Out of exile

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.

path in the woodsI 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.

stone bench 2I 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.

“I see beauty everywhere”

Like many Canadians (and people from all over the world), I have fallen in love with astronaut Chris Hadfield in the last four months. Not only is he an exceptional human being (Canada’s first commander of the International Space Station, a gifted musician, and a gifted photographer) he brings us all back to something that many of us lost when we left childhood – a sense of wonder.

Every time he posted an image on his Facebook page, the caption was some version of “Look at this amazing view I have the privilege of seeing! Look at how beautiful the earth is! Look at all there is in this universe to marvel at!” Every time he posted a video about life in the International Space Station, whether it was about what happens to tears in zero gravity, how to clip your nails in space, or how he makes a peanut butter and honey sandwich, the tone of his voice said “isn’t this cool? I’m so glad I get to share this with you!” Every time he wrote or sang a song, whether he sang with the Barenaked Ladies, or did his final ISS parting song, Space Oddity, you could hear the delight and awe in his voice.


His sense of wonder was paired with his great generosity, and that’s why so many people fell in love with him. He clearly took great delight in sharing his experiences with us.

I am happy to say that I was raised by parents who, like Chris Hadfield, taught me to witness the world with a sense of delight. Every Spring, my Dad would write “frogs” on the calendar on the first day that he heard them singing. If he found a bird’s nest in a tree, he would almost certainly drag one or more of us kids out to the tree to see it. One of my favourite photos is one that he took of dandelions – what he said were the most under-appreciated flowers in the world.

Mom was the same. On lazy Sunday afternoons, we would go for drives in the countryside and explore old abandoned homes, because she was intensely curious about what was inside. Any chance she got, she would climb trees, just for the fun of it. Even in her dying days, she watched the birds at her bird feeder and delighted in the variety and beauty of each of them.

On Mother’s Day this year (our first since Mom died), my sister and I drove out to the small town where we grew up to visit the graves where our parents now lay buried. We had a lovely day together, first at the grave, and then in the park with the swinging bridge we used to play on, and in the field where we used to hunt for crocuses when Spring finally came.

Instead of the desperate sense of emptiness that we both thought the day would be filled with, there was peacefulness and nostalgia in our conversations and our wanderings. Much of the day was spent doing exactly what Mom and Dad taught us to do – finding the beauty in the world. We got muddy on the riverbank, trying to get the right angle to photograph the swinging bridge, and we got our clothes covered in dry grass and dust, lying in the field trying to capture both the crocuses and grain elevator in the same shot.


I was reminded, once again, of the power of beauty for healing and transformation. The grief was still there, but in seeking beauty, we were able to breathe hope into our lives.

In our pragmatic, goal-oriented lives, we forget to pause for beauty. “Wandering in crocus fields is for people who don’t have important things to do with their lives,” we tell ourselves.

Wrong. Wandering in crocus fields is ESSENTIAL if we have important things to do with our lives. Beauty is imperative!

In my travels in the world, I have seen people whose lives are full of wealth but not much beauty. I have also seen people who live in poverty but surround themselves with beauty. I would rather live in community with the second group of people, because they know joy, they live generously, and their delight shines in their eyes.

Last night was one of those impeccable Spring evenings when the wind calms, the sun’s setting rays are warm and golden, and the air is full of the hope of new life. I couldn’t resist wandering through my neighbourhood once again, seeking beauty and letting myself be filled with awe.

I am grateful for every moment that brings wonder into my life, and I am grateful for the capacity to witness it.

riverbank wandering

And if you still need convincing that a search for beauty is imperative, watch this short video of a 109 year old Holocaust Survivor. “I see beauty everywhere.”

Why should we lead with your wild hearts?

The more conversations I have in preparation for Lead with your Wild Heart, the more I am convinced that this work is not optional. This work is critical. This work is what we are all being called to in one way or another. The world needs us to accept the invitation into this work.

