What’s revealed by the pain

I was reading something this weekend about pain and how it’s the body’s way of telling us there’s something we need to pay attention to. And then I thought… it works for the heart and the mind too.

I’ve had a few pain points lately. Learning to adjust to this new life has been so very beautiful, on the one hand, and… well, so many other things too. There have been pain points. Moments when my nervous system is totally dysregulated. Moments when I’m overwhelmed with the number of decisions that need to be made and the details that need to be arranged. Moments when my brain is overly taxed with all of the forms that need to be filled out and the offices that need to be visited. Moments when I stand in front of the self-checkout screen at the grocery store and just can’t figure out how to punch in the code for onions because my brain is just completely DONE.

AND… this weekend, I turned toward those pain points, wondering what they were telling me to pay attention to. How do I need to resource myself? Where do I need new (or reshaped) boundaries? What can I learn from my reaction to these things? How can I be more tender with my own neurodivergent brain?

Oof. Those pain points showed me a LOT. I started seeing patterns I hadn’t paid attention to before, and the patterns painted a clearer picture than I’d seen before.

It wasn’t that there was necessarily anything new showing up. If we had signs for our brains, like those road signs in national parks that warn of potential fire hazards when there hasn’t been enough rain, I’ve long known that mine tips into the red zone whenever I’m faced with too much bureaucracy, having to fill out too many forms, visiting the offices of too many professionals, and navigating too many government or regulatory agencies. It wasn’t a surprise for me, for example, when I had a mini-meltdown after visiting multiple offices to get my car safety-checked, get my drivers license, and get my car insured. I remember feeling similarly after all of the office visits required for my divorce (lawyers, vital statistics, banks, etc.).

But this time, when I turned toward it (after sitting in more than one parking lot in tears, if I’m honest), something new showed up – something that helped me understand my own neurodivergence on a deeper level. Something that showed me more of what I need for the future. Something that clarified the ways in which the world isn’t designed to accommodate all of the vast diversity of brains and nervous systems that we beautiful messy humans have.

I will write more, at some point, about what new learning showed up this weekend, but for now I need to hold it close to my chest. I need to care for my own unique brain and nervous system with tenderness (and good boundaries). And I need to process it with a lot of long walks by the lake. 

When I care for myself first, dear reader, I am better able to offer the harvest of a well-nourished brain rather than a parched one that’s near its flash-point. I will share that harvest once its ready.

For now, though, I want to offer this…  Though I don’t enjoy pain any more than the next person, I know there’s something really juicy emerging from this. I know that the pain showed me something really important and future-me will be grateful for the learning.

I wonder what pain points are showing up for you, dear reader, and what information might be available to you. How is the pain revealing your own needs, limitations and boundaries? And how is it showing you the ways that the world might not have been designed for the kind of unique brain, body, or heart that is YOU? What might it be telling you about the ways you need to care for yourself to better equip you for navigating spaces that are challenging for you?

Perhaps you want to explore those pain points in the safety of a tender circle of like-hearted people. Perhaps you want some guides and supports for this exploration. If so, I would love to have you join us for Know Yourself, Free Yourself. It’s less a course than it is a tender circle of care, where we collectively seek more tenderness and liberation.

P.S. In case you’re worried that the brain-burnout I’m talking about in this post will limit my capacity to host the course, let me set your mind at ease. This course (and the conversations I know we’ll have in the circle) is like rain on the parched landscape of my brain. Leading the course (with the support of Krista) nourishes and replenishes me – the complete opposite of a visit to the motor vehicle registration office. If you have an overly-taxed brain too, won’t you join us for some nourishment?

Forgiveness and the death of my son

Matthew's clothes

Handmade clothes my son’s body was dressed in after he was born.

If it hadn’t been for doctors’ errors, I would have a sixteen-year-old son.

Halfway through my third pregnancy, I could sense that something was wrong. My body didn’t feel right. “I feel like I have to re-adjust my hips every time I stand up to avoid the baby dropping from between my legs,” I said to my doctor when I called her. “Something feels too loose down there.”

She sent me to the hospital where an intern taped monitors to my stomach and I lay waiting for the prognosis. “Everything looks normal,” said the intern. “The baby is moving well and the heartbeat is strong. I’ve consulted with your doctor and we’ve decided that there is not enough of an indication of a problem to do an internal exam. At this point in the pregnancy, the risks of that kind of invasiveness don’t seem worth it.”

That was the first mistake. They should have checked my cervix.

