A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending time in the company of a group of twenty-somethings. At the Winnipeg Folk Festival, for four evenings in a row, my daughters and their friends gathered on our tarp for the mainstage shows and I (together with my sister) got to play the role of benevolent elder, offering them food, blankets, and kindness.
It was delightful. My daughters’ friends are all interesting people whom I’ve grown fond of and being with them was easy and fun.
Watching them, I caught a glimpse of the person I was, back in my early twenties, when I first started attending the Folk Festival. There was nostalgia, grief, and tenderness in that realization.
I wanted to go back in time and give that young Heather a hug. If she’d listen to me – a ghost from her future – I would assure her that, despite her feelings of self-doubt and the many times she’d worry about finding a place to belong, and despite some of the hard stuff she was going to face in the years ahead, she would turn out alright. I might even let her know that someday, in the far distant future, she’d bring three beautiful daughters along with her to the Folk Festival, and they would bring their beautiful friends and she would feel the warmth of all of those years in tender moments on the tarp. (I probably wouldn’t tell her about those two years when the pandemic would take the Folk Festival away – she wouldn’t need that kind of burden weighing on her.)
There are a few other things I wish that twenty-something version of me knew and that I want those twenty-somethings who sat on the tarp with me to know. Here’s what I’d tell them…
It’s okay to hurt your parents’ feelings sometimes in order to be true to yourself. Let me tell you something now, from my advanced years, that not many parents will tell you… Despite your expectations that grownups be, well… Grown Up, most of us still have a lot of hang-ups and a lot of insecurities and a lot of wounds, and sometimes we project that stuff onto our kids (mostly because people expected us to become grownups without teaching us how to heal that stuff). It hurts, when you’re the kid, because you just really want to be loved and accepted for who you are and your parents should give that to you more than anyone, but sometimes parents aren’t very good at giving unconditional love. Sometimes we see our own flaws and parenting failures mirrored back to us through our kids, and sometimes that triggers our self-loathing and then the shame and punishment we heap onto ourselves also gets heaped onto our kids. And sometimes we expect too much (or the wrong things) from our kids because we haven’t met our own expectations and don’t want to see them similarly letting themselves down. I’m sorry this is true, but it is. You aren’t responsible for your parents’ healing or self-love, you are only responsible for your own, so do your best to love yourself and be true to yourself despite what you’ve inherited from your parents and despite the ways in which they sometimes fail to behave like the parents you want them to be. (Also… you might be one of those flawed parents yourself one day too, so you’re going to need to learn some self-compassion and some healing practices along the way. See also #5.)
You will be lonely sometimes, and that doesn’t mean you’re unworthy of love. You will have times when you can’t find a sense of belonging anywhere and you will go through moments when you’ll be fairly certain that everyone in the world is having fun with other people and you’re the only one left out. That’s normal. It happens to ALL of us (yes, even us not-very-grown-up grownups). And it’s just the lonely, wounded, self-protective part of your brain lying to you and trying to convince you that you’re not worthy of love. You ARE worthy of love, and a lot of the people who are posting shiny versions of their lives on social media are doing it so that nobody sees just how lonely they are. You know what two of the best defenses for loneliness are? 1.) Not comparing yourself to other people, and 2.) Learning to enjoy your own company as much as you can. Go out to movies by yourself, take yourself on play dates, travel alone… do all of the fun things that you’ve been waiting for other people to invite you to do. You might discover that those things are just as much fun alone as they are with other people (some things are even MORE fun), and you might even find other lonely people at those places who are fun to hang out with. (Note: Other people might feel threatened by your ability to have fun alone, and they might tease you because of their own insecurity, but don’t let their opinions become your guide.)
You will make new friends and you will lose old ones. It’s going to suck, sometimes, when relationships change, but sometimes it’s for the best. Sometimes there are friendships that hold you back, and sometimes you’ll realize that you can only grow if you let go of the people who don’t have your best interests at heart. And sometimes you’ll just drift apart because your lives are heading in different directions and it’s not because anyone did anything wrong. Learn to let go without resentment or fear and be grateful for the time you had with a person even if the friendship didn’t last. And always do your best to seek out people who lift you up instead of tearing you down.
