Sometimes emotions get so mixed up and confused, don’t they? And when they get that way, and we get overwhelmed by them, we lose sight of the ways in which they take control of our behaviour and choices.
Saturday was my last day with my youngest daughter, Maddy, before she returned to Vancouver for university. That’s where my emotional roller coaster started this past weekend – with some anticipatory grief and loneliness, mixed in with a little old-fashioned mama-worrying. As I’ve shared before, this particular daughter has been on a complicated health journey the last two years, and it’s taken an emotional toll on our whole family. Having her live far away from me now adds to that complexity.
On Saturday afternoon, Maddy and I went for a “podcast drive”. This has been one of our bonding past-times in recent years, especially during the pandemic when we’ve had few other options. We choose a podcast (usually either a long-form investigative journalism series about an intriguing murder or other crime, or something about cults or cultish leaders) and then head out for a long drive (usually with some tasty beverages). This time we drove to Birds Hill Park and reminisced about the many years we’ve attended the Winnipeg Folk Festival there and lamented the loss of it in the last two years.
On the way home, we drove through downtown Winnipeg and came across the local rally in support of the “Freedom Convoy” that’s recently made its way across Canada to Ottawa (to protest pandemic-related mandates). There were, admittedly, far more vehicles than we expected to see, and that filled us both with some frustration and despair.
I won’t go into all of the reasons why the Freedom Convoy troubles me (because that’s not what this post is about), except that I will mention a very personal one that felt like a heavy weight in the car for both my daughter and for me. She has lived through this pandemic with a disability and an autoimmune disorder that has made her particularly at risk, and our family has lived for nearly two years with uncertainty over whether her body could survive the virus. For us to witness so many people who want to overthrow mandates that may have helped keep her (and others like her) alive for two years, plus keep the healthcare system functioning well enough that she could have access to the many surgeries she’s needed, feels personal.
(When she finally did catch COVID last month, along with her sisters and me, she had, thankfully, already had three doses of the vaccine and – possibly since it was Omicron – her symptoms were not severe. Plus her trachea was more open than it’s been for much of the last two years – because the hospitals didn’t shut down and deny her access to those ten surgeries – so she was able to breathe relatively well.)
There’s a little more to add about what she was feeling at that moment… At the end of the convoy, Maddy (who’s been a climate activist for several years, partly as a way to cope with the climate anxiety so many youth are experiencing) said, with despondence in her voice, “If so many people distrust science, we’re never going to address climate change. We’re fucked.” On multiple levels, she was feeling abandoned and let down by the generations before her.
Not long after that, we got a text message from my other daughter, who works at a liquor store. She was in tears from the many belligerent customers at the store who, emboldened by the protests, refused to wear masks properly and were taking out their frustrations (and likely releasing some of the adrenaline from participating in the protest) on low-paid retail staff.
(Note: I know that there will be readers of this who may want to respond with other opinions about the convoy, and you have a right to your opinion, but I urge you simply to do your best to hold space for the story of what my daughters and I were feeling at the moment. If you care to stick with me, read to the end of this without rushing to defend your position.)
When we arrived home from our drive, Maddy disappeared into her room for a nap and I… well… at first I simply wandered around the house feeling lost and in despair and unsure of what to do with myself. My emotions felt all jumbled up and confused and there didn’t seem to be any clear way through them, nor was there any clear action that might help alleviate them. I considered going on social media, partly to distract and numb myself, and partly to feed my righteousness with the opinions of like-minded people, but I made a commitment near the beginning of the pandemic to give myself an intentional break from the siren call of social media on the weekends, and I knew that this wasn’t the right time to break that commitment.
I knew that social media would likely add to the messiness and dysregulation of my emotional state. Or it might over-simplify the emotions by making me believe only one emotion was relevant. Or it might numb the most overt emotions so that I’d miss the gifts of the more quiet ones. Or it might tempt me into reactive activism and then I’d get dragged into one of the many pointless debates that social media engenders that would only serve to activate my already-taxed nervous system.
Nope – social media would not serve any valuable purpose in that moment, so I stayed away from it. Instead, I bundled up (it’s been a cold winter around here) and headed out for a walk. Walking has long been a critical part of my self-care, and it’s been especially critical during the many months of this pandemic.