A week later, I booked some time off work and visited another hospital for a routine, mid-pregnancy ultrasound. The moment the technician turned the screen away from me, I knew something was wrong. The sudden subdued tone in her voice confirmed my suspicion. An hour later, after an awkward call with my doctor, leaning over the receptionist’s desk and trying not to cry, I was on my way back to the hospital where they would now address the problem that had been missed the week before.

My cervix was open. The signals that my body had sent me were accurate – I WAS too loose down there. I was already four centimetres dilated – four months too soon.

After a variety of doctors visited and asked me the same series of questions over and over again, I finally found myself at a third hospital where I was placed into the hands of the only specialist in the city who had the skill to deal with my problem. That evening, Dr. M. spent nearly two hours explaining the situation to my husband and me.

I had an incompetent cervix. Though it had held firmly through my first two pregnancies, like a rubber band that has lost its elasticity, it no longer had the strength to hold itself closed for the nine months it was required to hold a baby in place. Nobody had an explanation – apparently it just happens sometimes. Because it had been open for awhile, the amniotic sac was bulging out of the gap, which is why I’d been feeling the discomfort a week earlier.

The next morning, after a fitful night that included a panic attack after I listened to the frantic sounds of another mother down the hall giving birth to a dead baby, I was wheeled into the surgical theatre where I was to undergo a cerclage. Like the drawstring of a purse, the doctor would stitch a strong thread through my cervix and then pull it closed, simultaneously pushing the amniotic sac back behind the barrier.

After I was prepped for surgery, Dr. M. entered the room with a young intern. It was a teaching hospital, so I was getting used to students following the teacher around. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Instead of Dr. M., it was the young intern who picked up the needle and stepped between my legs.

Dr. M. read the concern on my face. “Often it’s actually better to have the more experienced doctor watching and guiding rather than doing the stitching,” he reassured me. “It will be okay. She’ll do a fine job.”

That was the second mistake. Minutes later, the faces of both the intern and Dr. M. told me something had gone horribly wrong. “Pull it out,” said Dr. M. “We have to abandon surgery.”

The amniotic sac had been pierced by the needle she was using for the cerclage. My water was now broken. My baby was no longer protected. I would probably go into labour soon and deliver a baby too tiny to survive.

To the surprise of all of the doctors, I didn’t go into labour right away. In fact, hours stretched into days, and the baby seemed to be thriving despite the lack of amniotic fluid or protection from the outside world. Dr. M. watched vigilantly, doing two ultrasounds a day to make sure all of the baby’s organs were functioning properly.

After the failed surgery, I had another fitful night in which I wrestled with the demons that wanted to convince  me to point the blame at the doctors. “It’s their fault,” they shrieked in my ear as I fought through the anxiety. “If they had checked you a week ago, or if Dr. M. had done the surgery, you wouldn’t be in this situation, expecting your baby to die at any moment.”

But there was another voice – a quieter voice – underneath the anger and fear. This voice said “You have a choice to make. Blame the doctors and let the bitterness control you, or let it go and choose a more peaceful way through this.” By morning, I had made a choice. I would let it go. Bitterness wouldn’t do me or my baby any good. I wanted to choose life.

The next day, Dr. M. came to see me and at the end of our visit, he paused for a moment. “The intern would like to come see you. She feels horrible about what happened and would like a chance to apologize. Will you see her?”

I took a deep breath. Was I ready to see her?

“Yes,” I said. “I’ll see her.”

A few hours later, she walked into the room. Her eyes filled with tears as she blurted out an awkward apology.

“I know you were doing your best,” I said, “and you made a mistake. I don’t hold that against you. Don’t let this ruin your career as a doctor. Learn from it and keep doing better.”

For much of the next three weeks in the hospital, I felt surprisingly peaceful. I started a gratitude journal and I had many long, luxurious conversations with the friends and family that came to visit. I joked with people who commented on my peaceful appearance that my hospital stay felt a little like being in an ashram – a retreat space away from my busy life that gave me time to reflect on the meaning of my life.

At the end of those three weeks, though, my peaceful state met the crashing waves of despair. I went downstairs for my morning ultrasound visit and discovered that my baby had died during the night. A few hours later, I had to go through the excruciating pain of labour and delivery, knowing the outcome was a dead baby. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done.

As I prepared to go home from the hospital, my breasts filling with milk my son would never drink, I checked in with myself about the choice I’d made three weeks earlier. Now that my baby was dead, could I still forgive the doctors for their mistakes? The stakes were higher – could I make the choice again? Yes, I decided that I could. Choosing not to let go would be to choose bitterness and hatred. I wanted to choose peace and forgiveness. I made that choice again and again in the coming months as the waves of grief came.

