When my husband and I separated and he moved out of the house, my youngest daughter was 13, and she was, understandably, angry about a situation in which she had no agency to control the outcome. I tried to be present for her in as kind and compassionate a way as I knew how, while still wrestling with the healing work I also needed to do for myself. It was hard – for both of us. I made mistakes.
Finally, after weeks of very little communication between us, I said to her “I know you’re angry. You have every right to be. AND I want you to know that I am prepared to hold your anger. Go ahead – scream at me if you must. Do what you need to do, and know that I WILL NOT LEAVE. And I will not throw the anger back at you. I will just hold it for you.”
In that situation, I had to recognize that, as the person with more agency and power, who had contributed to a situation that impacted her, I had to be prepared to receive what would come my way, even if I didn’t entirely deserve it. Even if it hurt. Even if it scared me.
I had to be prepared to hold it and NOT WALK AWAY.
This, too, is what it means to hold space – to create a container that is strong enough to hold rage, grief, fear, pain, etc. We receive what’s ours, heal it, make reparations, and let the rest go. And we don’t walk away. (We take care of ourselves, but we don’t walk away.)
Let’s extrapolate that situation to other situations where there is an imbalance of power and agency. Take, for example, some of the conversations I’ve seen and been part of, both online and off, where there is understandable anger on the part of disenfranchised/marginalized people whose lives are being irrevocably altered by people with more power and agency. Online, I’ve seen it in response to a spiritual teacher who failed to listen when people challenged her to see her blindspots. Offline, I’ve heard it in response to the Colton Boushie and Tina Fontaine murder trials.
For those of us with more power and agency (whether given to us as a “birthright” because of our skin colour, gender, etc., or because we’ve found ourselves in a hierarchically elevated position) can we hold this outrage and pain without walking away? Can we be strong enough to stay in the conversations even if it hurts, even if it scares us, even if we don’t entirely deserve it? Can we receive what’s ours, heal it, and let the rest go?
This, to me, is what reconciliation looks like. Holding space, owning what’s ours, listening deeply, making reparations, and not walking away.
(The good news is that my daughter and I weathered that storm and have a deeper relationship now because of it.)
“…whenever I dehumanize another, I necessarily dehumanize all that is human—including myself.”
– from the book Anatomy of Peace
This week, I’ve been thinking about how we hold space when there is an imbalance in power or privilege.
This has been a long-time inquiry for me. Though I didn’t use the same language at the time, I wrote my first blog post about how I might hold space for people I was about to meet in Africa whose socio-economic status was very different from mine.
I had long dreamed of going to Africa, but ten and a half years ago, when I was getting ready for my first trip, I was feeling nervous about it. I wasn’t nervous about snakes or bugs or uncomfortable sleeping arrangements – I was nervous about the way relationships would unfold.
I was traveling with the non-profit I worked for at the time and we were visiting some of the villages where our funding had supported hunger-related projects. That meant that, in almost every encounter I’d have, I would represent the donor and they would be the recipients. I was pretty sure that those two predetermined roles would change how we’d interact. My desire to be in authentic and reciprocal relationship with them would be hindered by their perceived need to “keep the donor happy”.
That challenge was further exacerbated by:
- a history of colonization in the countries where I was visiting, which meant that my white skin would automatically be associated with the colonizers
- my own history of growing up in a church where white missionaries often visited and told us about how they were working in Africa to convert the heathens
In that first blog post, I wrestled with what it would mean to carry that baggage with me to Africa. I ended the post with this… 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.
In another blog post, after the trip, I wrote about how hard it was to find the right words to say to the people who’d gathered at a food distribution site…What can I say that is worthy of this moment? How can I assure them I long for friendship, not reverence?
That trip, and other subsequent ones to Ethiopia, India, and Bangladesh, stretched and challenged me. Each time I went, I wrestled with the way that my privilege and access to power would change my interactions. I became more and more intentional about entering into relationships with humility, grace, and openheartedness. I did my best to treat each person with dignity and respect, to learn from them, and to challenge my own assumptions and prejudice.
