar because usually SOMEBODY KNOWS SOMETHING that will at least make this easier to navigate.
And all we can do in this place of not-knowing is to pause, stand still, take deep breaths, turn toward others who are also willing to stand still for a moment, and see that they have fear in their eyes too. And maybe when we are standing in this collective space we can recognize the way that the earth is still holding us and the sky is still blessing us and our bodies are still carrying us. And we can place our collective fear and not-knowing in the centre of the circle so that it feels less overwhelming and we can hold it together and not judge one person’s fear over another person’s fear and, at least for a moment, pause from trying to convince each other that our beliefs are just as valid as theirs are.
And maybe this vast internet that connects us (but also sometimes divides us) can allow us, in this moment, to not breathe physically on each other but to breathe collectively so that we gather some strength and resilience from each other to make it through these coming months until the other side of this liminal space begins to appear more clearly on the horizon.
The world is settling into an eery quiet in this new age of coronavirus. It’s hard to believe that a thing so small – a virus that is invisible to the human eye – could cause the most significant global disruption any of us has ever seen in our lifetimes.
We have no roadmaps for the future because none of us has ever been here before. Our internal GPS’s are on endless loops of “recalculating” – they’ve run out of maps and nobody has any way of programming them to anticipate the road that’s ahead of us.
The waves of emotion have been flowing through me and around me, sometimes threatening to drown me and sometimes settling into something more manageable that I can float on.
Last week I found myself in parenting overwhelm, with one daughter having trachea surgery, another daughter losing a friend to suicide, and a third daughter dealing with the loss of an art show she’s worked all year to prepare for. This would be a lot to deal with at the best of times, but in the midst of this new and unfamiliar anxiety and uncertainty of what the future will look like, it felt like too much. It all came to a head when a police officer pulled me over for making an illegal left turn (which I’d done because I was distracted and overtired) and gave me a traffic ticket (while ignoring social distancing). The tears, rage, fear, and frustration spilled over as I drove away, and I didn’t bother trying to stop them.
Though I regret the traffic ticket that got me to breakdown, I don’t regret that moment of release, when I let myself scream and cry in the car (and text my sister for moral support). Like the release valve on a pressure cooker, it helped me settle into a greater sense of calm and acceptance.
This week, I’ve been having flashbacks to another time in my life when I had to live through a form of social isolation – a difficult time that became one of the most meaningful and transformational events of my life.
Five months into my third pregnancy, I had to shut down my very busy life and confine myself to a hospital room. To try to deal with an incompetent cervix (i.e., it was suddenly 4 centimetres open), doctors attempted a cerclage (i.e., stitching it closed), but they failed and pierced the membrane instead. My unborn child was suddenly exposed and at risk of infection before he was strong enough to fight off that infection. My body – designed to protect a gestating child – was no longer able to do its job.
Medical professionals started pumping my body full of antibiotics and steroids (to speed the baby’s development) and put me on strict bedrest. I was told I wouldn’t be able to leave the hospital until my baby was born. He wasn’t due for another four months, so it felt like an impossibly long time to be confined to an unfamiliar room in an unfamiliar place.
In those early days, panic set in as I watched the whole world suddenly slip out of my control and away from my grasp. In some moments I had full-blown panic attacks – especially the first night when I listened to the screams of another mom down the hall as she realized the baby she’d just given birth to was dead. In other moments, I went into overdrive trying to grab ahold of anything that was still within my grasp to control. I had a full and busy life with a lot of people depending on me – two small children at home and a team of staff at work that needed my leadership during their busiest time of the year – I suddenly felt the urgent need to do EVERYTHING I could to help them survive my absence.
In some of those moments, anger arose alongside the panic, reminding me that I wouldn’t be in this place if it hadn’t been for two different doctors’ errors. The first error had come a week before, when I’d gone to a different hospital because of discomfort and a sense that my hips were shifting and my body was opening before it was meant to. (I’d already had two births, so had some sense of what it should feel like at that stage.) At that time, my GP had made the choice not to do an internal exam (which might have revealed the incompetent cervix at an earlier stage when it would have been easier to address). The second error was when the specialist in charge of my care allowed an intern to do the surgery and the inexperienced intern slipped and pierced my membrane with her sharp needle.