You don’t have to be normal. Sometimes it will feel like you have to cut off pieces of yourself to fit in, and one day you might wake up and realize that you’ve lost yourself because of all of the pieces you’ve edited out. Please don’t lose yourself, even if you feel like that “self” is too weird or too complicated or too queer or too neurodivergent to be loved. You will find the most contentment and freedom in your life when you have the courage to be yourself. And while you’re busy learning to be yourself, look for other people who are courageous enough to be themselves too. They’ll be the right kind of people to spend time with because they won’t expect you to adjust who you are in order to suit them.
You also don’t have to be exceptional. It’s okay to have an ordinary life and it’s okay to make mistakes and it’s okay to not really have a clue what you want to do with the rest of your life. (Side note: One of the dumbest things grownups ask kids is “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As if there’s only ONE thing you’re going to be! And as if you should know that One Thing when you’re still a kid! And as if your life will only be defined by a career! Yeesh. Don’t get me started. Know this – you can let that shit go.) Let me tell you a little secret… my favourite kind of people are those who aren’t afraid to let their flaws be seen, who aren’t afraid to say “I don’t know”, and who reject the pressure of perfectionism and exceptionalism. One of the most important things you’re going to need to learn is how to forgive yourself and how to love yourself with all of your fumbles and failures. Start now – forgive yourself for the most recent mistake you made and then say to yourself “Hey you – I love you. You’re human. And imperfect. And you’re pretty cool just the way you are.”
Self-care is good, but you know what’s even better? Collective care. There are few things better than people learning to look after each other – people asking for what they need and offering what they can so that nobody gets left out. Look for people who want to look after you and who let you look after them. Look for people who tend to notice who’s being left out – and also try to be one of those people. Look for people who’ve got a sense of justice about who’s being marginalized and go stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those people (and the ones who are marginalized). There’s a lot of individualism in our culture, and far too much measuring of one person’s value against another person’s, and you might find yourself buying into the hype that you should be independently successful and that you shouldn’t need other people, but you DO need other people. And other people need you too. Be honest about where the gaps are and let other people fill them.
Love your body. Love your fat body, your queer body, your black body, your white body, your differently abled body, your chronically ill body, your trans body, your thin body, your clumsy body, your short body, your tall body, your awkward body, your lumpy body, your beautifully imperfect body. Love it with a radical love that accepts it no matter how other people might criticize it or expect it to meet certain criteria of acceptability. Love it despite the way our systems of dominance and control (you know – those pesky things like patriarchy and white supremacy) might try to marginalize and shame it. Love it as an act of resistance and revolution. Love it in a way that makes the older generation uncomfortable. (Note: We, in the older generation, can be kind of squeamish about too much self-love because we’ve been well-trained to punish ourselves and each other for any deviations from the norm. Please do your best to reject this pattern, even when we get pushy about passing it down to you.) And while you’re busy loving yourself that way… remember to love other people that way too. We all need it. (Yes, even us older folks.)
Find people who can help you. You’re going to go through rough patches in your life. There’s just no point in pretending otherwise. Maybe you’ve already gone through rough patches and you know this to be true. Don’t try to navigate that shit alone. I hope that someone in your family will step up to help you, but if they don’t, or if they gaslight you into thinking the rough patches aren’t as rough as you make them out to be, then find other people who won’t judge you for it. Find a therapist, find a friend, find another grownup you can trust – find someone who will listen while you try to work through whatever rough patch you’re in. If you’re going through mental health struggles, find someone who can point you toward the right professional. Don’t be ashamed of needing help, even if that help comes in the form of medication. And try not to listen to that lying part of your brain that tries to tell you the rough patch will last forever. It won’t. You’ll see the light again someday, I promise. Hold on.
Be happy. Don’t become one of those boring grownups who gets too serious about life and loses their sense of fun. Have fun and stay playful. You might be surprised to discover how much play can help you find yourself, bond with your friends, and heal your trauma. Pay attention to the things that make you feel joyful and do more of those things, preferably with your friends. (Unless, of course, those things become addictive and unhealthy and you’re mostly doing them to numb the pain – that’s a whole different thing. See #8.) A wise person once told me that in the same way that we have trauma triggers that send us back to painful moments in our younger lives, we have joy triggers that bring us back to the joyful moments. Find your joy triggers. If you love to make art, then make art. If you love to ride bikes, then ride bikes. If you love to play on swings, then play on swings. Be radical in your pursuit of joy. (That doesn’t mean you should bypass the grief – it just means that a fully lived life includes being in touch with ALL of your emotions.)