There’s something about putting one foot in front of another again and again, especially in natural spaces, that helps me work my way through many emotional states that threaten to overwhelm me. It’s a soothing repetitive action that draws me into a mindful state and out of nervous system activation. It slows me down, regulates my breath, and refocuses me so that I am able to witness and experience the emotions more individually and less as a jumbled mess. As I pass through each emotional state, the walking also helps me to release the emotion instead of getting attached to it.
Recently (on an audiobook that I thoroughly enjoyed), I heard Nick Offerman talk about how each step is actually a process of temporarily falling and then catching yourself just before you fall. Plant your foot, lift your other foot, fall forward, plant, lift, fall, plant. That temporary falling between steps, it occurred to me, is a form of liminal space – where we are in the in-between place of what used to feel sturdy and secure and what we hope will feel sturdy and secure in the future. In the in-between place, we have to trust the process and lean into the falling.
At the beginning of my walk, I was feeling unfocused and my mind raced from thought to thought, trying to make sense of the mixed-up emotions going on. It’s the mind’s job to try to make meaning out of emotions, and it stubbornly tries to do that on its own, forgetting that the body might actually be of support in the endeavour. Thankfully, though, I know enough not to leave the sense-making and regulation entirely up to my mind, so I just kept putting one foot in front of another, heading toward where I knew nature could also do its part.
A few blocks from my house, I stopped short. Right in front of me, lifting its head from the snow where it had been rooting around for food, was a deer. I’d been so distracted that I’d almost missed it. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a special connection with deer and, to borrow a sentiment from The Colour Purple, I think it “pisses God off if you walk by a deer in a field somewhere and you don’t notice it.” Even though I see deer on almost every walk, I still always pause to notice.
This deer sighting, and the awareness of the distraction that almost made me miss it, was exactly what I needed to bring me up short and remind me to be more fully present. I stood there and the deer and I stared at each other for several moments. Winter deer are particularly fluffy and this one had just had its nose in the snow, so it had a white snout that made me smile.
As I stood there, grief rose to the top of the emotion heap, found its way through the swirling clutter of my mind, and landed in my eyes. I stood there crying on the road and the deer watched me and I let it hold space for me in its unique deer-way.
Once the deer had turned and disappeared behind a house, I carried on. That’s when the other emotions started to line up behind grief and I tried to be mindful as each one came up, witnessing them and letting them pass. There was multi-layered grief, over my daughter leaving and over damaged relationships from the divisions this pandemic has fostered. There was helplessness, because I can do so little to protect any of my daughters or to change policies that might protect their future. There was anxiety over my daughter’s health, and over the state of the world in general. There was anticipatory loneliness, because my daughters are moving away and I am increasingly alone. There was frustration over this endless pandemic. There was sadness over our country’s lack of willingness and/or ability to support vulnerable people during a pandemic (and all of us in the face of climate change).
I walked and walked and, as I did, I breathed through each of my emotions. Drawing on my tenderness practice, I held space for all that I needed to feel and release. I didn’t judge the emotions or try to stifle them. I just walked and breathed. Plant, lift, fall, plant, lift, fall. Breathe, step, feel, breathe, step, feel.
By the end of the walk, my heart was, once again, at peace and my emotions were much more regulated. Though nothing had changed in my circumstances, everything had changed in my heart, mind and body. I had regained enough equilibrium to hold what I needed to hold, including the next morning when it was time to say good-bye to my daughter.
In his work on Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg talks about how important it is in a conflict to name (and allow others to name) what we’re feeling and what we need. There’s a step (or two) before the naming, though, and that involves developing the skills and personal practices that help us get in touch with what we’re feeling. Unless I have developed some emotional intelligence and have some practices (like walking, breathwork, mindfulness, creative practice, meaningful conversations, journal practice, etc.) to help me hold space for my emotions, I won’t be able to tell you what I’m feeling, especially when there’s stress and anxiety flooding my nervous system.
We are nearly two years into a pandemic, and even those with high emotional intelligence are getting taxed in our ability to stay mindful and present and maintain (and/or return to) some sense of emotional regulation. Sadly, many of us have had no training or modeling in what it takes to hold space for our own emotions, so we often end up projecting those emotions onto other people and making decisions from our amygdalas (i.e. fight/flight/freeze/fawn) rather than settling ourselves enough to access our prefrontal cortexes so that we can make more thoughtful decisions.