Nowadays, I don’t have the same travel opportunities, but I still find myself in a variety of situations in which there is imbalance. Sometimes I have been the one with less privilege and power (like when I used to work in corporate environments with male scientists, or when I traveled with and offered support to mostly male politicians). Other times, I have access to more power and/or privilege than others in the room (like when I am the teacher at the front of the classroom, or I am meeting with people of Indigenous descent). In each situation, I find myself aware of how the imbalance impacts the way we interact.
This week in Canada, the final report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings related to Residential Schools has come out and it raises this question for all of us across the country. Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the commission, has urged us to take action to address the cultural genocide of residential schools on aboriginal communities. Those are strong words (and necessary, I believe) and they call all of us to acknowledge the divide in power and privilege between the Indigenous people and those of us who are Settlers in this nation.
How do we hold space in a country in which there has been genocide? How do we who are settlers acknowledge our own privilege and the wounds inflicted by our ancestors in an effort to bring healing to us all?
This is life-long learning for me, and I don’t always get it right (as I shared after our first race relations conversation), but I keep trying because I know this is important. I know this matters, no matter which side of the power imbalance I stand on.
If we want to see real change in the world, we need to know how to be in meaningful relationships with people who stand on the other side of the power imbalance.
Here are some of my thoughts on what it takes to hold space for people when there is a power imbalance.
- Don’t pretend “we’re all the same”. White-washing or ignoring the imbalance in the room does not serve anyone. Acknowledging who holds the privilege and power helps open the space for more honest dialogue. If you are the person with power, say it out loud and do your best to share that power. Listen more than you speak, for example, or decide that any decisions that need to be made will be made collectively. If you lack power, say that too, in as gracious and non-blaming a way as possible.
- Change the physical space. It may seem like a small thing to move the chairs, to step away from the podium, or to step out from behind a desk, but it can make a big difference. A conversation in circle, where each person is at the same level, is very different from one in which a person is at the front of the room and others are in rows looking up at that person. In physical space that suggests equality, people are more inclined to open up.
- Invite contribution from everyone. Giving each person a voice (by using a talking piece when you’re sharing stories, for example) goes a long way to acknowledging their dignity and humanity. Allowing people to share their gifts (by hosting a potluck, or asking people to volunteer their organizational skills, for example) makes people feel valued and respected.
- Create safety for difficult conversations. When you enter into challenging conversations with people on different sides of a power imbalance, you open the door for anger, frustration, grief, and blaming. Using the circle to hold such conversations helps diffuse these heightened emotions. Participants are invited to pour their stories and emotions into the center instead of dumping them on whoever they choose to blame.
- Don’t pretend to know how the other person feels. Each of us has a different lived experience and the only way we can begin to understand what another person brings to the conversation (no matter what side of the imbalance they’re on) is to give them space to share their stories. Acting like you already know how they feel dismisses their emotions and will probably cause them to remain silent.
- Offer friendship rather than sympathy. If you want to build a reciprocal relationship, sympathy is the wrong place to start. Sympathy is a one-way street that broadens the power gap between you. Friendship, on the other hand, has well-worn paths in both directions. Sympathy builds power structures and walls. Friendship breaks down the walls and puts up couches and tables. Sympathy creates a divide. Friendship builds a bridge.
- Even if you have little access to power or privilege, trust that your listening and compassion can impact the outcome. I was struck by a recent story of how a group of Muslims invited anti-Muslim protestors with guns into their mosque for evening prayers. An action like that can have significant impact, cracking open the hearts of those who’ve let themselves be ruled by hatred.
- Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know the way through. Real change happens only when there is openness to paths that haven’t been discovered yet. If you walk into a conversation assuming you know how it needs to turn out, you won’t invite authenticity and openness into the room. Your vulnerability and openheartedness invites it in others.
- Don’t try this alone. This kind of work requires strong partnerships. People from all sides of the power or privilege divide need to not only be in the conversation, but be part of the hosting and planning teams. That’s the only way to ensure all voices are heard and all cultural sensitivities are honoured.
