Where does your mind go when you’re faced with frustration? Where does it go when all of your plans fall through and everything is outside of your control?
Years ago, I heard a mindfulness teacher say that mindfulness is about “learning to pay attention to your attention.” That’s all fine and good when you’re sitting on a cushion in a quiet room, but what about when you’re out in the chaotic world? What about when you’re in a foreign country, you don’t speak the language, you’re alone, and everything is unfamiliar, unpredictable and falling apart? How do you stay mindful and keep “paying attention to your attention” THEN?!
This past week, the universe provided me with a great opportunity to see just how mindful I could be under those circumstances. I’m in the Lake Atitlan region of Guatemala, a beautiful and somewhat remote area of the country. There are seventeen villages around the volcanic lake (that’s surrounded by mountains), and though there is lots of tourism, the local culture is still very much alive. It’s the kind of place I love to spend time – off the beaten track, but not so far off that it doesn’t feel safe to be a solo female traveller who doesn’t speak the language.
I am working while I travel (I have a book to edit; classes to teach on Zoom; meetings with clients, my publishing team, and my teaching team; blog posts to write; etc.), so I always check to make sure the places I’m staying have wifi. I didn’t think to check whether or not they have HIGH SPEED wifi that’s good enough for Zoom, however. For the first week on the lake, I was taking a break from being online, so it didn’t matter that I had little wifi. I had just enough to stay in touch with my kids (if I walked down the steep hill to the common area of the place I was staying) and that was good enough. Then I moved ten minutes down the lake by boat, from San Marcos la Laguna to San Juan la Laguna, to stay in a quaint and inexpensive hotel, and discovered on the first night, when I tried to FaceTime with my daughter, that the wifi wasn’t good enough.
The next day, I started searching online for “coffee shops with the best wifi in Lake Atitlan” and soon discovered that there was very little high speed wifi in the entire region. I had a webinar scheduled for two days later and hundreds of people had already signed up and were expecting me to be there, so I was on a mission to find something. One cafe in San Pedro looked promising, so I headed there. A seven minute boat ride and a 1.5 km walk (almost entirely up a steep hill) later, I found a sweet little cafe that was quiet enough for a Zoom call. I tested it with another FaceTime call with another daughter and it was okay but not great. I was pretty sure on a Zoom call full of people, it wouldn’t hold up.
I had one more day to find something, so the next day I set out with a plan. I downloaded a speed test app on my phone, made a list of coffee shops that had been recommended on various travel and digital nomad sites and were within a ten minute boat ride, and set out. The first one, in the town where I was staying, was slower than the hotel. The next one, back in San Marcos where I’d stayed the week before, was also slower than the hotel. So was the third one, also in San Marcos. (By that point, I was running out of beverage options that I wanted to drink that wouldn’t pump me full of caffeine.)
Back on a boat, I headed to San Pedro again. This time I tried the trendiest coffee shop that attracted the trendiest tourists, thinking they would cater to more North American and European expectations and probably have good wifi, and sure enough, the wifi was good. It was also very noisy, with a loud thumping drumbeat bouncing off the walls. I knew it would be too distracting for a Zoom call.
It was getting late by this point, and the boats would only run for another half hour, so I headed back to my hotel, resigning myself to Plan B. All of my research had pointed toward a hostel in Panajachel, a half-hour boat ride across the lake, with the only coworking space in the region and the promise of good wifi. I’d already checked online and could book a week in the coworking space and a bed in a dorm. I’ve stayed in hostels on this trip before, but I’ve always booked private rooms. I feel a little too old for a dorm, but I was willing to do it for a few nights so that I could get my work done.
That evening, the electricity was out in the hotel (not something that surprises me when staying in rural areas with less-developed infrastructure). When it finally came back on, the only bulb in my small room burnt out. It was too late to get maintenance to deal with it, so I groped around in the dark. The next morning I woke up early, and the electricity was out again. This time I had to grope around in the bathroom too, and discovered, after it was too late, that I’d run out of toilet paper. By the time I figured out how to deal with that frustration, I was too wide-awake to fall back to sleep, I grabbed a blanket and went to lie in the hammock outside my room, listening to the village wake up and watching the sun start to touch the mountain in my line of sight.
I’d tried to cancel the rest of my nights in the hotel the night before but hadn’t been successful (due to language barriers and technical difficulties). I tried again after breakfast and was told to come back in an hour because the young woman at the desk wasn’t sure how to do it (juggling an archaic paper system with an online booking platform she wasn’t familiar with) without charging me for the nights I wasn’t using.
An hour later, I could finally check out, but only if I paid for one more night. Because I’d tried to check out the day before, I shouldn’t have had to pay for the extra night (according to the policy on the booking site I’d used), but I gave up trying to convince the young woman (and the older woman who appeared to be a supervisor but didn’t speak English) of that and just paid the bill.
Soon, I was back on a boat. Though there are often tourists on these boats, moving from one town to the next, the boats serve as the local transportation service, so it’s just as likely that there will be no other foreigners. This was one of those times. I was surrounded by mostly young men and nobody spoke English. I knew enough to communicate which town I was going to, but not enough to ask questions when the boat docked at another town and sat there for a long time, with no indication that it was going to carry on to Panajachel. Eventually it did.