IMG_8303This week, I’ve been reading Wilma Derksen’s new book, The Way of Letting Go, about her thirty-two year journey to forgiveness after her thirteen-year-old daughter’s murder. The term forgive, she says, derives from ‘to give’ or ‘to grant,’ as in ‘to give up.’ Forgiveness is the process of letting go. It “isn’t a miracle drug to mend all broken relationships but a process that demands patience, creativity, and faith.”

I’ve known about Wilma since the story of her daughter Candace’s disappearance erupted in the media, five months after I graduated from high school (in 1984). Seven weeks after the disappearance, Candace’s body was found in a shed just a few blocks from her home.

A few years ago, I heard Wilma give a TEDx talk about forgiveness. What stood out about that talk was that, during the trial of the man accused of murdering Candace, Wilma realized that she could not hold both love and justice in her heart in equal measure. Though she longed for justice for Candace’s sake, for the sake of the family that was still with her, she chose love.

After hearing her speak, I reached out to Wilma and we have since become friends. Last year, while she was working on the book, she invited me to lunch to explore the idea of me being a guest speaker at a class she was teaching about forgiveness. Over lunch, she told me about how she had, after more than thirty years of processing her own forgiveness over the murder of her daughter, come to a somewhat different conclusion about forgiveness than what we’d both been taught in our religious upbringing. As she says in the book, it’s a long journey of letting go and making the choice, again and again, to choose love and life, just as I’d done in the hospital. It’s not about denying that you feel anger and hatred or that you want justice, but it’s a conscious choice not to let those things control you. 

Toward the end of our lunch date, I decided to share something with Wilma that I’d hesitated to bring up earlier in the conversation – that my marriage had recently ended. I was reluctant to talk about it for two reasons: 1. I didn’t want it to dominate the conversation, especially when the focus was on her course and her work, and 2. since she was an “expert” on forgiveness and I knew her to be a religious person, I was afraid of what she might think of me for having failed at marriage. (I still carried some old shame about the sin of divorce.)

Wilma’s response caught me by surprise. Not only was she compassionate and non-judgemental, but she offered a simple reframing of a story I shared that helped me see even more clearly why the ending of my marriage had become necessary. She held space for me in the beautiful way that only someone who has walked through pain and has learned not to judge herself for her reaction to it can do.

I realized, in that moment, that I had placed Wilma on an impossible pedestal. For more than thirty years, I’d seen the media’s version of this somewhat saintly Christian woman who had some kind of super-human capacity to forgive the most egregious crime against her and her family. But the truth was much more complicated and nuanced (and, in my mind, appealing) than that. She was, just as I was, a very human woman who’d been nearly drowned in intense pain, anger, and fear, and yet she kept swimming back up to the surface in search of the light. 

Forgiveness, for her, was not a pie-in-the-sky utopian ideal that meant she could live in peace and harmony with all who’d wronged her. Instead, it was a daily – sometimes hourly – decision to let go of fear, grief, ego, happy endings, guilt, blame, rage, closure, and self-pity.

I didn’t get to raise my son Matthew, but because, like Wilma, I chose forgiveness instead of bitterness, his short life transformed mine and his legacy is present in all of the work I now do. That three week period in the hospital with him was not only a retreat, it was a reconfiguring, sending my life in a whole new direction that lead me to where I am now.

At the end of the book, Wilma admits that her concept and experience of forgiveness are still changing and evolving. I’m with her on that. Life will keep giving us more chances to learn.

Go ahead and take it personally

healing heart

“I’m trying not to take it personally, but…” Those are the opening words to many stories I hear from my coaching clients. They’re usually sharing something that has been spiralling through their mind – something that caused a wound, brought up fear, or blocked them from doing something they really wanted to do. They’re not only taking it personally, they’re carrying shame that they can’t simply brush it off.

My response to them is always the same.

Go ahead and take it personally.

Allow yourself to feel the hurt. Allow yourself to cry. Allow yourself to be angry, fearful, frustrated, sad, wounded, etc. Don’t shut down the feelings because of some ancient script that’s telling you that you’re weak if you take things personally.

Do not be ashamed of being a big-hearted, big-feeling person.

I’m not suggesting you should get stuck there, but that’s a good place to start. Healing starts in a heart that’s open, a heart that’s not afraid to feel, a heart that doesn’t try to stuff things away.