I welcome your thoughts on this. What have you found that makes a difference for conversations where there is an imbalance?
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Note: Please read all the way to the bottom to find out how you can participate in a special anniversary project and be entered to win a prize.
Ten years ago, I started my first blog. It was called Fumbling for Words, because I am a passionate gatherer of words and am always fumbling for the right ones to articulate the complicated things that show up in my brain. And I really, really wanted to find the right words that would connect me with people because, even more than words, I love people. And I love meaningful conversations that connect me to those people.
In the beginning, there was a very particular reason for my blog. I was preparing for my first trip to Africa, a trip I’d been dreaming of since I was a child. I was traveling there in my role as Director of Communications for the non-profit organization I worked for at the time. Though I was delighted with the opportunity, the reason for going complicated the trip for me. I didn’t want to arrive on African soil as a “donor” meeting up with people who were “recipients“. That created too much power differential for me. I wanted to arrive as an equal, a story-catcher, and a listener.
I thought a lot about that, and when I think about things a lot I write about them. Writing is like breathing for me – it helps me exhale what doesn’t serve me and inhale what I need. Here’s an excerpt from my very first blog post.
Will African soil welcome me? Will the colours be as rich as those in my dreams? Will the zebras and lions gaze at me knowingly with eyes that say “we knew you’d come some day”? Will it make me feel hopeful or sad? Or both? Hopeful that this world is a vast and intricate thing of beauty and there is so much more space for me to grow and learn. Or sad that somehow I have hurt these beautiful people by my western greed and western appetite.
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.
You can read the rest of the post here.
That trip changed me, as did subsequent trips to other parts of Africa and to India and Bangladesh. Each trip cracked me open in both hard and beautiful ways. They fueled my love of stories and ignited my passion for meaningful conversations that connect people across the barriers of race, gender, language, and class.
When you travel with an open heart, you have an opportunity to look deeply into your own heart to examine your privilege, your prejudice, your preconceptions, and your understanding of power. Traveling to Africa caused me to question how the seeds of colonialism had grown, unbeknownst to me, in my own heart. What subtle things do I do in relationships because I assume I have a right to this privilege? What ways do I take for granted that I am entitled to power? And in what ways am I uncomfortable when people assume I have power that I don’t feel I have?
I did my best to walk on African soil with a posture of humility. It’s not always easy though, when they receive you as “rich donor who brought us food”. When I found myself in uncomfortable situations, such as the day we visited a food distribution site and the villagers had been sitting in the hot sun for hours waiting for us to arrive so that we could speak with them and help distribute their food, I dug through my history for stories that might offer some sense of reciprocity and connection.
When I came home from Africa with the responsibility of sharing stories with Canadian donors about where their money was going, I did my best to offer dignity and respect to each person whose stories I shared. I was determined not to use images that branded people as helpless victims, and the stories I told were always about their resourcefulness and ability to thrive even in difficult circumstances. But still… there was always a restlessness in that work, because I was always telling stories for the purpose of raising money rather than sharing stories as a way to build bridges, change paradigms, and find mutual healing.
That work served as a catalyst for me to dig deeper and deeper into what it might mean to build healthy relationships and host meaningful conversations across power imbalances and racial divides. My ongoing inquiry brought me to The Circle Way and The Art of Hosting. The circle, I am convinced, is the best place to start. The circle invites each person in each chair to bring themselves fully into the conversation, to serve as leader and listener, change-maker and healer.
As I reflect back over my ten years of blogging, it’s clear that I keep circling back to the same inquiry that ignited my first blog post and that brought me to the circle. In the 1521 posts I’ve written, and in the work I now do, this question comes back again and again.
How do I create safe space for meaningful conversation where barriers are removed and real growth and change can happen for all of us?
This question took me deeper and deeper into this work, inviting me into more and more challenging conversations and situations. It led me away from that non-profit job into self-employment, it helped me build relationships with people all over the world who are hosting conversations like this, and it led me again and again back to the circle. This blog became a kind of virtual circle, inviting people into the conversation. Collectively, those of us who have gathered here (and on connected social media) have been having meaningful conversations, removing barriers, and encouraging each other to change and grow.