When we are functioning largely in high activation and stress, especially for a prolonged period of time, we are also much more inclined toward confirmation bias and self-righteousness. We find evidence that will help support and strengthen our opinions and activation and we surround ourselves with people who help justify and affirm our positions. (For a helpful book on this, read Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).) We also more easily find ourselves on the victim triangle, looking for people to blame for our victimhood (and/or people to rescue us) instead of accepting that nobody is to blame and there are simply some circumstances that are beyond anyone’s control.
Then social media adds fuel to that fire. Not accidentally, social media feeds the activation and victimhood and gathers similarly activated people around us because that keeps us hooked on our screens longer. We get sucked in, and the cycle continues.
Sadly, an emotionally dysregulated person, fed by other emotionally dysregulated people, is not going to be able to process rational information that doesn’t prop up their belief system no matter how convincing that information is.
I know it’s hard right now, when we’re all exhausted and activated and there are too many people pushing our buttons, but if we want to get off this roller coaster and not get trapped in the powder kegs of conflict swirling around us all the time, we need to find our equilibrium and help others find theirs. That means finding practices that help us hold space for our emotions and then learning to regulate those emotions. It also means taking a break from social media and not giving in to the temptation to express (and/or validate) every opinion that feels really important in those activated moments. And it probably means setting boundaries and limiting how much we hear the voices and opinions that most contribute to the dysregulation of our nervous systems.
I’m not talking about sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring what’s going on – I’m talking about learning how to be with ourselves first so that we have greater capacity to be with others and engage in the kinds of meaningful conversations that might actually help to move the markers. Otherwise we’re just screaming into the void.
It all starts months ago. Whenever I consider that two of my daughters are planning to move out at the same time (each to cities more than 2000 kilometres away in opposite directions), I find myself dissolving into minor panic attacks. My throat closes, my brain starts to buzz, and suddenly I’m gasping for air and fighting tears. And then I soothe myself by slipping into denial, because… really… could this ACTUALLY happen, especially in a pandemic when we’ve all become so accustomed to hunkering down and barely leaving the house? My mama-heart does everything it can to try to shield me from the thoughts my mama-brain is trying to have about this sudden upcoming transition from too-full nest to nearly-empty nest. “Nope,” I tell myself, “It likely won’t happen. The fourth wave will come, their universities will shut down, or… maybe one of them will change their mind?”
Then August arrives, as it insists on doing every year, and… “Shit,” my mama-brain starts to say. “I think it’s actually going to happen.” And then mama-heart and mama-brain try to work things out between the two of them, brain trying to console heart while both prepare for the inevitable. “We’ll be okay,” brain says. “We’re strong. And besides… millions of parents before us have gotten through this – why wouldn’t we?” “But…” heart moans in a weaker moment, “has anyone in history ever had to do this, as a single, self-employed mom, when she’s spent over a year gathering her daughters close because they were scared of a deadly virus and especially nervous about protecting the disabled and immune-compromised member of the family? And has anyone had to face this so soon after all the combined surgeries those two daughters have had in the last year? AND the same year two of three daughters were diagnosed with ADHD, and we started a new business and launched a new book? I DON’T THINK SO!” (Mama-heart is well-practiced at slipping into victim mode.)
At some point, though, brain always cuts in and waxes eloquence about how we’d always hoped to raise independent daughters who would find things they were passionate about and do brave things in pursuit of those passions… and… now that they’re about to do just that, why would we get in the way?
Whew – the internal dialogue floors me with its intensity and I get sucked in again and again.
A week before I’m set to leave for the first trip to deliver my oldest daughter, my body dives into the internal dialogue and registers a solid dose of resistance. In a freak accident involving a bucket and a kiddie-pool, I wrench my back so badly I can barely move. For a week, I’m in so much pain, I don’t know how I’ll sit in a car for the three-day drive to Toronto, help my daughter move her belongings up two flights of stairs, and then make the trip back again. I try everything I can to resolve it – physiotherapy, chiropractor, massage, acupuncture.
By the time we’re set to leave, the pain is close to manageable. I drive with the sticky-pads of a TENS machine attached to my back as my physiotherapist suggests, flicking the switch to send little electrical jolts into my muscles when the pain flares up. By the time we’re in Toronto, my back is strong enough that I can carry boxes up to her third-floor room. It’s a good thing because she is still recovering from knee surgery and has limited mobility herself.
I spend four days in Toronto, getting used to the idea that I will leave my oldest daughter behind in the middle of this big busy city, and she will begin a life without me near. She will learn to navigate this city on her own, and when I come back to visit, my status as “well-traveled expert” will have diminished, and she will know these streets better than I do. It’s a shift I’ve been working on getting used to over the past few years – accepting the times when my daughters pass the threshold into territory I know nothing about.
