Sometimes the knot in your stomach that’s been hovering at the edges of your life for too long starts growing and you feel like it will strangle you from the inside.
Sometimes the self-pity cassette is on repeat in your mind and you can’t get past the part about how hard this year has been and how it doesn’t seem fair that so many people’s lives seem easier.
Sometimes the fact that you broke your foot feels like a metaphor for how your life is stuck in one place and you can’t seem to move forward.
Sometimes, while you’re stuck in that place, it also feels like the world is spinning too fast and too many of the people you love are falling off the edges.
Sometimes, in the middle of all that, you get the news that your big brother has cancer and, though it’s the kind that is usually halted with early detection, “this is not early detection.”
Sometimes that news knocks you over and you feel vulnerable and scared, because it comes just six months after cancer stole your mom and two months after it threatened to take your mother-in-law and a couple of years after it threatened to take your sister-in-law (twice) and you feel like cancer is eating away at your world.
Sometimes you realize only when their mortality stares you in the face how much a family member means to you, and you have to admit that you’re kind of terrified of losing them.
Sometimes you scream “God, why is all this shit happening, and why does my family have to go through so much, and why can’t you give us EASY for awhile? Are you even paying attention, or did you go off and take a nap somewhere while we suffer?”
And then sometimes you’re sitting outside under the shade of a giant tree, listening to singer-songwriters tell the stories that articulate your own ache, and you feel momentary contentment sweep over you like the breeze on your face. In that moment, you look up, and spot two bald eagles flying overhead and you watch in wonder until they disappear behind the trees.
And sometimes it just so happens that your sister is walking by at that moment, and you stop her and say “did you see the bald eagles?” and both of you remember that it was a bald eagle that was perched on a tree just before your mom died, and your sister spotted another one the day you buried her, and ever since, bald eagles have been connected with your mom. And you also remember what your aboriginal student said about bald eagles being God’s messengers, carrying your prayers to heaven.
And then sometimes – in one of those synchronistic moments for which there is no explanation – Jordie Lane is singing on the stage “Like a bird you swooped down, you edged closer, then off you flew… I could die looking at you” just as the eagles come back into your line of vision, and you and your sister and a few other people in the crowd around you stare in awe.
And sometimes pure magic happens, and those two eagles clasp talons in mid air, and – with their wings spread wide – do a mystical, dangerous, spinning dance, spiralling toward the earth. And the crowd gasps as one and you know that you have all just shared a sacred moment.
And sometimes you marvel that the vary talons that rip apart the flesh of fish and small animals are also the talons that clasp together in this strange and wondrous sky-dance.
And sometimes you whisper “God, you have created a mysterious, achingly beautiful world, and for some reason you showed up in these eagles today. I don’t understand any of this, but I thank you for this moment.”
I make mandalas, write in my journal, paint, do a bit of yoga, and sometimes meditate. All of these things ground and centre me, but my primary spiritual practice is walking in the woods.
I feel closer to God when I’m in the woods than anywhere else I can think of. Yes, God shows up anywhere (and one of my most meaningful God-experiences was during a three week hospital confinement when I lost my son Matthew), but I have the easiest time quieting my mind and opening my heart when I surround myself with the stillness and beauty that the woods offer me. Add to that the body engagement of walking, and I feel like I’m Eve in the Garden of Eden, walking with God at my side.
For three weeks now, I feel like I’ve been banished from the Garden. This broken foot means that I can’t walk and I can’t even drive myself to a place where I can sit at the edge of the woods.
It’s been agonizing. I know it sounds like an over-dramatization, and I know that there are people in the world with much bigger problems than mine, but it’s been really, really hard. Harder than I would have imagined. I am just not good at sitting still.
It’s been especially hard because all of this long hard winter, while I watched my Mom die and my husband come near to death with a heart attack, I kept telling myself “at least it will be Spring soon and I will be able to find some healing in the woods. I will sit on my familiar stone bench and pour out my grief to the birch trees. I will stand on the riverbank and the Dancing Goddess Tree will offer her strength. I will follow the deer into the woods and they will whisper ‘everything is going to be alright’.”
When I first heard the doctor say “broken”, my thought was “does God hate me? WHY?! Why does another shitty thing have to happen just when I felt like I was on the road to healing?”