I often takes things personally. And I am no longer ashamed of that fact.

As my work becomes more and more public, I occasionally (though thankfully not frequently), get emails criticizing something I’ve said or done or not said or not done on my blog, in my courses, etc.. I used to tell myself “brush it off – this comes with the territory”. But that kind of self-talk was never helpful. I realized that, in trying to stuff the wound away, I was short-circuiting my ability to grow and learn from the wound.

When we bury the wound, we deny it the opportunity to teach us something.

Now, when an email or comment wounds me, the first thing I do is step away from the computer and find a cozy place where I can feel what I need to feel. I might make myself a cup of tea, wrap myself in my favourite blanket or prayer shawl, or head out to the woods where the trees don’t judge me for crying.

The second thing I do is to grab my journal. Journal writing (and mandala-journaling) has always been my way of processing the world. I sit down, and start writing all of the feelings – the hurt, the shame, the anger, the unworthiness, etc.. I don’t censor myself. I just let the pain show up on the page. Sometimes that’s all I need. The simple act of releasing it onto the page can be enough to shift how I feel about it.

If I need more work on it, I let my pen expand my heart as I stretch myself beyond the pain into the learning. I ask myself a few questions and try to answer them as honestly as possible:

  1. Why is this triggering me? What old stories is it bringing up? (ie. Do I have stories of unworthiness, failure, shame, etc.?)
  2. What is the deeper healing this wound is inviting me to?
  3. What truth, even though it’s painful, do I need to receive from what’s been said and what do I need to change as a result?
  4. Which parts of what’s been said do I need to let go of, recognizing that whatever’s been said is rooted in the other person’s stories, fears, etc.?
  5. What new stories and new courage might this experience help me step into?

If things still feel unresolved after the journaling, walking, tea-drinking, crying, etc., I consult a trusted friend who will hold space for me while I talk my way through it. The right friend will help me gain perspective on it by asking good questions and offering other ways of interpreting it. She/he will never judge me for feeling the way I feel. (The ones who do make us feel judged are not the right friends to trust at that time.)

After I’ve done my personal work and talked with a friend, I do some discernment about what kind of response is required of me. My response usually depends on the relationship. 

If it’s someone with whom I have an ongoing relationship that I want to maintain, I will invest time and energy in trying to engage in a meaningful conversation that will help us both move past this wound. I try to be as honest as possible in admitting how it made me feel (and maybe why it made me feel that way), receiving what I think is valuable in the criticism, and then expressing which part I don’t think is mine to carry forward (releasing, not blaming). I might also ask them to further explain their perspective, if I need deeper understanding.

I love what Brene Brown says in Rising Strong about engaging someone in a conversation after you’ve felt wounded by them. Instead of laying blame, she starts with “the story I’m making up is…” In other words, “I admit to interpreting this through the lens of my own past hurts, self-esteem, etc., and I want to give you a chance to offer a different story if I misinterpreted.”

If the email that hurt me is from a stranger with whom I have no relationship, I decide whether it’s worth it or not to invest in a reply. (Some people are simply complainers or trolls who have earned no right to that amount of my energy.) If it’s worth investing in, I usually respond with a much shorter email (remembering that I don’t have to over-explain myself), expressing gratitude for whatever I gained in the exchange and releasing what isn’t mine to carry. I may or may not invite them to engage further, depending on how much it’s worth to me.

Doing this kind of work when I feel wounded isn’t easy, but it’s necessary if I want to continue to grow and be in healthy relationships with people. 

The best thing is that each time I do the work, it heals me a little more and makes me stronger for the next time I face something that has the potential to wound me. Some of the things that wounded me ten years ago no longer have that kind of power over me because I did the work to heal them. And some of the things that wound me now will no longer have power over me in ten years. That’s what doing my personal work healing is all about. It’s never over – it just goes deeper.

“You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability. You can choose comfort or you can choose courage. You can’t choose both. Courage is uncomfortable. That is why it’s rare. Being courageous is more important to me, as a value, than succeeding.” ~ Brené Brown

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Women on a journey, women in lament

IMG_1042Something happens when women come into circle.

Tears flow.

It’s inevitable. When women feel held in a way they haven’t felt for a long, long time, their release valves open and the emotions they’d held tightly under their control begin to seep out through their eyes.

Something else happens after the tears begin to flow.

Women apologize.

Conditioned for most of their lives to distrust the tears and to see them as a sign of weakness, they worry that the tears won’t be welcome, that they’re inappropriate, that they communicate something they dare not communicate, or that the opening of that valve isn’t something they can undo and the tears will never stop. I see it every time I host a soul-opening class or retreat. Our tears trigger our shame and fear.