Finally, I got to the hostel. It was too early to check in, but they let me store my luggage and I was given access to the coworking space. With only a couple of hours left until the webinar, I set up my computer and tried to get online. Nope. No wifi. I tried the coworking wifi and the hostel wifi, and both gave me only the spinning-wheel-of-death. I checked back in at the desk and the young man there assured me it was working and said to turn the wifi button on and off again on my devices, and to “forget this network” and sign on again… but nothing worked. I also couldn’t get onto the eSIM that I’d bought for emergency purposes. (Later I asked a couple of other people working at the desk and they told me the wifi was down and appeared to be down in the entire neighbourhood.)
At this point, I didn’t know what to do, but I’ve got a stubborn streak in me that doesn’t let me give up easily, so I headed down the street to find a restaurant or coffee shop. I stopped at the first restaurant that said it had wifi, ordered a salad, and got online to let my team know about my ongoing challenges and to say we might have to postpone the webinar. “I’ll try one more coffee shop down the street,” I said, and after my salad was done, I carried on.
I nearly burst out laughing when I got to the coffee shop and discovered that they had neither wifi nor plugs (to charge the devices that were, by now, nearly dead because of the lack of electricity the night before). I headed back down the street and stood outside the restaurant while I texted my team and said “I have no more options. We’ll have to cancel. Also – my phone’s about to die and I can’t stand here outside the restaurant indefinitely, so I’ll probably drop out of contact soon.”
Back at the hostel, I finally got onto the wifi, but only briefly and then it dropped off again. And then, for the rest of the day, it continued to function in weird ways. For awhile, I could get on with my phone but not my computer, then with my computer and not my phone, and whenever I went offline I couldn’t get back on. The weirdest was when my texts were going through to two of my daughters but not the third.
By now, there was a raging pool party going on, with lots of beer pong and loud, thumping dance music. I was more than twice the average age of the group (with nobody else in my age range), not in the mood for a party with young strangers, and could find no quiet space at the hostel. I moved my belongings into the dorm (which was close to the pool and therefore very loud), and headed out for a walk. If I couldn’t work or rest, I might as well enjoy the town. I bought a plastic cup full of sliced mangos and wandered toward the waterfront. It was peaceful there, the locals were out enjoying a Sunday afternoon stroll with their families, small children were giggling by the water, my mango tasted delicious, and I felt my breathing slow and my heart swell with gratitude.
Nothing had worked the way I’d wanted it to, I felt disconnected from the world and couldn’t chat with anyone I loved, I had no language to speak with anyone on the street, I felt out of place at the hostel where I was staying and regretted leaving the quiet hotel across the lake with the hammock overlooking the water, and yet, overwhelmingly, it was joy that I felt at the end of the day. Joy, gratitude, and connection with the people whose language I couldn’t speak but who understood a shared smile.
This brings me back to the place where I started this post – with mindfulness and “paying attention to my attention”. While all of these things were going wrong, I made a special point to try to stay present in the moment, to witness my thoughts as they were happening and release those that weren’t helpful, to still be in awe of my beautiful surroundings, and to remember the commitment I wrote about in my last blog post – to orient myself toward joy.
Where did my mind want to go in the midst of all of these frustrations? Here are some of the thoughts I witnessed popping into my head: I am unsafe here. I have made a mistake coming to this area. This is all my fault. Why did I have this ridiculous idea that I could work remotely while travelling? Why am I not satisfied with staying home like other people? I should be in a place where I have more control over things. Why do I create so many challenges for myself? Why can’t I find anyone to talk to? I must be unlikeable. People must think I’m foolish for choosing to live this way. All the people who signed up for the webinar will be disappointed with me and are probably judging me. My team will be frustrated with me. This kind of travel is for people younger than I am. I’m letting people down. No, wait – other people are letting ME down. There must be someone else I can blame. Perhaps I can blame the people at the hotel or hostel. Or maybe it’s the wifi providers’ fault. This boat system is ridiculous and disorganized. Those people are looking at me funny – perhaps they want to steal my bags. Why do they have to play such loud music at this hostel? Kids these days!
That’s just scratching the surface of what popped into my mind, especially in those moments when my nervous system was the most activated. But all of those thoughts evaporated quickly when I noticed and intentionally released them. I’m happy to report that I never got stuck in any loops of rumination, blame, or self-flagellation. I held onto my intention to stay present and mindful throughout, and that’s what allowed me to end the day quite peacefully once the webinar was postponed. After wandering around with my cup of mango, I came back to the hostel, found an empty lounge chair, sat down with my e-reader, and watched the young party-goers enjoy each other’s company. Much like I used to enjoy watching my daughters with their friends, when they’d gather in our backyard when we still had a house in Winnipeg, I found pleasure in watching these young people, so full of life and joy and yet so clearly holding their own insecurities and need for belonging.
There have been many, many times in my life when I wouldn’t have been able to end the day as well as I did. There have been many times when I would have tumbled into victim mode or self-blaming mode and gotten stuck there. There have been many times when I would have curled up in my bed, resentful that there was a stranger sleeping in the bed next to me, and cried myself to sleep. None of those things happened though – I slept peacefully even though there was a young Danish man just a few feet away.
Here are some of the things that helped:
Practising mindfulness. Although I’m not the kind of mindfulness practitioner who’s spent many hours on the cushion, I try to bring mindfulness into my life in every way that I can. “Notice, label, get curious, release” is what my practice looks like. I notice the feeling, thought or sensation, try to label it as best I can, get curious about its origin or what it’s attached to, and then release it. I’ve found that my learning around things like trauma and Internal Family Systems has been immensely helpful in my mindfulness practice because it gives me more clarity about where my thoughts or feelings are coming from and helps me become less attached to them.