And then for the next three weeks, I wallowed in the misery of my exile. I tried to turn to my other spiritual practices – I made one pathetic mandala, I wrote a page or two in my journal, and I got halfway through a collage – but nothing worked. Everything just served to make me feel more restless than before. God felt a million miles away, and my wild heart felt frantic, like a caged animal.
On Thursday, the doctor finally said I was free of crutches and could walk reasonable distances on my boot. On Sunday I practically begged my husband, “please drive me to the gate at Henteleff Park, drop me off, and I’ll text you when I’m ready to come home.”
The park gate felt like the door to my cage. Not too many steps down the path and I felt like I had finally come back home. Out of Exile. Back to the Garden of Eden. Back to a place where God walked with me.
I limped as far as my favourite stone bench in the middle of the birch trees, and I laid down on my back, staring up at the fluttering leaves. The breeze on my face was God’s kiss. The birds sang God’s love song. “Welcome back to the Garden,” they sang. I started to cry.
I don’t know if there is a “why” for the breaking of the foot. I don’t really believe that “everything happens for a reason and that the universe conspired to break my foot to teach me an important lesson.” I can’t get my head around that kind of fatalism. I do, however, believe that we are meant to work our way through difficult times and then find meaning in the darkness that helps us better understand and appreciate the light. For me, at that moment, lying on my back on a stone bench, feeling like a refugee who’d returned home after a time in exile, I found some profound meaning that was much bigger than a three week period of restlessness.
More than simply a moment in the woods, it suddenly became for me a metaphor for my life. Since that three week period in the hospital more than a dozen years ago, when God showed up in a series of strange and mystical encounters (and during which time I eventually lost my son Matthew), I have been working my way back from exile. In the hospital, after a night of wrestling with God, I woke up to how far away from my authentic Self – my wild heart – I’d become. Like the last three weeks of my life when I couldn’t walk in the woods, I’d been living like a caged tiger, exiled from my home in the wilderness.
There was a void in my life, and I knew it, but instead of trying to break free of the cage by seeking out spiritual practices and meaningful work, I was attempting to fill it with money, a prestigious career, material possessions, food, etc. In the hospital, when all of those things were suddenly unavailable to me, I finally recognized the futility of my search. I suddenly knew that to fill the void, I would need to find the path back to my own wild heart, back to Spirit, and back to a more authentic life. Right then and there, in the hospital waiting for my son to make his appearance, I started that journey and have been on the path (with a few detours now and then) ever since.
A few years ago, when I was beginning to understand the meaning of all that, I read the following quote from Peter Block and knew instantly that he was talking about me.
“Leadership is about rearranging the chairs, getting the questions right, putting citizens in front of each other and then knowing what’s worth focusing on. The leadership I’m longing for is the leadership that says my number one job is to bring people together out of exile, out of isolation, and into connection.” – Peter Block
My experience in the hospital and in the years following, in which I gradually returned from exile by quitting my government job, traveling the world working for the cause of justice in non-profit work, and then quitting that job to teach, write, and host conversations, have been preparing me for the work of bringing people together “out of exile, out of isolation, and into connection.”
Coming out of exile means a returning to that which is authentic in all of us. It’s about living wholeheartedly, in tune with each other and the earth. It’s about being in community and extending love and compassion to each other and to ourselves. It requires of us that we turn away from the destructive, disconnected, disenfranchised lives of independence, competition, and over-consumption. It’s a return to simplicity, a return to our hearts, a return to our bodies, a return to each other, and a return to the wild.
This is the work I do now, and this is what I invite you to in my coaching, writing, teaching, and workshops – a return from exile. I know what it’s like to feel trapped and separated from the one thing that will make you feel whole. I know what it’s like to long for a more authentic way of living. I know what it’s like to feel like you’ve gone so far from home you can never return.
I also know what it’s like to return to the wild and finally feel alive again.
If you’re ready to come back from exile, let me help you. After a busy few months, I am finally accepting new coaching clients. Perhaps you’ll be one of them? Contact me and we can start with an exploratory conversation.
And if you want to be in that circle of chairs that Peter Block talks about, learning more about the kind of leadership that brings people out of exile, join me and my colleagues at a one-day Art of Hosting workshop.
p.s. For the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a memoir about how my time with Matthew changed my life. In recent months, I’ve been stuck, knowing that something was missing. Laying on the bench in the park on Sunday, I think I finally found the thread that will tie the book together.