Together we have been learning to live more authentically, more courageously, and more compassionately. We’ve stretched ourselves, we’ve shared grief stories, we’ve celebrated together, and we’ve grown our relationships.
As I look back over 10 years of blogging, I look back to where it all began – back to that place where my tender, open heart, was ready to be stretched and changed, and ready to be in relationship with people who would change me. You, my dear reader, have stretched and changed me, just like those people I met in Africa. For that I am deeply grateful.
Though I haven’t been back to Africa since I left that job, it continues to hold a place in my heart. It’s beautiful, yes, and I’ve met amazing people there, but I think the piece that keeps calling me back is the opportunity to peer into my own privilege and to dive in to relationships that help me grow.
These things are also possible here at home, and I’m finding more and more ways to engage with this inquiry right here where I live, where the most challenging issue is the way that we as descendents of the European settlers have separated ourselves from the First Nations people through colonization and margnalization. I am seeking to understand more about the intersection between power and love and how we can build bridges by understanding both.
When my business (and blog reach) was growing earlier this year (thanks to you), I knew that I needed to use whatever influence I have for good, beyond my own income. I wanted an opportunity to support people with access to less privilege than I enjoy without allowing my support of them to contribute to the power imbalance. The best way that I knew to do this was to let someone from within that community take the lead, someone who was stepping into her own power and was already working to serve a more beautiful world. I didn’t need to look far. My friend (who’d been a youth intern on my team for a year while I worked in non-profit) Nestar Lakot Okella had started a school in the village where she grew up in Uganda.
Because I already have a high level of trust in Nestar’s ability to lead and be a change-maker, it didn’t take much for me step alongside as an ally in support of Uganda Kitgum Education Foundation. I hosted my first fundraiser in celebration of my birthday in May, and with your help, my dear readers, we were able to send more than $2000 to the school. Since then I’ve been sending a portion of the proceeds from programs such as Mandala Discovery and The Spiral Path.
This past week, I received a set of photos from Nestar and they brought tears to my eyes. They were very simple photos of men making chairs, but they meant so much.
Nestar’s note said: “I wanted to share pictures we got from Kitgum. We are able to order 125 chairs and 125 tables and 1 bookshelf for every classroom. All the items are being made locally in Kitgum, so the local community can also benefit from our school project through the jobs created.
“Thank you for your contribution which has partially made this possible. No more learning on the floor for our students next year, YES! :)”
It delights me to no end to imagine the children returning to their classrooms after their winter break ends in January to find out they now have chairs, tables, and bookshelves in their classrooms!
Today, as I celebrate 10 years of blogging, it seems beautifully appropriate that what started as a way to capture my stories of Africa has brought me full circle to this place where I can use my blog as a platform to support the learning and empowerment of young people in Africa whose school was started by a leader from their own community. Some day I would love to be in relationship with the students of that school, not as a benefactor to beneficiaries, but as co-learners and co-creators, working to make the work a little bit better.
And that brings me to my special anniversary campaign.
I want to continue to support the education of children in Uganda AND I want to support my own dream of taking my writing to a broader audience.
I love the idea of us learning and growing together in separate parts of the world. I imagine myself sitting in one of those blue chairs in a circle with them, each of us stretching and growing into our capacity, reading books and writing books and learning to be loving, powerful change-makers and leaders.
This is where you come in. I want to invite you to support my 10th Anniversary Book + Books Project:
- The students at UKEF need textbooks. Nestar tells me that there are only one or two textbooks for each classroom and they want to buy more. A textbook costs approximately $12.50, so it wouldn’t take much for us to buy enough for every one of the 300 children at the school.
- I intend to publish a book in 2015. As many of you know, this has been a long held dream of mine. I completed what I thought would be my first published book two years ago, but I set it aside when my mom died and then it never really felt like it had evolved into what it was meant to be. The book is now evolving into one called “Circling around to this” and it will be the story of how I’ve been growing into the question above and how it has led me to circle, labyrinth, mandala, and spiral. (Who knows… I might even visit Africa on a future book tour!)