Opening to joy. When my mind starts to fixate on all of the things going wrong, it takes a special effort to open myself to joy… and yet it is possible. There are little joyful moments available even in the most frustrating days. When I was feeling the most exasperated, on the way back from the restaurant to the hostel with a nearly-dead phone and no connection, a man on the street started raving about the mango ice cream he was eating and INSISTED I needed to go try some myself. He was so joyful about his ice cream that it was infectious and I started to laugh with him right there in the middle of the street. I promised I would look for the little shop by the boat dock and try some of that amazing ice cream (a promise I intend to keep before I leave this village).
Being in awe. I was sitting in the boat, surrounded by young Guatemalan men, and we were going nowhere. I needed to get to the hostel in time to prepare for the webinar, but had no control over the fact that we were just sitting there, bobbing up and down in the boat. My mind started to hook into anxiety and impatience, and then I turned my head and looked at a boat not far from where we were sitting. On the side of the boat was the most mesmerising light pattern, reflected from the rippling water. My breath slowed and my anxiety eased as I sat watching, drawn into the magic of the dancing lights. I don’t know how much more time passed before the boat started to move, but I didn’t care anymore. I was in awe and nothing else mattered. The world was a beautiful place and would continue to be a beautiful place even if I didn’t make it to the webinar.
Assuming no blame. This is a tough one, but one of the most important. When things go wrong, my mind wants to find some place to attach blame – either with other people or with myself. There is some comfort in knowing that someone is responsible and can be the target of my rage and frustration. (In the book, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, the author talks about how some of us are internalizers who blame primarily ourselves, and others are externalizers who look for others to blame. I tend toward internalisation.) But blame keeps us trapped in a victim narrative and that’s not a pleasant place to live, nor does it serve our growth or healing. There is much more ease and joy when we can let go of blame and assume that everyone is doing the best they can under the circumstances. When I stood in front of the young woman at the hotel, wanting to blame her for the expense of an extra night in the hotel, I released that thought and instead saw her humanity and the effort she was making to do her job well. I thanked her for her effort and paid the bill. As I left, she called out to me that she could arrange for a boat to pick me up closer so that I didn’t have to take a tuktuk back to the main dock. I thanked her for the extra kindness and we both smiled.
Practising tenderness. I cannot overstate how much my tenderness practice has changed the way I treat myself. Whenever my thoughts turn toward self-flagellation, I remember to extend tenderness to myself and to soothe the part of me that’s feeling threatened in that moment. I listen to the voices of my inner wounded child, who wants to belong, wants to feel safe, and wants someone to protect her, and I assure her that she is in good hands and I will look out for her. When my emotions start to overwhelm me, I hold space for what comes and extend an extra dose of tenderness to my body (often with a hand on my heart, soothing touch on my face, or a little crossed-arms self-hug). When I can, like I’ve done several times since having to postpone the webinar, I sit with my journal and tenderly allow myself to pour everything onto the page. Often I end my journal time with a message from Tenderness showing up on the page.
You can learn more about these practices (and much more) in my upcoming course, Know Yourself Free Yourself, which starts the week of March 13th. I hope you’ll join me, and the global community of people who are also seeking to live more free and joyful lives.
“We create most of our suffering, so it should be logical that we also have the ability to create more joy. It simply depends on the attitudes, the perspectives, and the reactions we bring to situations and to our relationships with other people. When it comes to personal happiness there is a lot that we as individuals can do.” ― Dalai Lama XIV, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World
In The Book of Joy, which consists of a week-long conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmund Tutu, the two spiritual teachers talk about how they approach joy not as a feeling, but as a lifestyle – one which they’ve each learned to cultivate even in the midst of extreme hardship. Both have been through wars and have been exiled from their countries, and yet, when you watch them together in their advanced years, you can’t help but be drawn in by their playfulness and delight in the world and each other.
With them as my inspiration, I am doing my best to cultivate a lifestyle of joy. I am intentionally chipping away at some of the old stories that tell me I am not worthy of joy, I am working to heal the trauma that gets triggered when too much joy is present, I am removing things in my life that actively serve as thieves of my joy, and I am finding daily practices that help to grow a strong foundation of joy.
If you have been following along on my journey over the past several months, you will know that, after helping my daughters launch into their own lives, I have sold my house, packed my belongings into a storage unit, and set off on a nomadic journey for at least six months. I’ve got some in-person workshops to do in Europe and then in Costa Rica, and then… I don’t know where I’ll settle (or if I’ll choose to wander for a while longer). I’m letting my heart be my guide. Right now, I’m in a seaside town in Spain, and though I planned to spend only a week here with a friend, I’ve already booked additional days because my body feels so relaxed and peaceful here. That’s how I intend to make decisions for the next six months (and hopefully the rest of my life) – by checking in with my heart and body and not just my often-overactive mind.
I am calling this my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. I want to continue to liberate myself from old stories and limiting beliefs and I want to find more freedom from the bounds of oppressive systems like the patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism. I’m doing my best to challenge things like internalized fatphobia, misogyny, martyrdom, and shame. I believe that tenderness is the path toward the liberation I seek, and I believe that joy is the outcome. In other words, it’s not hedonism I’m talking about, but a deep, intentional, and sturdy joy.