Saturday was going to be a perfect day. I didn’t have much planned, so I could get some of my long overdue cleaning done, and then enjoy the irresistible Spring weather with a bike ride, a wander in the woods – maybe even a trip to the zoo. Maddy was vying for ice cream. It was going to be full of ease and fun, mixed in with a little bit of cleaning.
Saturday turned out to be a far-from-perfect day. After deciding it would be best to start the day with a bike ride, Maddy and I headed to the garage for our bikes. I never made it to my bike. At the bottom step into the garage, my ankle collapsed (I think I stepped on the edge of something on the floor), my foot hit the floor at a weird angle, and I was suddenly face to face with the concrete, writhing in pain.
A few hours later, after the pain got increasingly worse, an emergency room practitioner told me that I’d broken a bone in my foot. I limped back out into that irresistible Spring weather on crutches and in a cast. No bike ride, no wandering in the woods, no trip to the zoo.
It got worse. That evening, limping into the bathroom, I suddenly felt very dizzy. “I think I might pass out,” I shouted to my husband, and then woke up on the floor, my face next to the toilet.
It got worse. My husband and daughter got me onto the toilet, and then the vomiting started. And more passing out. And more vomiting. (This is not new – when I vomit, I usually pass out at least once. Nobody knows why.) In between the vomiting and passing out was the weeping and extreme self-pity. “Why is this shit happening to me?” I wailed. I suspect I got food poisoning from the creamy coleslaw my husband picked up at the grocery store.
I’d like to say I’ve been in a perfectly good place since then – that I came to terms with the injury, put it into perspective, and cheerfully adapted my life around this inconvenience. Because I’m just that evolved. That would be a lie.
Sure, there have been moments when I’ve had a remarkably good attitude, when I tell people “I guess the universe thought I should sit down for awhile,” or “just when I was teaching a lesson on surrender for my Lead with Your Wild Heart program, I got a bonus lesson myself,” or “perhaps this will be a good time to work on my book, since I can’t do much more than sit.”
But there have been lots of moments in between those good-attitude-moments when waves of self-pity wash over me. “Isn’t it enough that my mom died and my husband had a heart attack in the last six months – do I really need ANOTHER challenge in my life?” or “Doesn’t God know that I really, really need those Springtime walks in the woods to help heal me from an extremely tough winter? How can this be fair?” or “I have two trips, half a dozen classes and workshops to teach, AND my annual visit to the Folk Festival coming up in the next month and a half – how the hell am I supposed to do all of those things on crutches?!?” or “I just want to phone my Mom and let her feel sorry for me for awhile. It is so FUCKING unfair that I can’t phone my Mom anymore!”
The waves come and the waves go, and I try to weather them all. Self-pitying-whiny-woman, super-spiritual-accepting-woman, angry-bitter-why-me-woman, stoic-and-determined-not-to-let-this-get-the-better-of-me-woman – all of those people reside in my head, along with a few of their friends.
Here I am, sitting in the middle of all of that, trying to find the simplicity in the complexity of these voices, trying to be okay with what shows up, and trying to extend grace to every version of myself as she appears.
This is my practice.
Telling super-spiritual-accepting-woman that she doesn’t need to make so much effort to find the path straight to the deeper learning. And when she retorts with “But… I’m a TEACHER! Teachers are supposed to be wise and find lessons in things and…” simply smiling and telling her that it’s okay, the learning can wait.
Holding the hand of stoic-and-determined-not-to-let-this-get-the-better-of-me-woman while she tries to figure out a way to prove to the world that she is superwoman and can still cook supper, teach her classes, and accomplish great things, and letting her sink into her weakness for awhile instead. “It’s okay – your husband and kids are perfectly capable of fixing supper and doing the laundry. And – just look at that! They’re doing it willingly!”
Choosing not to beat up on self-pitying-whiny-woman when she needs to feel sorry for herself, but just letting the tears flow for awhile, observing the hurt that is behind them. “You’re human – you’re allowed to have human emotions.” While she cries, just trying to be the compassionate mother I would be to my own children, or that my mother would be to me if she were here.
Biting my tongue against the platitudes that are intended to fix angry-bitter-why-me-woman, like, “it could be so much worse – you could have broken BOTH feet!” and “what right do you have to complain about First World problems when people are starving?”, but rather letting the waves of anger pass and extending kindness to her in the moment. “Fixing” usually turns out to be more like “putting a bandaid on a wound that needs air”.