We make multiple trips to Wal-mart and IKEA until her small room is fully stocked with the things that will be harder to attain when she doesn’t have access to a car. I watch her make decisions on cleaning products and bed sheets and sometimes she turns to ask my opinion. I pause before giving it, wondering whether this is a moment when she needs a mom’s expertise, or she needs to choose for herself. Maybe she asks my opinion just to make me feel useful in this moment when my usefulness seems to be waning. Or maybe she’s overwhelmed with the multitude of tiny decisions that come with a big move and she needs me to take this one off her hands. I give opinions tentatively, knowing whatever she buys will all belong in a home that is not mine to manage or care for. Mostly, I just provide the transportation.
One evening while I’m still in Toronto, we both have a moment when the immensity of it all washes over us and neither of us can express how that feels in words that have any meaning. As introverts we both know, without saying it out loud, that we each need space after these intense days together. I drive to the beach, walk on the sand and put my feet in the water. She crawls into her new bed under her new blanket and has a nap. Later, I bring her a carton of greasy poutine and we curl up together watching Twilight, a movie that reminds her of easier times when she was a teenager and lived in the safety of her mom’s home and didn’t have to make so many decisions.
A friend flies to Toronto to make the long drive back to the prairies with me. When she’d first offered, a month earlier, I was hesitant to accept the offer, not sure I’d know how to be with somebody in those first days of this new liminal space. My heart feels protective of this moment that feels so uniquely solitary, and a part of me wants the solitary hours in the car to process and prepare for this new aloneness. I have always done my best crying alone. I accept her offer, though, trusting what I teach others – that we get through things better when we trust others to hold space for us.
The first night in a hotel room on the long drive home, after a FaceTime call with my daughter, I melt down with the weight of all of my sadness, and my friend sits with me as I cry. She doesn’t say much. She, too, has left a daughter behind in Toronto, a few years earlier, so she knows this is simply a moment I have to pass through.
I worry about who will hold space for my daughter when she cries, in a city where she knows no-one. For twenty-five years, for many melt-down moments, I have been her person.
A week after arriving home, I am ready to set out again – this time heading west, to Vancouver, where I will leave my youngest daughter. We pack the car one more time and this time my middle daughter will make the trip with me. After this is all over, she will be the only one who will return home with me.
On the way through the mountains, my friend Lenore is never far from my mind. In Banff, we stop to see the house where Lenore and I lived with three other young women the summer I turned nineteen. My nineteen-year-old daughter, now on her own way to a place where she will live with roommates like I once lived with Lenore, snaps a picture of me in front of the house. I tell her how hard it was to live there even though the mountains around me were so beautiful. I cleaned hotel rooms for a living, with a mean boss who yelled at me for moving too slowly, and it was the hardest job I’ve ever had.
Almost exactly seven years before this trip with my daughters, Lenore died in these mountains, on her way to drive her own daughter to B.C. for university. She, too, had three daughters, born a few years sooner than mine. The parallels feel eerily prescient. She died in the passenger seat of the car when it went off the road, just after her daughter had taken over as driver. I don’t tell my daughters about this on our trip, not wanting to spook them, but I also don’t let my daughter drive. I stay vigilant and pray that we will make it through the mountains intact.
In B.C. we pass places where forest fires are still burning and we watch helicopters dropping water from the sky. The grief of a burning world threatens to consume me, but I push the thought away, knowing I only have enough capacity to hold the grief that’s right in front of me. I worry for my daughter, though, so primed to pay attention to the grief and fear of climate change that she became an activist two years earlier. How will she be able to hold all of that as she dives deeper into studies that could sometimes overwhelm her with the doom of an uncertain future? She jokes that her time at university will be short because the planet will be destroyed soon, but under her sardonic humour is anxiety and grief.
In Vancouver, I make the same trips to Wal-mart and IKEA for bedsheets and cleaning products, and it feels like déjà vu. Once again, I try to withhold my opinions until they’re requested. Once again, I listen to the complaints about how expensive it is to buy all the essentials and how annoying it is to buy toilet paper just to flush it down the drain. My oldest daughter sends texts from Toronto into the family chat about how it bugs her to have to pay to do laundry, and they commiserate with each other about the frustrations and expenses of becoming adults. I chuckle as their awareness grows about how much I provided and they took for granted.