Women’s tears are a dangerous thing. They’re dangerous to the men (and women) who don’t know how to access their own emotions and who therefore think they’re being manipulated by others’ emotions. They’re dangerous to those who realize that women in touch with their emotions are harder to control. They’re dangerous to workplaces, schools, and churches that are built on structure, control, logic and order. They’re dangerous to those who release them because we don’t know where they will lead us or what they will shift in our lives.

Tears are dangerous because they open us up to emotions uncontrolled, secrets untold, stories unlived, and longings untapped.

But in that circle of women, if it is well hosted, tears are always welcome. Because we know – in our bones we know – that tears release us, they free us, they strengthen us, and they give us power. In last week’s circle (at Gather the Women‘s annual gathering), in fact, when we were invited to share an item that represented power in our lives, one women brought out a kleenex. “Because my tears give me power,” she said. Indeed.

So after we apologize out of our conditioning to do so, we loosen and relax into the tears and whatever else may come with them.

When women gather, some of the stories that bring tears are the stories about how our collective sisterhood, around the world and throughout the generations past, have been silenced, raped, murdered, and burned at the stake. For speaking out, for learning to drive, for challenging the patriarchy, for daring to follow their own spiritual paths, for being in the path of conflict, or simply for being women.

Last week those stories kept coming up in the opening circle and then in subsequent smaller circles. “We have generations of wounds,” some women said, “and we are afraid to cry about it in case we won’t know how to stop. We are afraid to cry because our tears have brought on the violence and sometimes even death.”

“We are watching our sisters die,” said others. “We are helpless in the face of those who are mutilating the genitals of our sisters in Ethiopia. We can do so little about the murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada. We feel lost when we hear about young girls being sold into sexual slavery in India. We can do nothing about the young girls taken from their school by rebels in Nigeria.”

“We feel lost and helpless, but the only thing we know how to do is stuff in our emotions and carry on. We carry on because we are afraid to cry, afraid to care too much, afraid to truly allow ourselves to feel these deep wounds, afraid that we’ll be made fun of by those in control.”

At the end of a long day of hearing these stories, I felt weary and a little lost. I did what I almost always do – I carried my sadness into the woods. I walked up into the hills near the retreat centre, my shoulders weighted down with unresolved stories and unwept tears.

IMG_1084Up in the hills, I noticed an interesting thing. The hills were covered with low shrubs that had turned a brilliant shade of red (that I later learned were sumac) and had grown equally red seed clusters.

I stood on the path at the foot of a hill covered in red, and suddenly I didn’t see leaves anymore. Suddenly I saw a river of blood flowing down the hill.

It was the blood of centuries of women murdered and raped simply because they were women. It was the blood of the murdered and missing Indigenous women in my own country, the blood of the young women I met in Ethiopia who were beautiful and full of life when I met them and dead a few months later because they’d all been subjected to female genital mutilation with the same dirty knife, the blood of the women who’d been burned because their love of ritual and feminine spirituality was too dangerous and they were branded as witches, and the blood of so many other women all over the world who’ve suffered similar fates.

It was also my own blood, shed when a rapist climbed in my bedroom window and took my virginity away.

And it was the blood of Mother Earth, wounded by our corporate greed, destruction and insatiable hunger for her resources.

I stood there, at the foot of that river, and was suddenly overcome with emotion. I sat down at the base of a tree, surrounded by red, and I wept. I wept the unshed tears of my own stories. I wept for the women whose tears had dried up and who could cry no more. I wept for the way we’ve bottled up our tears, for the way we’ve let fear and shame keep us silent, and for the way we’ve been conditioned to accept our powerlessness in the face of so much brutality.

IMG_1077When the weeping subsided, I opened my journal and began to draw the river of blood. As I sketched, the words came to me… “The river of blood will heal this land.”

It didn’t make sense. How could the blood of our own woundedness heal anything? How can the victim be the healer?

I didn’t want to write it down, because I didn’t quite know what it meant and I resisted it. Perhaps I resisted because I was more inclined to look for blame and an external resolution than an internal path to healing.

But write it down I did. And suddenly the river was no longer the blood of pain and woundedness – it was the blood of menstruating women. The blood of birth and renewal. The blood of women’s power to co-create and regenerate. The blood of the new life that comes after the healing tears.