This is my practice.
Being present for what is.
Simply noticing the emotions – the hurt, the anger, the frustration, and the sadness – and letting it all pass.
Letting the healing and beauty show up in little moments – the way the light makes the leaves outside my window glow – instead of desperately clinging to my need to walk in the woods.
Welcoming gratitude when it comes. Like when my daughters willingly show up with food or help pick me up off the floor.
Extending grace to myself, again and again.
Letting people help me.
Letting myself be wounded.
Letting my heart feel broken.
Letting myself be healed.
Seeking patience, one little moment at a time.
Seeking acceptance of who I am.
Inviting myself to keep learning.
This is my practice.
There’s a good reason why it’s called “practice”. It doesn’t come all at once. It comes only as I commit to it, again and again, and start over again each time I fail.
This morning I failed. I cried. And it was what it was.
This is my practice.
Around this time last year, I finished what I thought was my final edit on my book before starting to figure out how to get it published.
Not only did I finish it, but my friend Segun shared the first 5 chapters of it with his advanced graphic design class and gave them the assignment of developing a book design. I visited the class and was shown more than a dozen versions of what the book could look like if I brought it into print. It was a thrilling moment. I even reserved the url for the book title, confident that I would get it into print one way or another.
I was close… so close… and then life got in the way.
It’s tricky, this business of writing a memoir. Life is messy and unfinished, and it’s difficult to tie it up with a pretty bow at the end.
Last year at this time, the book was called “Butterfly at the Grave”. Now I wonder if I should call it “The Unfinished Business of Living, While People around You are Dying”.
The book has been growing in me for more than a dozen years. It’s the story of my stillborn son Matthew and the huge impact his short life had on my life. It started growing even before he was born, when I was sitting in the hospital waiting for him, on an unexpected sabbatical from my life. During those three weeks, I wrote in my journal “some day I will write a book and it will be called ‘The Journey of a Woman’.”
The problem is that while the book was gestating in me, other deaths happened that changed my life just as much. When I started writing it two years ago, I was pretty certain it would focus solely on Matthew, but then one day I realized that I couldn’t ignore the impact that my Dad’s sudden death had on my life.
And then… while I was trying to wrap it up… well, Mom got cancer. I wrote this in the last chapter, just before finishing the first draft a year and a half ago…
“On Mother’s Day this past year, I was having an especially horrible day. After spending the afternoon with my mother who was experiencing the ravishing after-effects of her first chemo treatment, I came home completely spent and emotional. It finally hit home just how devastated I would be if I lost my Mom. Our relationship hasn’t always been an easy one, especially in recent years when I and my siblings had to get used to the idea that she married again after Dad died and things shifted fairly significantly. And yet, despite the challenges, I love her deeply and I don’t want to lose her.”
You know the rest of the story. I lost her. So… how can I now end the book on that note when I know just how much her loss means to me?
I’m not sure. This book still wants to be born, and at some point I just have to say “finished”, but I suspect it’s not finished yet. I think a few more chapters are going to emerge before I finally see it in print.
Life is unfinished, imperfect, and messy. I suppose that, even when it’s in print, this book will always be unfinished.
Grief is a class we never get a final grade in.
Last Friday was a bad day – one of the worst I’ve had in a long time. I spent a lot of time worrying and stressing and trying to control the outcome of things that were outside of my control. I also spent a lot of time beating myself up for doing these things (because I know better), and then getting really down on myself for not being further evolved than I am.
I won’t go into all of the details of what was going on, but one of the things was my disappointment over low sales of Lead with Your Wild Heart. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on this program and many emails of interest, and I am completely convinced that it is a beautiful and meaningful program, so I let myself believe that those things would translate into significant sales. I was wrong. For whatever reasons (a saturated market, wrong time of year, marketing to the wrong people – your guess is as good as mine), sales were low, and that means that once my current contracts end at the end of June, I’ll have to work harder at finding more sources of income over the summer. Sigh.
Things began to shift over the weekend, though. I took a couple of long walks in the woods, visited the museum with my family, and walked the labyrinth where crocuses are beginning to bloom. The coming of Spring helped to shift my perspective. Life can’t be all bad when crocuses are blooming.