If we are able to raise $7500, there will be enough to buy textbooks for all of the students AND I’ll have most of what I need to publish a book.
If this blog (or my newsletters or any of my writing) has touched you in any way in the last ten years AND you believe all children should have access to education, there are two ways that you can support this dual fundraising goal:
- Make a donation using the form below. Half of all money donated will be sent to UKEF for textbooks (or for whatever else Nestar decides the money is best used for – I am determined to let her and the school leadership make the best decisions they need to make without this becoming donor-controlled). The other half will be set aside for the publishing costs associated with getting my book into print.
- Make a purchase of anything from my portfolio before December 19th and half of the proceeds will be donated to UKEF and half will go to my publishing fund. You can register for Mandala Discovery in January or for The Spiral Path in February, you can buy A Soulful Year or Lead with Your Wild Heart, you can sign up for coaching, or you can buy something from my Etsy shop.
To make this a little more interesting, I’ve put together a prize package. At 5 p.m. central on Friday, December 19th, I’ll pick a name from all of those who have contributed, and one lucky winner will receive the following (total value $204 + shipping):
Thank you in advance for making a contribution to the 10th Anniversary Book + Books Project!
Note: if you wish to dedicate your donation to only one of the two causes I’m fundraising for, indicate that in the comment box and I will honour your request.
“We are not going in circles, we are going upwards. The path is a spiral; we have already climbed many steps.” — Hermann Hesse (Siddhartha)
**Trigger warning. What is shared in this post may be disturbing to some.**
I hardly know where to begin. I want to write a blog post about the complexity and beauty and challenge that this Fall has been for me, but some of the things going on in my heart and my mind are too big, too complicated, and too unresolved for words.
On the one hand, it has been beautiful beyond words. My work is growing and I am being stretched and challenged and invited into a deeper and deeper understanding of the core of what I teach. I’ve hosted a storytelling circle in a corporate environment, I’ve led women into the hills for a lament ritual, I’ve taught a workshop on women’s power at a gentle retreat for women, I’ve gathered people in a virtual openhearted writing circle, I’ve taught The Circle Way to church leaders, I’ve delivered a keynote speech on the labyrinth, the mandala, and The Circle Way as creative practices for self care at a women’s wellness workshop, I’ve hosted an online seminar on Lessons from the Labyrinth, and I’ve launched a course called The Spiral Path: A Woman’s Journey to Herself.
Wow. All of that in only 2 months. No wonder I’m waking up slowly this morning, with my head spinning full of the goodness of the people I’ve met, the joy of doing the work I love, the excitement of what is still to come, and the humble astonishment that people are trusting me to have enough wisdom to teach them these big and sometimes hard things.
But there’s been something else going on under the surface that is also worth talking about. Something that challenges all of this work I’ve been doing and, in the hardest moments, makes me want to throw up my hands in despair.
I have been triggered. Again and again. In sometimes familiar and sometimes surprising ways. And I have gotten angry. And I’ve wept. And I’ve curled up in a ball in my room not wanting to face the world.
It started with the vigil for Tina Fontaine, the young woman whose body was found in the Red River in my city. I wept for her innocence, wept for girls like her who continue to be exploited by sexual predators, and wept for the many murdered and missing Indigenous women in our country whose lives don’t matter to those in positions of political power in our country.
I took that weeping to the hills of South Dakota. I invited other women to walk the hills with me, weeping and holding ceremony for the grief we carry from centuries of wounded, exploited, abused, and silenced women. We resolved nothing, but we gave ourselves permission to feel the weight of the sadness. We clung to the belief that releasing our tears opens a doorway to our collective healing.
But then, not many weeks later, our country was rocked by a story of another kind – a story that was both dramatically different and yet eerily connected to the Tina Fontaine story.