I leaned back on the tree and looked up at the sky. A large white cloud was above me and at the centre of that cloud was the cutout of a perfect blue heart. Love flowing down on me.

Across that heart flew a bird. A mourning dove – the symbol of forgiveness.

IMG_1068Wow. Forgiveness. That’s a tall order. Could I find it in myself and invite it in others?

I stood up and continued walking. Further along the path was a ravine – a dried up riverbed coming from the top of the hill. At the bottom of that ravine were broken sticks and pine cones. Just like the red leaves had become blood, those sticks and pine cones became the bones of generations of women who have been killed – some of whom have been and continue to be dragged from the river in my own home town in recent weeks. (Including Tina Fontaine, a 15 year old girl found in a plastic bag in the Red River, who had been exploited and murdered.)

I climbed down into the river, determined to carry some of those bones with me as reminders. As I began to climb out, dead shrubs reached out like hands pulling at my skirt, determined to keep me there along with the bones of my sisters. I knew it was partly my own story – the rape I suffered at the hands of an Indigenous man – trying to keep me trapped, trying to keep me in a place of deadness. But I also knew that I’d been through a long journey of forgiveness and had no more reason to stay at the bottom of that river.

After I left the hills and went back down to rejoin my sisters, I wondered what to do with my story. Should I share it with the other women or should I keep it to myself for my own meaning-making? I shared it with a few women over dinner, and they encouraged me to share it more broadly, but I still wasn’t convinced.

Part of me believed that I was meant to invite other women into the hills for their own weeping and path to healing, but I just wasn’t sure. That night I had a dream that I did just that, and it was a disaster. People kept interrupting us on their way to a cafeteria that had appeared on the hill. And none of the women felt free to release their emotions in such a busy place. There was no freedom, no healing, just busy people leading busy lives.

The next morning before breakfast, I went back up into hills to pray and ask for guidance about what I should do next.

When I got to the base of the river of blood, I felt compelled to walk up through the river to find the source. I climbed to what I thought was the top, and there was a large pile of trees that had been cut down. “That makes sense,” I thought. “The blood is flowing from what we have cut from the earth and cut from ourselves.”

But there was more hill ahead of me. I hadn’t reached the source. I kept climbing. This time, at the real summit, there was something much different. A circle of benches. A place where people come to heal. A place where people come to be in community and to speak from their most authentic stories. A place where people learn to forgive.

Ahhh… this is the healing circle that is pouring healing blood down on the hills. The womb of the mother out of which new life is birthed.

As I stood looking at the circle and taking in this new message, something happened that shook me to my bones and made me weep again. Very close and very loud – a single gunshot.

Suddenly I was terrified. Was I safe? Was there a hunter in these woods who would mistake me for a deer? Would my own blood be shed on this hill? Or was the hunter after a cougar I’d been told could be in these hills and I was at risk of both cougar attack and misplaced gunfire?

teepee Black HillsNear the circle was a teepee someone had built out of fallen logs. Full of emotion and fear, I crawled into the centre of the teepee. There I suddenly felt safe, held in the womb of the Great Mother. Surrounded by love and not fear.

Later that day, I knew what I needed to do. I needed to invite other women to the hill.

So I shared my story and said “for any of you who feel the need to weep with me, for all of women’s pain and for your own, join me at 4:00 and we will walk up the hill.”

Several said they’d join me. Others said they wouldn’t or couldn’t but that they would hold us in their prayers while we made the journey.

I had no idea what we’d do when we got up the hill, but I had a sense that we needed some kind of lament ritual, and that the journey up the hill needed to be treated like a pilgrimage or labyrinth walk – releasing, receiving, and returning. Some of the wise women who couldn’t make the hike up the hill gave me little words of wisdom. “Be sure to give them a way of weeping unhindered and safe – a shawl to place over their heads that shields them from everyone else.” “Take something with you to cleanse the space and to bring people back to a place of groundedness afterward, like sage perhaps.”

Gradually, trusting that I was given the wisdom I needed to host this pilgrimage, I leaned into it. When the women gathered, I invited Tubears, a wise elder from Reno, to offer a prayer for all of us. We stood holding hands as she prayed, and then I invited each woman to express which stories were on their hearts – their own or other women’s. “Start a sentence with ‘I carry with me the stories of…’ and share one little piece of what you’re carrying up the hill.”