While they complain and make jokes, I marvel at their capacity and adaptability. I watch them each do things I didn’t know they’d become capable of. I begin to relax the tension in my neck and chest and I tell myself “You have done all that you could to help them prepare for adulthood. They will be fine without you.” And yet… there is still a part of me that stresses about the things I should have taught them when they were still under my roof. Did I miss some critical parts of their education? Will they bump up against things that surprise them because I forgot to warn them?
When the morning of our departure arrives, I wonder, for the second time, about how much emotion I should reveal and how much I should hold back, to release when I am alone later. Should I let them know how empty the house will feel, or should I focus on the fact that I will be fine, and I’ll soon find ways to fill the empty spaces in my life and home? Will my tears let them know how much they are valued, or will they make them feel guilty for leaving me behind? If, on the other hand, I am too stoic, will they think they don’t matter to me?
My own mother had a way of making her grief other people’s burden. When my siblings and I grew up and left home, her loneliness became our guilt. She rarely missed an opportunity to say how much she wished we’d call her more often and how she was afraid her life no longer mattered to anyone. Determined not to let that family pattern pass on to the next generation, I try to ensure my daughters that they have my unconditional support in these big, brave moves they’re making.
Before her sister and I leave, my daughter jokes that now would be the time to say something toxic, to try to coerce her into coming home. “No,” I say. “I will not be responsible for you changing your mind about something you want. I don’t want to be the person you blame in therapy ten years from now for ruining your life.” She turns to her sister, who’s feeling the grief of this moment as much as I am, and says “How about you? Do you want to say something toxic?” Her sister’s response is similar to mine. As much as we want her home with us, we want her to follow her dreams more.
We say good-bye, and we all cry.
It’s hard to leave my baby in Vancouver, but it’s especially hard after the last eighteen months we’ve had together. Just before the pandemic hit, she was diagnosed with a rare disease that keeps closing her trachea and making it hard for her to breathe. Since then, she’s had surgery each time her trachea closes again. Nine times I’ve taken her to the hospital for surgery, and for seven of those trips, since the pandemic rules changed things, I’ve had to leave her at the front door. I couldn’t stay with her as her advocate in the healthcare system and I couldn’t be at her bedside when she woke up. Two of those times, while I was at home waiting, I got a call from the surgeon saying that her oxygen levels had dropped suddenly after surgery, and they’d had to revive her.
About a year after the first diagnosis, after she switched specialists because the first one wasn’t very proactive, she saw a third specialist and received a second diagnosis for a rare and scary auto-immune disorder that is likely at the root of the problem with her trachea and could possibly cause other problems. They began treating her with immune-suppressing meds with a long list of side effects. A team of specialists began working on her behalf. Meanwhile, the family lived with the anxiety that there was a deadly virus lurking just outside our door that would likely be especially deadly to her. We were all extra careful not to expose ourselves, lest we expose her, and all of us got vaccinated as quickly as we could.
Now I need to leave her behind, in a new city, where she’ll need to meet with new specialists and learn to navigate a whole new healthcare system. Alone. When I think of the enormity of that, I am filled with both panic and admiration. This is a brave thing my girl is choosing to do. I assure her I will be available for conference calls with specialists and can fly to Vancouver for surgeries, but that’s the best I can do. This is the part of the letting go process that nobody warns you about when you hold a tiny, dependent baby in your arms.
Before setting off for home, my middle daughter and I take a ferry to Victoria for a short holiday. On a whim, because we’re both feeling sad and want to do something nice for ourselves, we decide to splurge on a whale watching tour. The zodiac ride out into the open ocean is exhilarating and breathtaking. I decide, even before we see whales, that this is the perfect way to release some of the big emotions bottled up inside me. Just like in Toronto, when I went to the beach, I have found my way to water. In the fast-moving boat, with water splashing all around us, nobody can tell my tears from salt-spray.
We find a pod of killer whales and our skipper tells us what he knows about them. It’s a family of four, two males and two females, who’ve been together for many years. The best guess is that it is three generations of whales – a grandmother, a mother, and two sons (though the females may also be sisters). The oldest female is believed to have been born before 1955 and the second before 1965. That means they’ve been together since just before I was born. The sons were likely born in 1995 and 2001, around the time I was having babies.
I marvel at this family that has stayed together all these years, and my longing makes me jealous. I have never wanted to be a killer whale before this moment.