Cultivating a lifestyle of joy doesn’t mean that I expect to be always happy. No, life continues to have its challenges, and I don’t intend to gloss over anything with spiritual bypassing or avoid feeling the hard stuff when it comes. At the beginning of this journey, for example, I spent a few days with my beloved friend Randy, who is dying of ALS, and I carry the grief of that anticipated loss with me everywhere I go. Instead, like the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop, I want to create a bedrock of joy that offers a solid foundation for whatever may come.
“’Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say,’ the Archbishop added, as we began our descent, ‘save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.’” – The Book of Joy
Last week, when I was in Italy enjoying a week-long food, wine, and art tour in the Abruzzo region, I noticed exactly what the Dalai Lama talks about in the above quote. As I opened myself to more joy, I was feeling ALL of the things more deeply. I stood in the crypt of a twelfth century abbey and felt the grief and longing of centuries of spiritual seekers who’d stood there before me. I stood in a cattle barn, and the familiar smell flooded me with grief over the loss of my dad. The grief was real, and yet… none of it diminished my foundation of joy. If anything, the moments of grief made the joy even more vibrant.
I don’t believe you need to pack up your belongings and set off on a quest like mine to cultivate a lifestyle of joy – I believe you can do it right where you are, right now. Here are some of my thoughts about how you can begin to cultivate a lifestyle of joy:
Make peace with the fly. For this piece of wisdom, I must credit my friend Randy, whose body has been ravaged by ALS. When I spent time with him just before leaving for Europe, the mobility in his arms and hands had become limited to about five inches of movement in his left arm. He is now completely dependent on other people for all his physical needs. Yet even in his dying and dependency, Randy embodies the kind of joyful lifestyle that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop talk about. His eyes still sparkle when I walk in the room and his grin still frequently flashes across his face. “I was lying in bed one day and there was a fly in the room,” he said to me, in one of the brief moments when he had enough energy for conversation. “It kept landing on my face, and I could do nothing to chase it away. I simply had to practice accepting the fly.” For Randy, after years spent cultivating a rich spiritual life and mindfulness practice, the fly became his teacher and the practice became acceptance of what was. Ever since that conversation, every time I experience a frustration (a person who annoys me or a situation that’s outside of my control), I try to ask myself “can I simply accept the fly?”
Laugh at broken doorknobs. This point is a lot like the last one, but it’s worth mentioning separately. On my second day in Italy, in the bedroom of an Airbnb I was sharing with some people I’d just met, the doorknob on the inside of my bedroom door broke off in my hand and I was left trapped, with no other escape route. Fortunately, I had my phone with me and could text the other occupants of the house to come and rescue me, so I wasn’t trapped for long. We shared a good laugh when they opened the door, and it became a shared memory that we could go back to later in the week when other situations seemed outside of our control. Sometimes you simply have to surrender to the ridiculousness of a situation, let other people rescue you, and then have a good laugh.
Let other people’s emotional journeys be their own. Some of the greatest thieves of our joy are other people’s problems – or rather, our attachment to their problems. Because many of us have codependent tendencies, we attach our own emotions to those of the people we love and we think we can only be happy when they are happy. We try to fix their problems because their problems become our problems and their anxiety becomes our anxiety. And sometimes, if we’re too happy, codependent family members or friends become resentful or afraid we’ll abandon them, and they try to drag us into their drama because it makes them feel more safe. But nothing is truly served in sacrificing our joy for other people. We can’t make them happier by giving up our happiness. We can hold space for them and help to soothe their fear of abandonment, but they must find their own pathway to joy. Holding space, as we teach about in the Foundation Program, is all about loving detachment.
Slow down and be mindful. Many North Americans (and probably other places in the world, but I can only speak of what I know) are addicted to busyness. In a culture built on capitalism, where productivity is highly valued, we think we only have worth when we are busy and making a meaningful contribution. But busyness numbs our emotions, keeps our nervous systems on high alert, and makes it hard for us to listen to the deeper longings of our hearts and bodies. Deep, embodied joy is cultivated in slowness and mindfulness, when we take the time to breathe deeply, smell the flowers, slow our nervous systems, listen to the music, and enjoy the flavours of a lovingly prepared meal. Last week, in Vasto, Italy, with a guide who understands what it means to live a good and intentional life – a life not driven by capitalism – I learned to make homemade pasta, to savour the flavours of olive oil from ancient trees, to bake bread in a brick oven, and to paint with the petals of a flower on the side of a mountain overlooking the sea. All of it was slow and mindful and all of it helped to soothe my nervous system and give my body a place to feel safe and at home.