Tucked into the corners of the mirror in my bedroom are two photos of me. In the black and white photo, I’m a young child, reaching across the table to dip my finger into a bowl of sugar. In the coloured photo, I’m a twenty-six-year-old, standing next to my sister, with a large backpack on my back and a smaller one on my front.
Mostly, I forget that the photos are there, but sometimes I catch sight of them and then I pause for a moment to remember those younger versions of me. When I’m feeling particularly reflective, as I am today, I wonder about the thoughts, fears and dreams of each of those younger versions of me.
They are both, in their own ways, reaching for sweetness. The young child, with a guilty look on her face, is trying to sneak some of the sugar before the grownups notice, snatch it away, or shame her for it. She’s already grown accustomed to being called chubby, and if she didn’t know by then, it wouldn’t be much longer before she’d find out just how undesirable it was to be fat and how shameful it was to want a little more sweetness in her life.
The young woman is standing on British soil on her first grand adventure. She’d reached for sweetness across the ocean, backpacking across Europe to feed her wanderlust. What you can’t see on the photo, though, is the engagement ring on her finger. She’s coming home from that trip to get married and settle down. It will be years before she crosses an ocean again.
Beneath the sweetness of both photos, there is an undertone of sadness. When you peel back the layers, they tell the story of a young woman who’s learning about the limitations of what she is allowed to reach for. She’s learning how far she can go before she gets pulled back. She’s learning not to want too much. She’s learning about shame and expectations and acceptability and responsibility and… all of what it means to grow up a woman.
In the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once, Evelyn Wang is a Chinese-American woman who runs a struggling laundromat with her husband, Waymond. Through a strange turn of events, she discovers that she’s living in a multiverse and that every choice she’s made throughout her life has created an alternate universe where another version of her continues to live out the consequences of the other option of that choice. (For example, in one, she chose not to marry and is living a successful life as a movie star.) In the Alpha Universe – the original universe – people have discovered the existence of other universes and they have found a way to “verse-jump” between them, to access the skills, memories, and bodies of their parallel universe counterparts. They have come to Evelyn for help.
The multiverse is being threatened by Jobu Tupaki, who turns out to be Evelyn’s daughter Joy, whose mind was splintered in the Alpha Universe when the Alpha version of Evelyn pushed her to extensively verse-jump and inhabit other bodies. Evelyn (the laundromat version) is tasked with stopping Jobu Tupaki in order to save the multiverse. To do so, she must verse-jump and briefly inhabit other versions of the person she could have been if she’d made other choices.
In the end (spoiler alert), she must repair a breech with her daughter and talk her out of a nihilistic, destructive view of life so that she doesn’t destroy the multiverse.
As I stand in front of the mirror, remembering those other versions of me, I can’t help but wonder what life could be like if either of those two younger versions of me had made other choices. What if young-child-me had chosen not to accept the shame imposed by a fatphobic culture and had learned to live a life of radical self-love right from the beginning? What if young-adult-me had admitted to herself just how much she loved to travel and how much she doubted that marriage was the right path, and she’d sent back the ring and extended her stay in Europe?
Where would I be now, if I hadn’t been trying so hard to live in a way that was acceptable to my family/community/religion of origin? What if I’d had – right from the start – the kind of safety and belonging I needed to know it was okay to make different choices?
What we only see a glimpse of in Everything Everywhere All at Once is the long-term impact of laundromat-Evelyn discovering the alternative outcomes of the choices she made throughout her life. I want the sequel, the rest of the story. Does she simply accept the status quo, accept that she’s doing the best that she can, or does she recognize the possibility for making new choices that free her from some of the restraints of the old ones? What adjustments does she make in order to live a more liberated future? How does she learn to love herself into her own wholeness?