We leave the whales behind before I’m ready to say good-bye. When we’re back on the dock, the skipper pulls me aside to offer me and my daughter a free trip the next time we come, because there were noisy kids on the boat and he worried that they were rather distracting when we should have been able to watch the whales in silence. (Perhaps he’d noticed my tears after all.) I wasn’t bothered by the kids, but I accept his offer anyway, promising myself I’ll be back next year to spend more time with the whales.
Maybe the mama-whales can teach me what it means to swim wild in big waters and still hold your family close. Maybe they can teach me how to use echolocation to reach through the water for my faraway daughters.
On the way back through the mountains, we’re stopped on the highway by a construction truck. The sign on the side of the road says that blasting is currently taking place up ahead. We sit and wait for the boom. Up on the cliff beside the road ahead of us, there’s a large black object that looks like machinery. When the blast comes, the black object flies into the air and I realize it isn’t machinery after all. It’s a stack of blankets made of thick black rubber that contains the blast and keeps the rubble from hurting anyone or spilling all over the road. A few minutes later, the construction vehicle moves, and we are allowed to pass.
It makes me think about how we hold space for our big emotions – still letting them happen but doing our best to contain and regulate them so that the blast doesn’t destroy anyone. I make a mental note to gather the rubber blankets I might need in the coming weeks to help me contain the blasts of this big grief.
Back home, I wander around the house feeling lost and untethered. I begin to turn one of my daughters’ empty bedrooms into a much-needed office for myself and I cry as I do so. Some moments I am fine and I look forward to the spaciousness that will now be mine, and some moments I dissolve into a puddle of tears.
I feel more untethered and ungrounded than I can ever remember feeling. With the only daughter still at home set to leave at any moment herself, I no longer need to provide a home for anyone other than myself. With no partner, no parents still alive and no in-laws, I am not tethered to any family commitments and don’t need to provide care to anyone who’s aging. With a business that is portable, I can work from anywhere and don’t need to stay in any one place. I am tethered to neither place nor people, neither work nor obligations. Nobody needs me to put their needs at the centre of my plans.
I know that there will be a time when this will feel like freedom, but that time is not now. Now it feels too liminal.
Ten days after we get home, my middle daughter, the only one still at home, goes for long-anticipated (and oft-delayed) elective surgery. It seems routine and there is little risk, but my body remembers the stress of this last year, and my body also knows, because it has birthed a stillborn son, that children can die. While she is in surgery, I find it impossible to focus on anything else. I go for a long drive and stand by the river, returning to water once again. Some of the grief comes out and because there is nobody around who might get hurt by the blast, I don’t bother with the rubber blankets.
It takes too long to hear from her after she should have been out of surgery and I can’t relax until I know she’s breathing and alive. I call to find out and am told she’s fine. When I pick her up, I want to wrap my arms around her and tell her she can never leave me, but I resist.
I know that she too will make choices that will take her away from me. And I know that I will grieve all over again.
Gradually, my daughters and I begin to find our new groove as a spread-out family. We text about inane things and we send each other pictures of ordinary moments in our ordinary days. We try to have a meal together over FaceTime, but the spread of four time zones makes finding a time for all of us to eat a little challenging. I hear the loneliness in their voices, but I also hear the hope and anticipation. “I LOVE Toronto!” one says, and the other responds with “Can you believe I live this close to the ocean AND the mountains?” I send them pictures of my new office, and though my images aren’t as interesting as theirs of the CN tower or the mountains, they ooh and aah anyway. We are all moving forward into new landscapes.
I trust that they are doing alright on this new solitary journey and they trust that I am too.
After painting and hanging special things on the walls, I begin to settle into my new space and I notice how different the light looks in here. When my desk was in my bedroom, I looked out an east-facing window and got the morning sun on my face. Now that my desk is in the room across the hall, I look out a west-facing window and get the evening sun. I wonder how this will shift my perspective on the world.
As I adjust to the new light, and a new pattern of movement between bedroom and office, I begin to plan for the new year that opens up ahead of me. When a wave of grief comes, I sit for a moment and let it pass. I comfort myself with all of the things I’ve learned about liminal space and how necessary it is for transformation.
Then I carry on. And I trust that my daughters are doing the same, wherever they are, in the midst of their own journeys through liminal space.
Note: We are all holding space for so much these days. If you would like to learn more with me, consider joining the next offering of the Holding Space Foundation Program which starts in October.