One of the most famous media personalities in our country, a man we all wanted to trust because he was smart and savvy and asked intelligent questions and had even taken women’s studies in university, was fired from our public broadcaster. We were in collective shock and many of us rushed to defend his right to make choices in the bedroom that we ourselves wouldn’t make. But then the truth exploded in our faces. He had a long history of being a sexual predator, of perpetrating violent acts toward women (and some men) without their consent, of harassing young female employees and getting away with it, and of using his celebrity status to walk away from everything despicable act like the Teflon Don.
Suddenly the world erupted with hundreds, maybe thousands of stories of women who’d been subjected to the kind of treatment that this man was being accused of and had never reported it. (Check the hashtag #beenrapedneverreported on social media) Every time I checked my Facebook stream and nearly every time I turned on the radio there were stories of sexual harassment, date rape, abuse of power, etc.
Two things happened to me in the middle of all of this. Firstly, I became rather obsessed with reading everything that appeared, wanting to understand this horrible story of how someone so popular and well-loved had gotten away with such heinous behaviour, and wanting to hold space for all of the women who’d been treated horribly by this man and others.
Secondly, I was triggered.
A flood of memories came back to me and I was in the middle of my own stories. I remembered the times when, as a young woman, I worked in male-dominated environments (a trucking company and a construction company) where it was almost a daily occurrence to have a man lean over me at my desk, ostensibly to talk to me about what I was working on but obviously to look down my blouse. I remember how it felt to put up with this behaviour because I needed the money and because sometimes the bosses were the perpetrators and there was nowhere to turn to and nobody who would take me seriously.
And I remembered how it felt to be part of a sexual harassment investigation against one of the senior managers in the government department I worked in early in my career, how it seemed strange to be talking honestly about how he treated women to investigators when I’d looked up to him as my boss just weeks before, and then how it felt a little like we needed to carry some guilt when he died just months after being removed from his job.
And then came the worst memory of all.
I remembered how it felt to lay on my bed after a man had climbed through my window and was brandishing a pair of scissors over my head threatening to kill me if I didn’t have sex with him. And I remembered the violation of his hands and penis on my naked body and the smell of him stuck to my skin.
And then the accompanying memory of how it felt to have my body poked and prodded by a doctor and nurse looking for clues that might have been left behind by the perpetrator. And how they shamed me for having taken a bath to wash the stink of him off my skin before coming to the hospital, because I’d probably washed off all the evidence.
And how it felt to have the two male police officers tell me that I should think long and hard about whether I wanted to formally report this as a crime, because I would be dragged through the courts and probably be made to feel shame for sleeping with my window open on a stiflingly hot day and for living in a neighbourhood that decent girls shouldn’t live in. And then how it felt to sit in the back seat of their police cruiser and listen to them tell racist jokes while they drove me back to my apartment to gather my bedsheet and the scissors he’d brandished above my head as evidence.
And how it felt the next day, to have to give up the triathlon I’d been training for, because I was shaking from trauma and my neck was stiff from when he’d tried to choke me to death.
Yes, I was triggered. And I was angry.
I was angry that there are still so many sexual predators who prey on young women in their beds, in their workplaces, and in the universities they attend. I was angry that so many of them get away with it because the victims recognize that it will be harder to report it and live through what the justice system puts them through than to go away quietly and focus instead on their own healing.
I was angry at the abuse women were taking in social media because they dared to step forward and call out a sexual predator who happened to be a well-loved celebrity.
And then another story emerged and I got even more angry. Two politicians were suspended for harassment toward women.
And suddenly I felt overwhelmed with how much women still have to put up with, with how much my daughters are still at risk, and with the ways that harassment and sexual misconduct of all kinds is swept under the rug not only in trucking companies, but in the halls of power in our country.
That’s when I began to feel despair. Is anything really changing? Is there really any reason for hope?
We want to believe that women have more rights and protection than they once did, but is the patriarchy just going underground and becoming more insidious in its way of undermining women’s power?
Just a few weeks ago, I taught a workshop on women’s power, and now suddenly I found myself wondering whether any of that was really going to make any difference. Sure it’s good to help women step into their power, but will they really be able to access it if the patriarchy beats them down again and again and weakens them by making fun of them when they stand up for what they believe in and ignoring them when they’ve been violated?