A few things kept going through my mind on the weekend. First of all, I reminded myself of an ongoing mantra of mine… “The outcome is not my responsibility.” In other words, I am not responsible for how many people show up to receive my teaching, I am only responsible for whether or not I offer my gifts and whether I do my best to make them available to people. I’m doing that. I’ve poured my heart and soul into Lead with Your Wild Heart and I KNOW that it is the best possible expression of my gifts. I also know that it is a deeply meaningful journey for people who choose to take it. I offer, people receive, and that is all that I am responsible for. The numbers have no relevance to the value of the offering.
The other thing that kept going through my mind was what we’re taught in Art of Hosting… “whoever shows up are the right people.” This is what I tell myself every time I teach a course, host a retreat, or throw a party. Even if only two people show up, they are the right people. Even if I show up alone, I am the right people. There is value in large gatherings, and there is value in small. If the offering is made, the right people will show up whether it’s two or twenty or two hundred.
And so I spent my weekend surrendering, trusting, and letting go. I walked, I prayed, I released, and I trusted.
Now, there are some simplistic versions of this story that we all want to believe in, and one of those versions would be this: “After letting it all go, I attracted abundance, hundreds of people showed up and I was rich.” That’s the version you might seek after focusing on things like the Law of Attraction or The Secret. I hear that version ALL THE TIME on the internet and I cringe every time I do.
That version has a limited view of what “abundance” means. That version sees abundance as monetary gain, or all of those things that make life easy and smooth.
The real version of the story is still about abundance, but it has nothing about money or fame, or even ease.
Only a couple of more people registered. No crowds were knocking down my door. Abundance showed up in different ways.
On Monday, it suddenly occurred to me that there was absolutely nothing on my calendar on Tuesday. AND I didn’t have any projects due or papers that needed to be marked right away. WHAT?! How could that be? My calendar has been over-crowded for months now, and there is almost always a to-do list a mile long.
Not only was the day wide open, but the weather was stunningly beautiful after many long months of snow and cold.
A free day AND beautiful weather? That sounded like abundance to me!
I dedicated the day entirely to self-care. After dropping the girls off at school, I packed my journal and camera, bought a chai latte, and headed out to a provincial park not far from the city. I found a hiking trail and I wandered for hours in the woods. Then I stopped at the beach, and dipped my toes in the water, feeling like I’d been sprung from the prison of a long, hard winter. When I got hungry, I drove into the city, picked up some picnic food, and ate lunch at a special place called Oodena, a celebration circle near the forks of the two rivers that run through our city.
It was an exquisite day and I relished every moment of it.
But it got even better…
In the evening, I came home to find a package had been delivered by someone my daughter didn’t know. Inside was one of the most beautiful hand-knit shawls I’ve ever seen. I was dumbfounded. This was for ME?! I opened the letter in the package and discovered that it was a gift from a very special woman who’s been a student in my Creative Discovery class. She’d poured love and prayers into every stitch of it – specially for me. “Heather, I prayed that you and your family would be blessed with all that God knows is right for you and that He would guide you and give you the wisdom you need as you travel your path. His beautiful shawls seem to have a wonderful ability to heal, to encourage and comfort and to give solace and protection, especially in difficult times, and they give the most warm Divine hugs too.”
The shawl is burgundy and magenta, and this is what she learned about the meaning of the colour magenta: “Magenta represents universal love at its highest level. It promotes compassion, kindness, and cooperation and encourages a sense of self-respect and contentment. Magenta is the colour of the non-conformist, the free spirit. It pushes you to take responsibility for creating your own path in life. Magenta inspires change, transformation, growth and personal development.” And then she added: “Do you recognize yourself in all this?”
Wow. TALK ABOUT ABUNDANCE!
It was especially meaningful to receive this gift from someone I met through one of my courses. She has been touched by my work to offer her own gifts. (Her first book is coming out in publication next week!) What more could I ask for than to be an inspiration for other people so that gifts continue to flow in the world? I don’t need hundreds of people to show up – I just need the RIGHT people to show up!
And… I don’t need a lot of money, when I have abundance of another kind. I have the abundance of being part of a gift economy that can never be measured by monetary transactions.
Just one more story of abundance and the gift economy… this morning I went to yoga class at my favourite studio and I didn’t have to pay for it. Why? Because I have exchanged coaching sessions for yoga sessions with my coaching teacher! We are both sharing abundance and money has nothing to do with it.
Yes, abundance shows up, but it may not look the way we expect it to look, and it may only show up when we’ve walked through the fire of surrender and trust.