That begs the question outside of the multiverse… Is there a moment when a person can wake up and see the past, present, and future through less clouded lenses? Is there a moment when you have both the vision and the strength to hold the possibility that your life could still turn out differently? A moment that doesn’t bury you under the weight of regret over the intervening years since those original choices were made? A moment (or, more likely, a series of moments) when you can choose a path toward a life more free of the burdens of other people’s expectations and rules, and the weight of the cultural systems that have shaped you?
I believe there is. Like Richard Rohr in the book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, I believe that most of us reach a threshold in midlife when something happens – a fall, a tragedy, a failure, a relationship breakdown – when we can choose to cling to the life we’ve worked so hard to construct (a life that lives up to the standards we thought were acceptable and that offered us safety and belonging), or we can lean into something more ambiguous, more openhearted, and more authentic. It’s a liminal space moment, when we can choose to fall into the abyss – to release the past, deconstruct the rules and expectations we were working so hard to follow, and dare to become more fully ourselves.
Like a giant game of Jenga, we construct our lives out of the pieces we’ve mostly inherited or constructed based on what we’ve been taught – belief systems, values, rules, cultural practices, relationship patterns, identity, career path, gender expression, and so on. Then, somewhere in the middle, a few pieces get knocked out of our foundation, or we choose to remove them, or we see that they are made of nothing but vapour. Then suddenly what we’ve constructed begins to tumble. Suddenly we see that what we’ve built is precariously balanced and not as sturdy as we’d imagined it to be.
We can choose to accept the deconstruction of the tower, sit in the messiness for awhile, and then find the courage and strength to carry on. Or we can desperately cling to what was and keep plugging the holes and propping up the tower.
Easter weekend always brings back memories of a particular moment when I knew my Jenga tower was about to crash. In 2011, on Easter weekend, we got confirmation that Mom had cancer that would likely kill her. At a family Easter gathering, just after we’d learned about the cancer, my former husband and I got into a big fight. On the way home, while I tried to keep the conversation restrained so our sleeping daughters in the back of the van wouldn’t hear, I told him I was ready to end the marriage and would only give it another chance if he would take the initiative to find us a marriage therapist. Then, on Sunday morning in church, after years of trying to hang onto the shards of my faith, I finally admitted to myself that I no longer knew how to find meaning in the version of the Easter story I’d always heard in church.
Two years earlier, I’d quit my job to start self-employment, but didn’t yet have a stable income. A few years before that, my dad died. That meant that the four foundational pieces on which my Jenga tower was built – marriage, faith, career, and parents – were all at risk simultaneously, some by my choice and some by forces outside my control.
I woke up on the Monday after Easter with an all-consuming sense of dread, terrified that my whole life was about to be destroyed and that my daughters would be taken down with me. For the next few years, I tried desperately to plug the holes and prop up the tower. I kept going to church and I kept trying to save my marriage. Five years later, though, everything was gone – mom had died, my marriage ended, and I stopped going to church. There was nothing but a pile of Jenga pieces on the floor at my feet.
In a game of Jenga, the toppling of the tower marks the end of the game. Life is not like that, though. Instead of marking the end of the story, deconstruction offers an invitation to write a whole new narrative. It’s the moment when you learn that you can let go of the pieces of the tower that don’t belong to you, and you can begin to build something much more sturdy, beautiful, and true. It’s the moment when you realize that the tower was probably also a cage.
My life was not destroyed the way my anxiety told me it would be. It was wobbly for awhile, and I woke up many mornings with that familiar sense of dread, but then I discovered that my deconstruction was liberating me from my tower/cage. It allowed me to tell the truth and to free myself of the parts of my life that didn’t feel true. I discovered I could build the kind of work that gave my life purpose and joy. I could grow relationships with much deeper and more authentic roots. I could search for the version of faith that felt most alive for me. I could say yes to what I loved and no to what limited me. I could find healing for the wounds left behind by the cage and I could grow in ways I never dreamed possible.
Today, when I look at those two photos of younger-me, with the reflection of current-me in the mirror between them, I invite them back into my life and I tell them that, from now on, I will do my best to be true to them. I will build a life that their dreams can be proud of. I will not let them be shamed for the ways in which they reached for sweetness. I will not let them be tethered to other people’s fears or limitations. I will continue to dismantle any of the pieces of the tower/cage that might still bind them.