Is all of my work just a bandaid solution when the real disease is so very big and insidious and powerfully abusive?
I don’t know the answer to this huge problem. I don’t know the remedy to my despair. I don’t know if all of the teaching I’ll ever do in my life will ever make one iota of difference in a world that seems to be getting worse every day.
I don’t know how to ensure that the world will be more gentle to my daughters than it was to me.
And that’s when I returned to the teachings of Margaret Wheatley. Four and a half years ago, I participated in a workshop she was teaching and at the time she was grappling with her own despair. She kept asking herself what her efforts were worth when the world seemed to be getting worse day after day. In the time since then, she’s written a book about just that, and she’s come to the conclusion that it is best to give up hope of making change, and simply commit to the work because it is the right thing to do.
“My great teachers these days are people who no longer need hope in order to do their work, even though their projects and organizations began with bright, hope-filled dreams. As ‘the blood-dimmed tide’ of greed, fear, and oppression drowns out their voices and washes away their good work, they become more committed to their work, not because it will succeed, but just because it is right for them to be doing it.”
I re-read that, and once again, I lift my head out of my despair and I turn toward the work that is calling me. Because it’s all I know how to do and it’s all that I have to cling to.
Because I believe that gathering people into circles is the best way to shift the imbalance of power in the world and to bring women and men into spaces where they can speak about hard things and find healing together.
Because I believe the labyrinth teaches us that the whole journey is important – the hard parts that bring us far from centre and the gentle parts that circle closer to Source.
Because I believe that storytelling has the capacity to shift us away from blame and shame into deeper listening and more openhearted understanding.
Because I believe that we each have to do our inner work of healing and growth so that we can show up as warriors in a world that needs us to be courageous.
Because I believe that even if none of this causes the world to shift, it will at least shift the world for me and the people I sit in circle with and that is what matters right now.
Because I know that I couldn’t have healed from the wounds that man inflicted on me in my bedroom if I hadn’t found the kind of personal practices (journal-writing, mandala-making, mindful wandering, etc.) that I now teach others to embrace.
“Let us walk away from that mountain of despair-inducing failures and focus instead on the people in front of us, our colleagues, communities, and families. Let us work together to embody the values that we treasure, and not worry about creating successful models that will transform other people. Let us focus on transforming ourselves to be little islands of good caring people, doing right work, assisting where we can, maintaining peace and sanity, people who have learned how to be gentle, decent, and brave as the dark ocean that has emerged continues to storm around us.” – Margaret Wheatley
And so I invite you, once again, to commit with me, to gather in circle for storytelling and tears and healing, to have real conversations about hard things without shame, and to heal from all of these wounds one tiny bit at a time.
Because it’s the right thing to do.
What does it mean to step into our power?
Almost every woman I know has an uneasy relationship with power.
Some of us want it but are not sure how to get it. Others have it and don’t know how to use it well. Some of us believe we’re unworthy of it, so we pretend we don’t need it. And many of us have been abused by it, so we don’t trust it.
We feel uneasy about power largely because we haven’t figured out what feminine power looks like.
Primarily, we see masculine power modeled in the world, and sadly, masculine power that isn’t well balanced with feminine power degenerates into patriarchal power. In order to maintain its power, the patriarchy abuses and marginalizes people and forces them to give up their power in exchange for their safety. Like we see in many situations around the world, by casting people into fear, those who abuse power render others powerless.
Many of us who yearned for some measure of power (myself included) found ourselves in environments where we were expected to model a masculine version in order to succeed (or even survive) in the world. Instead of being obliterated, we figured out how to assimilate.
When I was in leadership in government and non-profit, I heard repeatedly that I needed to “have a thicker skin”, “be more decisive”, “have a clearer vision”, and “be more of a director and less of a consensus-builder”. Over time, I learned to put on the mask of the kind of power that was most accepted in the workplace.