A few days into my hospital stay, the familiar sense of panic threatened to overwhelm me in the middle of the night. In the liminal space between sleep and wake, I found myself wrestling with a mysterious presence that I was sure was in the room with me. (I later said that I felt like it was similar to Jacob wrestling with the angel in the Biblical story.) After much tossing and turning and wrestling with the flood of emotions that passed through me, a question landed on my heart, as though the presence had spoken it out loud.
“Do you choose to stay in this state of fear, anger and resentment, or do you choose peace and forgiveness?”
I took a deep breath and considered the question. I felt justified in all of the big, dark emotions flowing through me, and I felt attached to them because they gave me some sense of power and self-righteousness. But I also knew that those dark emotions would not serve my unborn child. They would cause unhealthiness in my body which would be passed on through the umbilical cord to my child.
“I choose peace,” I whispered. “I choose to forgive the doctors for their errors.”
The moment I made the choice, the anger drained out of my body and the wrestling stopped. I fell asleep soon afterward and in the morning I woke to a new state of serenity and acceptance.
It wasn’t perfect – there were still moments when the fear came back and fed the anger – but that choice changed my whole hospital experience. Nineteen years later, I can now say that it changed my whole life. The seeds for everything I now do – this work of teaching and writing about holding space – were planted in that one moment, that one choice.
For the next few weeks, my hospital room became an unusual kind of spiritual retreat centre. I settled into a time of contemplation and inward reflection. I entertained long and meaningful conversations with friends, family, and the staff at the hospital. I hung artwork from my children on the wall and welcomed plants and flowers from friends. I listened to music on the Fisher Price tape player a friend lent me.
It was in that hospital room that I first became a life coach. There was a new quality to my listening, and again and again I heard from people that sitting with me for a few minutes of their day helped them work through things in their lives where they felt stuck. It wasn’t unusual for nurses, nurses aides, other patients, and even doctors to poke their head into my room and say “I feel drawn to the peacefulness of your space” and then they’d stay awhile or come back during their break. Many of them would remark that they felt different when they left – like something had shifted. Even the young intern who’d pierced my membrane came, weeping, to my room, and I offered forgiveness and told her I hoped that she would go on to become a very good and attentive doctor.
Though I didn’t have the language for it yet, I was learning to hold space. In letting go of the illusion of control and accepting what was, instead of trying to cling to what could have been, I’d found a new practice that would change my life and eventually become my primary purpose in life.
Three weeks into my hospital stay, after I’d fallen asleep with lullabies playing in my ear, I woke up to hear that they wanted me to go down earlier than usual for my morning ultrasound. (They checked in on the baby twice a day to make sure that he was peeing regularly. A functioning bladder meant that he hadn’t developed infection.) I walked downstairs feeling hopeful and content because, just the day before, I’d reached the stage where my baby was considered viable outside the womb.
The ultrasound technician had barely begun when she went completely silent. We were friends by then, so it was unusual for the chatter to stop. “I have to get the doctor,” she said and slipped out of the room. I lay there and began to panic again. When the doctor returned and moved the wand over my belly while looking at the screen, I knew, even before he told me, that my baby had died. Sometime during the night, bacteria had passed through my open cervix and ended his short life.
Later that day, I gave birth to my stillborn son. When I found out, after the ultrasound, that I’d still need to go through the labour and delivery process, I was overwhelmed with the unfairness of it. But a kind social worker told me that many moms of stillborn children had reflected later that the labour process was meaningful for them and that it allowed them to feel more like they’d given birth to a real child. She was right – it was excruciating, but it was meaningful. My son, just like my daughters, was nurtured within me and born through me and his life had meaning and purpose. He wasn’t just a fetus.
The grief in the next few weeks was painful and there were nights when I lay in my bed weeping in anguish (especially when my milk came in and I had no child to nurse), but it’s also true that the sense of peace that I found in the hospital stayed with me and helped me get through the times of darkness.
Nothing was the same after that. Something was awakened in me in that hospital room, and, though it took ten more years for me to find myself to this work, I had a new sense of purpose and calling that wouldn’t leave me alone.
Now, nearly twenty years later, I feel deep gratitude for my time in liminal space and social isolation. I was irrevocably changed by it, and it led me to this remarkable work that fills my life with purpose and joy.