Unlike laundromat-Evelyn, I can’t step into a parallel universe to discover the alternative outcomes of the choices made by either of the younger versions of me. But I can make choices on their behalf that honour and liberate them, choices less bound by whatever kept them caged.
There’s a pedestrian tunnel I pass through regularly, in all seasons. In summer, I often cycle through, and in winter, I pass through on foot. The tunnel provides a safe passage under a busy freeway. It’s a connecting point between my sister’s house and mine, and it’s also along the best cycling route from my house to downtown.
(Note: There is a free resource at the bottom of this post.)
“Not only did she survive, but she kept rewriting her stories until she found enough space in them for all of the wounded to be held.”
I’ve embarked on a new project recently. I’m writing a collection of personal essays that will eventually become my next book.
This year, I’m spending time in an intentional liminal space, taking time to imagine the next part of my life. With no more dependents, no partner, and no parents still alive, I have no need to live in the house or city where I currently live and can make choices solely for myself. I’m asking myself what I value, what I no longer need, and what matters most to me. As I look around my house, I’m imagining what kind of space I want next, which of my furniture suited the old part of my life but isn’t needed in the next, and which things I love too much to ever part with.
This seems like a good time to also consider the non-tangible things I want to bring with me into the next part of my life. One by one, I’m excavating the stories that shaped me into who I am – the heartaches, the triumphs, the traumas, and the failures – and I’m holding them up to the light to see what new things they have to reveal, and which parts are no longer relevant. It’s a little like digging through the attic for the family’s antiques to see if they should be polished, repurposed, given away, or discarded.
This isn’t an entirely new process for me – I did something similar when I got divorced and was intentional about turning my home from the sometimes-unsafe place it had been into a sanctuary of healing for my daughters and myself. This time, though, I’m doing it largely for myself (with only a little consideration for what support my daughters still need) and feel more free to share pieces of that journey with you, my readers (if I choose to).
Already, only a short way into the process, the stories are shape-shifting and becoming things I didn’t expect them to be. Some are taking on more nuance, depth, and meaning, and some are revealing to me that I’ve been stubbornly hanging onto tired old versions of them that should have landed on the rubbish heap.
One thing that’s surprising me is that this process is not only changing my view of myself, but also my view of the other people in some of the stories. In some cases, I see them more clearly for who they have always been instead of the way I so badly wanted them to be, and that’s allowing me to be clearer about my boundaries. In other cases, I’m better able to see the whole picture instead of just my part of it, and that allows me to extend a little more mercy.
The first story I took on was in some ways the hardest and in some ways the easiest. It’s the story of how I was raped as a twenty-two-year-old by a stranger who climbed through my window. It’s the hardest because it was pivotal in my life and it’s heartbreaking to more clearly see the many layers of trauma that came from carrying that story forward into my life and marriage. But it’s easiest because the only other player in the story is a stranger and I don’t have to worry about hurting anyone else in my life by telling my version of the story.
The line at the top of this post is from that piece. I wrote it after wrestling for several days with the story, when I realized that the process of writing had allowed me to hold my rapist differently. In the end, as I witnessed my own triumph, courage, and resilience in that narrative, I was also able to more gently witness the brokenness and pain that my rapist must have been tormented with (and is likely still tormented with, if he is still alive). How much hatred and shame must one be carrying to climb through a stranger’s window to fulfill their own sexual desires? That’s a burden I would never want to carry.
I am reminded, as I work with this story, that “my liberation is tied up with his” (in the words of Lilla Watson). If I want to be truly liberated, no longer carrying the shame and pain of that narrative, than I have to release my rapist from the story so that he has the potential to be free of it too. (That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be justice or accountability for such a crime – simply that the justice should be restorative, and healing should be the goal.)
As I said in the above quote, the rewriting process is allowing me to find enough spaciousness in those stories and in my attachment to them for all of the wounded to be held. Whether or not they choose to heal is none of my business – I simply release them to their own choices and find my own healing that requires nothing of them.
I am now working on other stories – the ones in which there are people who played longer and more complicated roles in my narrative. I don’t know yet how those stories will shape-shift, but I will hold myself tenderly so that I have the strength to make space in the stories for their healing too. I will not gloss over the hard things or try to justify other people’s actions – I will simply try to tell the truth in a liberated way that isn’t weighed down with bitterness or a need for revenge.