P.S. Whenever I share stories that involve my daughters, they’re always given a chance to read them first.
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.
The workday was finished and I had just picked up my two daughters – one a toddler and one an infant at the time – from daycare and we were on our way home in the family minivan. I was tired and knew that I still had to find enough energy to make supper, feed the girls, and give them the attention they needed after a day away from me.
There was a train crossing the road, so I stopped at the railway crossing, the second vehicle away from the tracks. Suddenly, a screeching sound caught my attention and I turned to see that the last three cars of the train, still about 50 metres from the road I was on, had come off the tracks and were crashing down to the ground on my side of the tracks. I had only an instant to process what was going on and what was about to happen. The wayward cars were being dragged along by the still-moving train and were in danger of swinging outward to exactly the spot where I sat.
I jammed the van into reverse, but then looked back to see a long line of cars behind me – unless they moved, I had nowhere to go. The railway cars were heading my direction and I was frozen in place, waiting to see if my daughters and I would be crushed by a careening railcar.
Fortunately, the derailed rail cars stayed close enough to the track that none of the vehicles on the road were hit. With my heart pounding, I, and all of the others on the road, turned away from the wreck and found our way onto other roads that would take us home.
Yesterday morning I was waiting for another train at a crossing not far from where the train derailed and I had a flashback to that moment, over twenty years ago, when I didn’t know whether I’d be able to keep my daughters alive.
When the tears started to fill my eyes with the memory, I realized it wasn’t just the train I was thinking about. “This is exactly how LIFE feels right now!” I thought. “We are ALL sitting on the road, watching a derailed train barrel down the tracks and all we can do is sit and watch it come toward us wondering whether we’ll be in the path of destruction.”
That derailed train is so many things right now. It’s the pandemic that none of us can control and nobody knows when/if it will touch our families or circles of beloveds. It’s the jobs being lost and the businesses that may not survive the repeated shutdowns. It’s the bank accounts careening toward empty as a result. It’s the changing climate. It’s the racial injustice and the pain and trauma of BIPOC people and the rising tension because there seems to be no sign of the systemic racism and related deaths coming to an end. It’s the coming U.S. election which is causing so much fear not only because a misogynist bully might win again and continue to wreak havoc, but because there is a very real threat of serious disruption and possible violence as a result of the election outcome. It’s a Supreme Court in the U.S. that is now dangerously tipped against the rights of LGBTQ+ people and the reproductive rights of women.
Many of us, in fact, are at an intersection where multiple derailed trains are coming at us at once and we don’t know which one will wreak the most havoc. For a person of colour in the U.S., for example, or a person with a disability at greater risk because of the pandemic, there are converging trains coming down the track at once.
I don’t write this to be a doomsday prophet or town crier shouting about the end of the world. (I can already imagine the emails I might get from those who want me to post more “positive thoughts” so I don’t “attract” those runaway trains.) I write it to acknowledge that we are in a strange and complex liminal space and none of us has any control over the outcome and in some moments the only thing we can see on the horizon is sure disaster. This is where we are. This is the complexity of the liminal space the world is in right now, and if you are afraid or angry or overwhelmed, you are not alone. And you are not “doing it wrong”. You are human, with real human emotions. And I will never, ever shame you or gaslight you or offer you any spiritual bypassing cliches that would suggest you shouldn’t be having these feelings right now. I’ve been on the road watching that derailed train come toward me and my children – I know how it feels to be powerless in that moment.
That moment isn’t the end of the story, though. I survived it. And my daughters did too. And trains don’t stay forever off the rails. And moments of terror pass. And even if there is destruction, those of us left behind figure out how to pick up the pieces, and we carry on. And we get stronger. And we discover our own courage and resilience and we turn toward each other and we share the stories and admit our fears so that we can help each other survive.
And then one day, more than twenty years later, we sit at another train track, where a train passes us smoothly and we remember that we survived. And we are grateful to still be alive and to be able to continue to parent those little girls who are now adults. And we might cry a little, because it feels like another train is coming at us from another direction, but we remember that we have the capacity to survive and that trains pass. Even the derailed ones.
Here’s what I want to say to you if you’re sitting there, feeling helpless, as the derailed train is coming toward you and your beloveds.