Pluck only the chin hairs that matter. If you’re over 50 and living in a female body, you know about the chin hairs. Nobody told me that this would be a thing! When I arrived in Italy, after spending a very busy couple of months packing up my belongings and helping my daughters settle into new places, I looked in the mirror and realized how little time I’d spent tending to my appearance. There was a vast array of long hairs sprouting from my chin. Since I was about to spend time with a dozen women I’d never met, I pulled out my tweezers and started plucking. As I stood there, looking at myself in the mirror, I made a very intentional choice. “I will only pluck the chin hairs that matter,” I said to myself. “I’m going to leave my eyebrows bushy, and I’m not spending a lot of time fussing over my hair or putting on makeup.” It wasn’t just about chin hairs, though. It was about accepting my body as it is and treating it with tenderness. It was about liberating myself from the pressures to conform to a patriarchal beauty standard. In the week that followed, my commitment went far beyond chin hairs. When other women on the tour criticized their own bodies, talked about how they needed to “earn” their gelato with exercise, or worried about the pounds they might put on because of the abundance of food we were offered, I stayed silent. I was determined not to speak one word of critique of my body, not to contribute to the talk of food restrictions or body shame, and simply to be in loving relationship with my body. (For more on this, I recommend the brand new book Reclaiming Body Trust, by Hilary Kinavey and Dana Sturtevant.)
Let go of martyrdom and performative acts of sacrifice. This has become one of my most important areas of personal growth lately. I was raised with a very strong narrative around the value of martyrdom and acts of sacrificial service. I continue to unpack the ways in which my religious and family lineages taught me that sacrifice is next to godliness and I continue to question the ways that I act out of a subconscious belief that I only have value when I am being sacrificial. While I was traveling with other women last week, I could see so clearly how some of them had been raised with a similar value system. They were eager to give up the best room to someone else, eager to be the first to jump up to do the dishes, and eager to be of service even when that service was not requested, plus they expressed guilt when other people served them. As I witnessed this and noticed the same tendency in myself (especially when surrounded by others doing it), I tried to be mindful of what was genuine generosity and what was rooted in martyrdom as a conditioned response (for myself – I tried not to make assumptions about others’ reasons for doing it). There’s a fine line between generosity and martyrdom and I’m trying to find that line in myself, trying to allow myself pleasure and accept generosity without rushing to sacrifice myself for others. There is a way, I believe, of being of service to other people while also unapologetically receiving service from others and welcoming pleasure without guilt. (Just before I finished writing this post, the friend who I’m staying with in Spain decided to go for a swim at the beach just outside our front door. At first, I was going to stay inside and finish this post, but then I asked myself why I was denying myself the pleasure of a swim, and I closed my laptop and went outside.)
Stop trying to change other people. One of the other thieves of our joy is our attachment to the way that others should behave. Other people should be kinder, more patient, less angry, more generous, less chaotic, more playful, more mature, less serious, less critical, etc., etc. In other words, they should be more responsive to our needs and create a world that is safer and more comfortable for us. But when we attach our joy to other people’s behaviour we become, in a sense, enslaved to them. And… let’s face it… everyone has their own problems and insecurities and they’re all trying to get their own needs met just like we are, so they won’t always behave in the way that suits us. Last week, in a moment in which I noticed some agitation with other people’s behaviour, I looked around and could suddenly see the little child in each of the others I was with – a little child who had developed behaviour that was simply an adaptive strategy to help them cope with whatever they’d faced in their childhood. That awareness helped me be more patient and accepting of them, knowing that I too have such a child within me. To cultivate a lifestyle of joy, instead of trying to change people, we need to stop allowing their behaviour to control how we feel, and we need to “tend our own membranes”. (That’s a term that comes from my book, The Art of Holding Space: A practice of love, liberation and leadership.) Through a lifelong practice of self-exploration, we can become more aware of our own needs, we can discover who has the capacity to help us meet those needs and whose behaviour hinders us from having those needs met, and then we can develop healthy boundaries that help protect us from the behaviour that is harmful to us. “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” – Prentis Hemphill
Admittedly, I am far from perfecting any of these points, but some of my joy comes from accepting myself as a work in progress. I take solace in the fact that I still have several years to catch up to the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop. I’ll be patient with myself and keep practicing. I invite you to do the same.
Learn more about holding space for yourself and others, and about cultivating the lifestyle and relationships you want, in our upcoming online Holding Space Foundation Program.
I am home, once again. The last time I wrote, I was just back from a week of writing at a cottage by the lake, and now I’m just back from a week and a half vacation with my daughters. How very lucky I have been this summer to find the time and space for writing, relaxing, and traveling with my girls!
Having been raised going to the
Winnipeg Folk Festival every year, my daughters have developed a passion for indie music festivals. It’s a passion I like to indulge, so last year we drove with them to Montreal for Osheaga and this year I drove with them to Chicago for Lollapalooza. They’re talking about either Outsidelands or Squamish next year, and I’d be happy to go to either place. Though I find the size of the crowds at the festivals a little overwhelming and usually only go for one day, I so greatly treasure these days on the road with my daughters, and know that this time in their lives is fleeting (the oldest two have already graduated from high school), so I pack my bags and I go.
On the way home, after a discussion about next year’s adventure, one of my girls said “Mom, you’d be game for almost anything, wouldn’t you?” And I said “Yes, I would. Give me an interesting place to go to and some quality time with my daughters, and I’m there.” (If anyone has recommendations for great music festivals in your parts of the world, I’d be happy to hear them!)
When we travel, we do our best to seek some balance for all involved, so after a full week of music festivals, shopping, an architecture boat tour, a crime tour, the Art Institute, and other touristy things in Chicago, we headed to a campsite at McCarthy Beach State Park in Minnesota. In the past, there’d be some mild protest on their part, when I’d insist on camping for a few of the nights on our trips, but they’ve become accustomed to the fact that a vacation doesn’t feel complete to me without some time away from cities and electronic devices, and they appreciate my willingness to indulge them in their interests, so they comply willingly now. Despite the rain (and the fact that I still have a wet tent in my garage that needs to be aired out), we had a lovely time reading, wandering, sitting around the campfire, eating s’mores, and watching the sunset on the beach.