It is likely that, with coronavirus disrupting your world, you are finding yourself in some of the upheaval, panic and loss of control that I experienced at the beginning of my hospital stay. If you are, let me offer a few suggestions, based on my experience.
Remember that no emotional state is ever permanent. The feelings may feel enormous and scary right now, but they will pass. They always pass. Let them pass through you and don’t judge yourself for feeling big feelings. Feel them, label them, and let them pass.
Take a deep breath and let go of whatever you can’t control. Our suffering is often rooted in the fact that we desperately want to feel some control over our lives, but that control is an illusion, especially in a time of such disruption. Clench your hand into a fist and release it – notice how it feels to let go and invite that sensation into your whole body. Do this again and again, as often as you need to.
Notice what overstimulates you and limit your exposure to it. When I was in the hospital, I tried to watch TV one night, but found that it overstimulated my anxious brain, so I stopped and didn’t watch for the rest of the time I was in the hospital. I’m now noticing the same happening with social media occasionally, so I walk away and turn my attention to something more calming.
Focus on the people in front of you. When you let the whole world into your consciousness, it can feel scary and overwhelming, especially right now, but when you focus on those you love, in your small circles, it feels much more grounding and comforting. This is a good time to narrow your focus. Hold space for those who matter most and trust that the others will find their people.
Be still enough to allow your undiscovered gifts to come to the forefront. Sometimes, in times of great upheaval, when we quiet ourselves and tune in to the depths within us, we find resources that we didn’t know we had. Just as I discovered skills in coaching and navigating liminal space, you may discover you have a gift for leadership or baking or problem-solving or virtual hosting or serving your neighbourhood or…. whatever!
Tend the space you’re in. Though I’ve never been the type of person who loves to clean or care for plants, both of those things felt meaningful to me in my small space. Tending the plants I’d gotten from friends gave me a surprising amount of pleasure and helped me feel grounded and peaceful. Right now, with many of us confined to our homes, the small spaces we’re in will need special tending so that we feel supported and held.
Create a space for “cocooning”. As I said in last week’s video about liminal space, this time we’re in can be compared to the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly. Before we get to the new post-coronavirus world, we have to go through a phase of deconstruction and emptiness. In my hospital room, I had a large comfortable chair in the corner that I filled with pillows. That was where I curled up when I needed extra comfort and stillness. Now, during coronavirus, I have a similar spot near my window where I can curl up and feel the sun warm my body.
Allow yourself time and space for processing and meaning-making. In the early days of disruption, your brain will likely be stuck in anxiety overdrive, and you won’t be able to do much higher-functioning processing until you’ve learned how to calm it. But once you’re ready, it can be very helpful to spend time processing your thoughts through journal-writing, art-making, dance, etc. The more you’re able to process it and make meaning out of it, the less it will get stuck in your body as trauma that you’ll have to deal with later.
Connect with the people who matter most to you and let them support you. This is a time when we need each other more than ever. Even if we can’t be in physical contact with each other, we can still support each other and offer love and kindness in all of the ways that we can. It takes a special kind of vulnerability to get through liminal space together, but the deepened relationships that I enjoyed in the hospital tell me that it’s worth it.
Notice what lands on your windowsill. When I was in the hospital, butterflies became special to me after my friend Stephanie gave me an article about a woman who saw butterflies as a representation of her deceased dad. After I read the article, butterflies started showing up in unusual places – including the windowsill of my fifth floor hospital room. In the years since then, they have continued to remind me of my son Matthew, and I receive each one as a special gift from the spirit/natural world. In the time of coronavirus, I wonder what special creatures will show up for each of us.
None of us knows the outcome of this time of disruption in the world. It’s quite possible that many of us will suffer losses and that we’ll have to walk through considerable grief and ongoing disruption. I wish I could promise you otherwise, but I simply can’t – not after grieving the loss of my son.
I don’t even know if it’s hope that I want to leave you with at the end of this article. Perhaps it’s something other than hope that we need right now – perhaps it’s more like courage and strength and resilience and new skills in navigating hard journeys. Perhaps it’s faith that we can survive this and that we have the capacity to weather the storms that this brings to our lives.
Whatever the future looks like, there is one thing that I feel certain of and it is this… we are meant to be connected to each other, and in this moment, I feel deep gratitude that I am connected to you.