And then, in silence, we walked up the hill. At the foot of the river of blood, I invited them to wander in silence for awhile and to simply be open to what the hill wanted to say to them. After 10 minutes, I called them back together and said, “Now we are going to move into a lament. We are going to release some of the pent up emotions we’ve denied ourselves, some of the tears we’ve been afraid to shed, some of the pain of witnessing our sisters’ deaths and rapes. It may feel funny at first and you may need to fake it for awhile, but simply allow it to feel weird and carry on. This is counter-cultural. It’s not going to feel normal. Simply allow whatever comes up for you to be okay and safe in this place with your sisters. Sit where you feel safe and held, close enough to us to know that you are in community, but far enough away that you have some solitude. Cover your head with your shawl if you wish, and weep. Once the time is up, I will come to each of you and place my hand on your head. That will be your invitation to emerge out of your weeping and return to the circle.”

Women spread out over the hill and found their places. We began to weep and wail, some loudly, some more at the level at a hum. In some moments it felt fake and put-on, but in other moments deep convulsions of remembered pain welled up and we were weeping for real. I wept for some of my clients who are healing from deep wounds and historic pain. I wept for a beloved sister-in-law who’s been on a long healing journey.  I wept for my daughters and nieces who still have so much to navigate as they come into adulthood. And I wept for the women I’d met in Ethiopia and India and the women from my country being found in the river.

When it felt like the right time, I rose and walked from woman to woman, gently placing my hand on their heads and holding it there like a blessing and invitation, reminding them that they were safe and held in love as they came out of their lament.

We gathered in circle once again, did some deep breathing exercises to release some of the heaviness, and then I invited my friend and co-guardian Hali to offer a cleansing smudge for each woman. Then we passed a talking piece – a stone I’d found on the hill that at first felt like a blade in my hand but then transformed into the shape of a woman as I held it. I invited them to each speak of one thing they were taking with them from this experience.

“When you exit a labyrinth, after you have received what was in the centre for you, you walk slowly in your return to the world, integrating this new wisdom or calling into your hearts and your bodies. I invite you to walk slowly in silence down the hill. Take the time you need. Do the self care that will help you be gentle with yourself. Don’t rush into telling other people about this experience until you are ready for it.”

Slowly and individually, we made our way down the hill. When we got there, I tried to enter into dinnertime conversation, but it just didn’t feel right. Instead, I disappeared from the table and went first to the quiet room where our circle of chairs were and then went to my room to have a hot bath.

I’m not sure what this will mean for the women who were with me. Many of them shared how meaningful it was and how it cracked their hearts open, but mostly I am expecting that they will process it in their own way in their own time. They are each on their own journeys, and if this at least helped them honour their wounds in a new way and seek healing for something unspoken, then they are on the right path. Some might be frightened of the wound and need therapists or other healing practices that help them process what’s been opened up.

I know, though, that this will change my work. I’ve received a new calling – or perhaps a deepening of a calling I knew I already had. A few years ago, I heard a woman from the stage say the words “The world needs people who know how to navigate in the dark” and I knew then that her words were meant for me. I’ve known for quite awhile that part of my work was to help people walk through the shadow, through the grief, and through the wound.

This isn’t easy work – because few people want to be invited into darkness – but it is essential work and I know I need to do it.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when, in the very first coaching session I had after my return to work, a woman who ostensibly wanted to talk about how much she wanted to change her career, revealed only a short time into our conversation that her restlessness was more about unhealed wounds and a darkness she was afraid to enter into than it was about her career.

And then yesterday, as I was washing the dishes, a hit of inspiration arrived. I will be creating a new course that will be somewhat like Mandala Discovery (where you receive a prompt every day) but will invite women to journal and/or do art-making prompts as they take a figurative journey that resembles a labyrinth walk. It is tentatively called “A Spiral Path: A Woman’s Journey to Herself“.

I also expect that there will be upcoming retreats based on this theme.  AND there has already been an invitation to help create a lament for women on a fairly large scale at an event next year. If you want to learn more about any of this as it unfolds, add your name to my email list (at the bottom of the page) and I’ll keep you informed.

Also, if you are interested in how an openhearted writing practice can help you through this journey, join me for a one day online Openhearted Writing Circle on Saturday, October 4th.

Blessings to you wherever you are in this journey.

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This is what you need to remember when life is hard

snow on window

This much I can tell you – hard times are going to come your way. Grief, pain, anger, disappointment, hurt, tears – you’ll face them all in this lifetime.

I wish I could promise you otherwise, but my life story bears the truth of what I’ve just said. You will face the death of people you love, you will find yourself lost in the abyss, you will be betrayed by those closest to you, and you will go through periods of devastating self-doubt.