There’s a great life lesson there that I want to keep unpacking (and may write more about some day). Seek balance between the fast-paced days and the slow-paced ones. Seek balance between what you want and what you are willing to give others. Seek balance in your connection with others and your connection with yourself. Seek balance in your plugged-in days and your unplugged ones.
When your life begins to feel out of balance, it may be a good time to head to the woods.
This morning, though it was a little hard to convince my body to get out of bed to return to work (and nearly everything on my computer seems to be protesting similarly), I woke up grateful that I have work that I love and that I no longer have to face that feeling of dread when vacation is over and I have to drag myself back to work that drains me. I have worked hard to find this balance in my life, just as I have found it in my vacations. Yes, there is work to do, but much of it feels so much like play that I rarely feel out of balance. (If you’re not there, take heart. I spent many years yearning for this lifestyle before it finally happened for me.)
During the remainder of the month of August and into September, I will be working on polishing up the newest version of my memoir (with the hopes of seeking a publisher in the Fall), and then I’ll be working on a couple of new things (a facilitator’s kit for Mandala Discovery, and some kind of course or retreat around the theme of Holding Space).
There are a few things you might be interested in for the Fall:
1. I’m really excited to announce that I will be hosting a retreat in Asheville, NC, October 8-11, with my dear friend Desiree Adaway. This is no ordinary retreat. It’s called Engage, and it’s for all (women and men) who consider themselves change-makers, edge-walkers, dream-weavers, or social justice activists. It’s a place for soulful conversations, broken hearts, hopeful dreams, and imaginative action. Desiree and I are both passionate about supporting people in social justice work, and lately we’ve both had a growing sense of despair about some of the injustice in both of our countries. In the U.S., young black men are dying at the hands of the police, and in Canada, there’s a growing number of missing and murdered Indigenous women. We feel called to support anyone working on these or other important social justice causes, and so we’ve created a place for people to gather and be inspired. Will you join us?
2. There is still space for a few people in my online Openhearted Writing Circle on September 18th. If you want to write from a deeper place (whether for your own personal growth or to share with an audience), this is the place to gather with others like you and be inspired. All you need to participate is a Skype account and an open heart.
4. In late October, I’ll be participating in the annual gathering of Gather the Women, in Parrish, Florida. If you’d like to experience the power of a women’s circle, I’d highly encourage you to consider this gathering. I deeply believe in the work of this organization and in the importance of spending time in circle with other women.
5. For those in Canada, there is also a Gather the Women gathering happening in Ontario, September 11-13. They don’t have a website, but at this link, you’ll find a poster. If that doesn’t work, let me know and I’ll send you the email address of the contact person. (I won’t be attending this gathering, but the organizers are all dear friends of mine and I know that it will be good.)
I hope that, in whatever way works for you, you are finding some balance in your life this summer. Thank you for being part of my circle!
My family and I have just returned from what was probably the best family vacation we’ve ever taken. We spent two weeks on a road trip, driving from our home in Winnipeg first to Lake Superior Provincial Park, then to Ottawa and Gatineau Park, then to Montreal and Quebec City, and finally to Toronto.
In total, we put on more than 6500 kilometres, driving halfway across this big beautiful country of ours. That’s a lot of time to spend inside a vehicle full of five people and all of our luggage and camping supplies! Luckily, we like each other and our kids are old enough to manage their own boredom.
We packed a lot into this vacation. We spent four days camping far from city lights (where raccoons tried to steal the food from our picnic table), a week in a lovely home in a great neighbourhood in Montreal (rented through airbnb), a few days in a hotel in Toronto, and finally a night in a cheap motel (that hasn’t been renovated since the seventies) in rural Ontario on the way home. We went hiking, played on the shore of Lake Superior, toured Canada’s parliament building, visited a couple of museums, wandered around Old Montreal and Old Quebec, attended Osheaga (a huge music festival on an island in Montreal), watched a synchronized swimming world championship, went to a major league baseball game, went shopping, ate in some delightful cafes, and did lots of family bonding over shared jokes and cheap meals.
Here’s a video compilation of our travel photos.
In case you’re planning a family vacation in the near future, here are a few things that helped make this a great one for us.
Let every member of the family plan at least one part of the vacation. We always let each member of the family pick at least one restaurant, one family activity, and/or one place they want to stay. When they know they’re getting their way on at least one thing, they’re more willing to take part in other things. The impetus for this vacation was our oldest two daughters’ dream of going to Osheaga. They had no idea when they started talking about it that we might be willing to drive half way across the country for it, but it fit in well with a long-held dream of seeing more of the eastern part of the country.
Consider options other than hotels for your accommodations. One of the highlights of our vacation was the house we rented through airbnb in Montreal. It was really lovely to have a place where each of the girls had their own bedroom, we had a full kitchen where we could prepare some of our meals, and we had free parking, laundry facilities, etc. It was also in a much more interesting neighbourhood than most hotels are.