Though this post focuses primarily on the writing and rewriting of these stories, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the words on a page only represent part of the process. While writing is my first love, it’s best when it doesn’t stand alone, especially as a path toward healing. I also have regular therapy sessions with a therapist who incorporates somatic healing practices. And, as I’ve learned from modalities such as Narrative Therapy and Family Systems Constellations, I sometimes practice rearranging the story with physical objects that represent the players in those stories. I am also fond of rituals that help me mark and energetically move through important moments and shifts, like when I burn something that represents an old version of a story I’m releasing. (Perhaps I’ll share more about those practices in another post.)
A year from now, when I have (hopefully) a clearer picture of what this next part of my journey will be, I want to be on the journey with more lightness and liberation. This is not a perfect process (stories have a way of popping back up long after I think I’ve let them go) but I’m okay with the imperfection of it. Whatever emerges from my imperfect process, I hope to share it with you.
Are you currently in your own liminal space and want a tool that will help you? I’ve created a free resource that you can download (in PDF): Journal Prompts for the Liminal Space. (After you click on it, you can save it for future use.) And if you want even more, check out my online self-study program, Write for Love and Liberation.
I got glasses recently. I’ve been lucky enough to make it to fifty-five without them (and still only need a weak prescription), but apparently my eyes are aging with my body. When I first put them on and noticed how clear the road signs and TV screens suddenly were, I realized that what I’d been accepting as clarity was actually slightly blurry.
It’s the same in all parts of our lives – there are lots of things that we don’t realize we’re not seeing until we’re given a new pair of glasses.
I was raised in an evangelical church where we were taught that everyone needed to be saved and the highest calling was to bring lost souls to Jesus. That was the lens I saw the world through for the first half of my life. In our tiny country church, we often had visiting missionaries who would share stories of the places – both faraway and in northern parts of our country – where they were building churches and schools and bringing people the gospel. Those missionaries were held in high regard.
What I couldn’t see back then, because I didn’t have the right pair of glasses, was how much that worldview had allowed Christianity to be in an enmeshed relationship with colonization all over the world. When colonizers want to take over the land and resources, what better bedfellows than Christians who want to convert the “heathens”, and replace their culture and spiritual practices with Christianity?
Around twenty-five years ago, I started to see it. Books, conversations and movies gradually opened my eyes, and I allowed the questions to keep growing. It was hard, at first, because it felt like betrayal of my past and an abandonment of the people whose beliefs I was beginning to question, but once you start to see it, it’s hard to un-see it.
Seventeen years ago, I wrote my first blog post when I was preparing for my first trip to Africa. I wrote this… I won’t preach from my white-washed Bible. I won’t expect that my English words are somehow endued with greater wisdom than theirs. I will listen and let them teach me. I will open my heart to the hope and the hurt. I will tread lightly on their soil and let the colours wash over me. I will allow the journey to stretch me and I will come back larger than before.
I experienced things on that trip that gave me an even more clear lens on the relationship between colonizers and Christians and the harm done in the name of Christ, and I came home angry, disillusioned and with lots to process. I no longer wanted to be associated with a religion that had done so much harm.
Recently, I’ve been watching the response of Christians to the discovery, here in Canada, of hundreds of unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools (which were largely run by churches), and I recognize what it’s like to be suddenly asked to put on a new pair of glasses and see the truth of what’s been done in the name of religion. It can be painful, and many want to stay in a state of ignorance, because they can’t get past the cognitive dissonance that comes when something they believe to be good and true and just (the church) has caused so much harm.
But once you put on a new pair of glasses, it’s only with intentional denial that you can stay in the belief that the world looks better without them.
It’s taken me some time to get used to my new glasses. I don’t always love them, because they’re a little disorienting (they’re bifocals, so the world looks different depending on which part of the lens I’m looking through), and it takes some effort to keep them clean, but I know I’ll be better off when I get used to wearing them. I just have to give myself time for the adjustment period.
If you’re having a hard time getting used to a new view and you’re tempted to go back to the old one, don’t give up. Just give your eyes time to adjust.
(Note: I believe that it’s possible to decolonize Christianity and I believe that Jesus provided the model for it. I am glad that there are those who are working hard to dig deeper in that work.)