1. Recognize the trauma response. Your body has within it the capacity to respond to moments of threat and stress in what it senses are the right ways to protect you. When the pressure is intense, your amygdala kicks into gear and takes over your brain functioning and nervous system, raising your adrenaline so that you are ready for the flight, flight, freeze, or tend-and-befriend. This quick reactivity serves an important purpose, but it also comes with a cost. For one thing, it makes it very difficult for you to engage the other parts of your brain that are more rational and calm. For another thing, when the trauma from your past is still present in your body, you’ll have a tendency to respond the same way even when the threat isn’t immediate, or isn’t as dangerous as your body senses it to be. That means that, in times of high intensity, especially when multiple trains seem to have become derailed at the same time, you might regularly find yourself with a flooded nervous system and a diminished capacity for calm and rational thought. And sometimes you might even find yourself suffering from adrenal fatigue when your nervous system has been functioning at high alert for too long. Give yourself a break if you’re not able to accomplish much right now or if you seem to be over-reactive to every stimulus. Speak gently to yourself the way you would to a frightened child. Practice soothing yourself with tactile items, gentle touch, or time in nature. Consider seeing a therapist or seek out the medical and/or psychological support you need.
2. Remember the impermanence of every state. It gives me great comfort to recognize that no emotion ever stays forever. It lets me feel even the intense emotions with a little more ease and presence because I know that they will pass. Fear, grief, overwhelm, anger – none of them are sustainable in the long term and so they will all fade away eventually and you will find yourself in other emotional states that are less exhausting. Yes, they may cycle through you again and again, especially in times of stress or tragedy, but you can practice holding them with more mindfulness and awareness, watching them come, holding space for them for a moment, and then watching them leave. Your emotional state does not own you and you can allow whatever shows up to pass through you without becoming overly attached to it.
3. Find outlets that help you release the emotions and the impacts of the trauma. If you need to scream, scream (perhaps in a place where you won’t alarm the neighbours). If you need to cry, cry. If your body feels shaky, let it shake. If you need to laugh until you cry, then do that. If you need to punch something, make sure it’s a pillow and not the face of someone you love. If you need to break something, find your least favourite mug and throw it against a cement wall. Emotions that threaten to overwhelm you need a healthy outlet so that you don’t hurt anyone (including yourself) with them. And trauma that is not physically released from your body has a greater chance of staying locked inside. Sometimes wild dance movements help. Sometimes swinging a hammer or using power tools helps. Sometimes making messy art helps. Sometimes just watching a sad movie and letting your tears flow helps. Emotions that get stuck inside of us will find less healthy ways of showing up later.
4. Find stillness. As I mentioned above, intense emotional states aren’t sustainable, and worry and fretting are among those that we need to let go of when they’re ready to pass. It’s hard to let go of that kind of frenetic energy, though, if we stay in the frenetic space that feeds the worry. Step away from your computer for awhile. Stay off social media one day a week or turn it off at 7 p.m. Don’t check the news first thing when you wake up. Limit the number of conversations you engage in online, especially if there are some that cause you anxiety and discomfort. Unfollow people whose feeds are full of doom and gloom. Pick a comfortable chair in your home that is the no-electronics zone and leave your phone in another room every time you curl up in that chair. Or designate your backyard a no-tech area. Find the places that give you some measure of peace and visit them regularly.
5. Lean into love. Even though we can’t spend as much time in the same physical spaces as the people we love, this is a time when we need connection and community more than ever. This is a time when we need to rely on each other and find the spaces where we can be authentic and vulnerable with people we trust. Lean into that. Reach out to your friends and host Zoom dates. Go for walks in the park together. Send a small gift to someone who’s special to you. Find a way to offer love and that love will come back to you in some way or another. Notice who’s in the most direct line of the oncoming train (i.e. who will be the first to be impacted by the disaster?) and find a way to support them or advocate for them. And if you need mental health support, call a help line or ask around to find a therapist or support group. You are not in this alone. Collectively, we have more capacity to weather derailed trains than we do alone.
6. Know that you are resilient. This too shall pass. You have survived hard things in the past and you will survive hard things in the future. And each hard thing you survive gives you additional resources to help you survive the next one. Trust that you have the strength and resilience to weather this storm. Trust that your emotional muscles will grow under the strain of this new weight. Trust that even those who lose limbs learn to dance again.
Perhaps next year, when we find our way through the rubble of the derailed trains, and we can touch each other again, we’ll lean on each other, we’ll hold up the most wounded, and we’ll do the dance of the wobbly yet resilient.