But like putting on someone else’s skin, it never quite fit. I wanted to lead in circles, I wanted to bring my passion, emotions, and spiritual quest to my work, and I wanted to feel more connected to myself and to my team. Though I tried, there wasn’t much support for me to lead from an authentic place or find a power that was outside of the accepted model.
In disillusionment, I started asking questions about what power meant and how it might look differently for me personally and for women generally.
Some of my answers came from a book called Power and Love by Adam Kahane. As a consultant, Kahane worked in many high profile, high conflict situations, such as post-apartheid South Africa. He was convinced that in these places where power had been so badly abused, what was needed was more love. Over time, however, he realized that love alone wouldn’t resolve the conflict. What was needed was a balance of love AND power. He came across the following quote from Martin Luther King and it changed his perspective dramatically.
“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
In the book, Kahane uses the metaphor of walking, where power is one leg and love is the other. In order to move forward in fluid motion, each leg needs the other and each must lift itself up off the ground and trust the other in a reciprocal, balanced fashion. Only then is there smooth, forward motion.
As I was contemplating this last week while preparing for a workshop on women and power, I pulled out a pair of beautiful soft moccasins I’d received as a gift from a friend. They’d been her own moccasins, but after being with me in circle at the retreat last month in South Dakota, she handed them to me. The note she gave me along with the moccasins said “It makes me so happy to share my most precious slippers with you. They were only used a couple of times when I wanted to connect or feel very close to the Beloved One. They always made me feel like I was stepping on Holy Ground. Sometimes it felt like I was putting on the feet of the Divine.”
I slipped them on and stood up. They felt wonderful and soft, like a second skin wrapped around my feet. I felt the softness of the leather, the warmth of my friend’s generosity, and the solidness of the Holy Ground I was standing on.
As I wore them, I wondered “is this a clue to how a woman can stand in her power? Does it have something to do with slipping into what’s comfortable, what’s soft, what’s connected to the earth, and what feels as authentic as one’s own skin?”
I took the moccasins with me to the retreat and wore them all weekend. I taught the workshop on women and power while wearing them and invited the women to consider how they might interpret power in their own lives. The more I wore them, the more convinced I became that they would be my new symbol for stepping into my power.
Here’s what the moccasins teach me about standing in the kind of power that’s married to love and that leans toward the feminine:
- Power can walk softly. It doesn’t have to wear combat boots.
- Authentic power feels like being in your own skin.
- It’s easier to stand in your power when your sisters support you.
- The more connected you are to the earth, the more connected you are to the source of your own power.
- To step into your power, recognize that you are stepping on Holy Ground, held and strengthened by the Divine.
- Our authentic power connects us to our indigenous roots.
Today, after returning from the retreat, I attended a peace vigil and was part of a conversation with a woman who works with Christian Peacemaker Team in northern Iraq. She was sharing stories about how the CPT team stands alongside people in Iraq who are working for peace. As outsiders, they don’t take on the role of leader in the difficult negotiation, advocacy, and conflict resolution work that’s needed in places where local villagers are not safe from either the terrorists or the local military, but instead they show up to serve and support them and to share their stories with the world.
It struck me that the work that she and others on her team are doing is the kind of power that stands in moccasins instead of combat boots. It feels the soil of the local place and let’s itself be impacted, but doesn’t force itself into situations. It’s attentive, supportive, strong, and present. It recognizes the Divine in the land and in each person it meets. Like the Buddhist warriors with their “strong backs and soft bellies” it shows up in both strength and vulnerability. It has the courage to show up and speak truth to power and the wisdom to know when to be silent.
When someone commented on this woman’s courage, she answered humbly “well… I have moments of courage”. And then she shared a moment when the military opened fire into the crowd she was part of and she completely melted down and had to be comforted by the local villagers.
That’s the kind of model of power we need. It’s not fearless and it’s not forceful. It’s gentle and vulnerable. Sometimes it falls apart but it keeps showing up to do the work that needs to be done.
Sister, step into your power.
If you want to learn more about what it means to step into your own authentic power, consider signing up for The Spiral Path: A Woman’s Journey to Herself.