Include everyone in the vacation budget considerations. We budgeted a daily average that needed to cover food, entertainment, subway fares, etc. I used an app on my phone to keep track of all expenses. The girls were told ahead of time that if we could keep expenses down on some days, we’d be able to splurge on other days, so they were quite cooperative in eating cheaply as often as possible so we could afford a few nicer restaurant meals and entertainment. Our oldest two daughters will soon be taking vacations on their own, so it was a great experience for them to learn about the decisions that go into staying on budget and still having a great time.
Check your passports far in advance. The one mistake we made on this vacation was to assume our passports were all up-to-date. We had planned to drive through the U.S. (which is shorter and allows for a little more variety), but discovered just before we left that some passports had expired. Luckily, we didn’t have to change many plans since most of our time was going to be spent in Canada anyway.
Adapt to what shows up. This piece of advice flows out of the last one. We had to change our route, but in the end we didn’t mind because it allowed us to show our kids more of the beauty of our own country, and we spent a beautiful couple of days in Lake Superior Provincial Park, which we hadn’t planned on originally.
Don’t over-fill your agenda and be open to surprises. We had a few things planned in advance (ie. Osheaga and the Blue Jays baseball game), but otherwise, we made decisions as we went along. One of our favourite surprises was Mosaika, an amazing light show that’s projected on the front of the parliament building in Ottawa. Another favourite surprise for Maddy was the opportunity to watch a synchronized swimming world championship competition in Montreal.
Find a comfortable balance between activity and rest. There was a lot we wanted to see on this trip, so we filled many of our days with activity, but in between we spent long leisurely hours relaxing in our lovely home-away-from-home. On our last full day in Montreal, we intentionally put nothing on the agenda, and each member of the family was able to find the kind of quiet time they needed – one wandered, one read, one watched movies, one went running, two went for a drive up Mont Royal, and three walked to the grocery store and baked cookies.
Carefully guard time for yourself. As every parent knows, vacations can be exhausting when you’re constantly having to make sure your kids are fed and entertained, make decisions about what to do every day, and often cope with anxiety and grumpiness over new places, new faces, tiredness, and unexpected challenges. Before you leave on vacation, make a pact with your partner that you will each get at least a portion of a day all to yourself to do with what you please. Marcel spent an afternoon at a major league soccer game, and I spent mine in a coffee shop and on the streets with my camera. I also found some times in between for some solo wandering, which my family is quite accustomed to me doing.
Find ways to blend in with the locals. Travel, for me, has never been just about site-seeing and tourist attractions. I love to learn more about the local way of life and practice seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, and so we learned to take the metro (subway), we ate at places in our neighbourhood whose target audience was local patrons rather than tourists, and shopped at the local grocery stores. Staying at an airbnb house helped in that regard, since we were surrounded by people living ordinary, day-to-day lives rather than tourists in a hotel.
Encourage everyone to express their needs. Good communication is especially important when you’re spending more hours together than normal doing things that are outside of the routine. You need to practice being clear with each other. The day after spending a day with our youngest daughter at Osheaga, where about 40,000 people crowded every space, I found myself desperately in need of quiet, open space, where I could indulge the introverted side of me. I had to be clear with my family that I needed personal space and quiet time and that when I seemed to be pushing them away, it was not about them but rather about me and my needs. Others in the family were also encouraged to be honest about their needs, and so there were times when one of us stayed behind, went for a solitary walk, or looked to others for support when we were feeling a little nervous.
Be gentle and intentional when it comes time for re-entry. We all know about the crash that can come after a good vacation, when you have to return to work and routine and bills to pay and broken relationships to deal with and school to prepare for and… and… Be kind to yourself when you’re coming back home and be intentional about making this time as positive as possible. We built in a day of downtime (when we had very few expectations of each other) between arriving at home and having to be back at work. One of the other things I did this time around that helped make re-entry more gentle was a thorough housecleaning before we left. It was nice to return to a newly steam-cleaned carpet, some new-to-us furniture, and clutter-free space. For more on re-entry, read this helpful blog post from Jen Louden.
Anything to add? Feel free to give your vacation tips in the comments.
p.s. Now that I’m back from vacation, I’ve got lots on the go. I’m working on a new e-book on making deeper connections, I’m preparing for the September offering of Mandala Discovery, I’m opening some spots for new coaching clients, and I’m preparing to host another Pathfinder Circle for people who want group coaching. I’m also hoping to launch a follow-up to Summer Lovin’ for the Fall.
I am carrying a huge basket of stories that I gathered on my trip. Each day I added new stories emerging from the deep conversations I had with people in my travels through Reno, Lake Tahoe, Oakland, San Francisco, Atlanta, Asheville, and finally Lake Lanier. I want to share all of those stories with you, but some of them need to ripen in the basket a little longer before they’ll be ready to be harvested.
First of all, let me tell you that this trip was all about love. Here’s what I posted on Facebook when I first got home…
After all of my travels in five states, after all of the deep and soulful conversations, after the early morning sunrises over the lake, after the sharing circles, after the ziplining, after the skinny-dipping, after the wandering in the woods, after the cracking open of many hearts, after my talk about the courage to lead differently, after bountiful feasts from the hands of many farmers, after the laughter, after the tears, after the deep body hugs and the tenderhearted kisses… after it all fades into memory, my learning can be boiled down to the words on the mug I brought home… Love more. Love fiercely and deeply. Love courageously. Love ridiculously. Love the sky and the earth and the dogs and the caterpillars. Love the wine and the music. Love the brave hearts and the fearful hearts. Love the ones that are easy to love and those who are more difficult. Love with wild abandon. Love until your heart cracks wide open and we all see the fleshy softness inside. Love more and let yourself be loved. Don’t be afraid of love.