Last night I had a powerful dream that the whole world was falling apart. It was probably a reflection of the many conversations I’ve had with people recently who’ve felt like their worlds were falling apart. In the dream, there was a major catastrophe (something like an earthquake) and there was calamity all over the world. I spent most of the dream trying to find and rescue people who were lost in the damaged world. It wasn’t a stressful act – it was just something that needed to be done.

I know what the dream means. This is my work in the world – helping people navigate their way through broken places in their lives; helping them see the light when they’re lost in the dark. Quite significantly, in the dream I was doing it with the help of my Mom and Dad. Both Mom and Dad have been my torchbearers, and even after their deaths, they continue to help me in this work.

I’ve gotten mad at God sometimes, for not giving me a calling in which I could invite people onto an easy path. Instead, I got the calling to help people navigate in the dark. It’s hard to market the dark path – it just doesn’t sell the same way “ten easy steps” does. Once I finally surrendered to it, though, I realized that my calling is much deeper and  more beautiful than the easy one I longed for. This is a good life, despite the pain – and maybe even because of the pain. Light is so much more stunning when you know what darkness looks like.

Here’s what I’ve learned about navigating in the dark:

  1. You can survive more than you think you can. You’ll hit what you’re sure is rock bottom, and you’ll think “I can’t possibly live through one more hardship”, and then rock bottom will be taken away from you and you’ll be falling again, to a new bottom. You can survive it. Trust the Source of your strength, the God of your understanding, and the strength you need will show up.
  2. You can fall apart, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be permanently broken. In the cycle of life, deconstruction has to happen before construction can begin. The falling apart is necessary – let it happen. Don’t try too hard to hold yourself together. Old patterns need to die (painful but true) before new patterns can emerge. Think of the seed that needs to crack open for a tree to grow. Yes, it’s painful for that seed, but if it doesn’t crack open, it withholds life.
  3. Your greatest enemy is the shame of what you’re trying to hide from the world. Shame will cause you to do unhealthy things just to maintain your reputation as a “pulled-together” person. Let go of your image of a pulled-together person and practice letting go of the shame. I say “practice”, because it takes time, effort, and some pretty deep personal work to recognize the shame and gradually let it go. (See Brene Brown’s work or Cath Duncan’s work for more on shame resilience.)
  4. Let go of any illusion you have that you are in control of what happens.  There are many in the self-help world who will tell you that your thoughts attract what comes to you in your life, but if you believe that when hard times come your way, you will be side-swiped by self-hatred in the middle of your grief. You didn’t bring this on. The best you can do is live through it with some measure of grace. And if you don’t always feel full of grace, forgive yourself for that. Let the grace come from some other Source than you.
  5. As any white-water rafter will tell you, your safest bet is to surrender to the waves and stay vigilant for the rocks and whirlpools. Let the grief happen. Ride it out and do what you can to guide your boat between the rocks, but don’t try to resist it. You can’t stop the river, so you might as well ride with it and trust that it will eventually take you to a place of calm. Embrace the word “surrender”.
  6. Search for the points of light. Pay attention to those moments when the sunset is particularly stunning, your friend shows up at just the right moment, a breeze kisses your cheek, you’re drawn to a blog post that was just what you needed to read right now, or someone offers to take over a task that’s become too difficult for you. Each point of light is God shining through the darkness. Those tiny points of light will guide you through the darkness until you see the dawn again.
  7. Trust that this hardship is a deepening of your spiritual journey. Everyone wants an easy path to enlightenment, but nobody gets it. As Caroline Myss reminds us in Sacred Contracts, all of the leaders of the world’s major religions – Jesus, Muhammed, and the Buddha – had to go through times of testing before they could be commissioned into their roles as teachers. Your hardships will deepen your work and take you further into your calling. This I know from personal experience. I would not be doing the work I’m doing today if I hadn’t gone through the loss of my son.
  8. Reach for other people in the dark. There are people who want to walk with you through this dark place. There are people who can help you see the light. It’s okay to reach for them. You don’t need to do this alone. Darkness is easier to navigate if you find someone holding a flashlight.
  9. Life won’t always be this hard. When you’re down there at rock bottom and you haven’t seen a pinpoint of light for weeks, you’re going to become convinced that this is all there is to life and you’ll never be free of the pain. I’m not going to tell you that it’s easy or that you have to have faith. (Read Ronna Detrick’s excellent post about faith in the darkness.) I’m simply going to tell you that there will be light again. And the light will have a deeper, richer shine to it than anything you’ve ever seen before.

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