It might sound rather pie-in-the-sky, but it’s the ground on which I stand. Love is what let me go on this journey when so many of you supported this dream. Love is what let me connect with beautiful people all along the way. Love is what inspired me to share from my heart on stage. Love is what gave me the courage to believe I had something to share. It’s all about love.
Almost as soon as I got home from my journey, reality smacked me across the face. There’s a huge crack in our basement wall that will probably cost us thousands to fix, my aunt died of brain cancer while I was away and her funeral was yesterday, I’m dealing with a nasty bug bite that I got in Atlanta that seems to be infected and I spent yesterday evening in urgent care, and there’s a little heartbreak in my relationship with one of my daughters. Any of those things individually could have sent me into a tailspin of despair, but they didn’t. I’m okay. I’m more than okay. I am feeling strong and courageous, and – more than anything – loved.
LOVE has made me resilient. LOVE has given me courage. LOVE has given me hope.
At Patti Digh’s Design Your Life Camp at Lake Lanier last week, Maya Stein and Amy Tingle did something so breathtakingly beautiful and full of love, I found my heart breaking wide open. First of all, they’d brought their vintage trailer MAUDE (Mobile Art Unit Designed for Everyone) along to camp and they were inviting everyone to visit to make art tags to hang in a tree. Secondly, they each had vintage typewriters, and if you offered them a single word, they would each write a spontaneous poem on an index card made especially for you. They did both of these things with beauty, grace and generosity, not asking to be paid or flaunting their brand in anyone’s face – simply offering this gift to anyone who would receive it.
The first time I saw them with their typewriters, I felt a little overwhelmed – not sure I could step forward and feel worthy enough of the gift. I was intrigued, but it felt somehow vulnerable and tender to give them a word and then simply receive. I had already received so much on this journey (and even before the journey in order to make it possible) that the gremlins were saying “You’ve received enough. You had the AUDACITY to ask people to help pay for this trip. How DARE you think that you are worthy of another gift?”
When I came out of the session the next evening, though, and saw them with their typewriters again, I knew I just had to do it. I knew I was worthy. I knew, deep down in my bones, that I wanted this gift and was ready to receive it.
I stood in line and waited… and agonized over what word was the right one. I wrote one word down, but then it didn’t feel right, so I scratched it out. Just before I got to the front of the line, I knew what my word was. Resilient.
Resilient is how I feel these past couple of months as I emerge into my work in a bigger way after the hard, hard year of losing Mom, watching my husband have a heart attack, breaking my foot, and then finding out my brother has stage 4 cancer. Resilient is what I’ve been in the past, after losing dad very suddenly, having a stillborn son, and watching the man I love wrestle with depression so powerful he attempted suicide twice. Resilience is one of my strengths and it’s one of the gifts I give to my clients in this work of being real and courageous and hopeful in this broken world.
And so I stood there, tenderly and anxiously, waiting to see what they’d do with the word resilient.
What emerged floored me and broke me open.
Here’s what Amy wrote:
The Amy she mentioned is Amy Dier, who had just shared a very personal story from the stage about learning to love and trust herself and allow herself to be seen. She was a former police officer who’d gone into law enforcement partly because she’d been raped when she was a teenager. She said she’d only shared the story of her rape with 8 people before saying it aloud in this room full of 150 people. After sharing the story, she invited us all to stand in a circle and she walked around the circle, looking into our eyes, and saying to each of us one at a time “I see you.”
What Amy the poet had no way of knowing was that Amy Dier and I do indeed share a story or two – the story of surviving rape, as well as the story of learning to believe we are worthy of being seen.
The second poem, from Maya, was the perfect addition, in a way that neither poet could possibly have known.The day after I was raped by a man who climbed through my bedroom window, I was supposed to take part in a triathlon relay race. I was going to ride 40 kilometres on my bicycle, while others did the running and swimming legs. This felt like a courageous and fierce act for me at the time, given the fact that I’d never believed I was athletic enough to be in any competition of that sort.
I never completed that bicycle ride. My body was too sore after the abuse it took at the hands of the rapist. Plus I felt a strong urge to drive home to the farm to be with my Mom and Dad.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t get back on the bicycle, again and again and again. My whole life has been an act of getting back on that bicycle, each time I fall down. Through all of the deaths, disappointment, and tragedy in my life, I keep getting back on my bicycle – both literally and figuratively. (Ironically, I was actually on my way into the garage to go for a bike ride with my daughter when I broke my foot in Spring. Another metaphor, perhaps?)
And that brings me back to love. I get back on my bicycle because of love. I stay in a marriage that has been challenging because of love. I keep showing up for funerals because of love. I drive across the country to be with my brother after cancer surgery because of love. I sit beside my mother and watch her die because of love. I show up for my teenagers even when they’re snarly because of love. I travel across the country and sit in circle with myriads of beautiful people because of love. I coach my clients and host retreats because of love.
I do what I do because I have been given a lot of love and because I have a lot of love to give.
I pour love into everything I do. And love is what sustains me and gives me courage for this work. Because love is worth it. Love has made me who I am, and that is a beautiful thing.
The next time you need courage or resilience, remember that it starts with love. Give love and receive it and you will be able to get back on that bicycle, no matter how many times you fall.