Leading with your wild heart is not about abandoning everything we know and moving into  the woods. It’s about engaging with the world around us. It’s about sitting in deep conversations with our neighbours. It’s about seeking more authentic ways to live. It’s about having the courage to tell the truth.

Why is it important that people get in touch with and learn to lead with their wild/authentic/creative/expressive/vulnerable hearts?

I’ll let some of the members of my wisdom circle share their thoughts on this question:

Julie Daley: “Leadership is nothing without love, connection, and relationship. And where do we find love, connection, and relationship? The heart: through a wild and authentic heart that pulses and beats with the width and breadth of our humanity. It is in our full humanity that we find our way to true leadership, a leadership that invites others into their own wholeness and personal leadership.”

Filiz Telek: “Because the world calls for it right now! and our survival literally depends on it. The heart is the doorway to a wholesome, healthy, joyful, authentic life beyond right and wrong.”

Ronna Detrick: “My impulsive response to this is that you can’t lead if you’re not doing in with a wild/authentic/creative/expressive/vulnerable heart. My calmer response is to say that, of course, leading can take place, but I’d wonder if it’s really you that’s doing so if it’s in any form that’s not all that wildness and heartness. We are so enculturated to understand and recognize leadership in a particular way…andrarely with words like “wild” and “heart.” To get in touch with and lead from this place has the potential to change EVERYTHING!”

Lisa Wilson: “We’ve been asleep for far too long.  We have reached a point in our collective evolution, a turning point, where the calls of something more can no longer be ignored.  The wild heart of each individual, beating to a knowing that goes far beyond logical understanding, holds the paths to our healing.  There is no one else who can heal you but you, and there is no other time to heal than now.  The wild, creative heart longs to be heard, acknowledged, and to be the rhythm to which you take every step.  There are many who still do not hear the calls; thus, those who can hear have a responsibility to guide themselves and others towards this awakening.  It is time.”

Hali Karla: “Because the world needs it more than ever. The world is changing and our heart-wisdom is all too often left forgotten in our daily lives and how we interact with one another. In a world based on segmentation, we’ve nearly forgotten the primal power of true connection and devotion to our vulnerable selves and source. That is why people ache deep down for compassion, expression, soul-integration and belonging – and that is also exactly why change is coming. Because it is needed and desired, deeply. It is time to remember our inherent potential. Nature has this way of balancing itself out in the end. Regardless of how humans occupy themselves they are part of this amazing balance.  Big changes and innovations, new paradigms of leadership and connection, and living in harmony with ourselves and our world will require adaptability, flexibility, deep self-awareness and radical empathy… this begins within, in the rivers where our own passions flow, uninhibited. And the more of us who choose to lead with the light from this intention, the more others will be inspired to step into that light and begin to explore the exponential beauty and transformation of heart-centered, sustainable, community-focused creative potential.”

Jodi Crane: “Because that’s where the joy is.  That is using your creative gifts for good, being self-actualized, and living your full potential.  Why would you not want to do that?”

Michele Lisenbury Christensen: “Our tendency – as pushed by both our brain structure and our culture – is to lead with our tough, logical, organized, methodical, clenchy, stiff-upper-lip selves.  And all those qualities ARE valuable.  Challenge is, we’ve got ’em in spades, and they crowd out the softer, wilder, more emotionally connected, more intuitive, more  humane aspects of our power and our leadership.  And when that happens, our capacity to respond effectively is dampened.  We can’t, without our wild hearts, be present to our own emotions, our messy processes.  We can’t be agile with the human process of coming with change.  We can’t make difficult decisions that necessarily have downsides, and be present through the inevitable turbulence in their wake.  We can’t be truly courageous without our vulnerability; we can only be brave.  And that’s a pale substitute.”

Ann-Marie Boudreau: “That is where intuitive creation resides, where our own unique gifts are born and make their way into the world where they become a part of the process of evolution in moving all sentient and non-sentient beings forward on the path of life. It is in this place where we all dance together in community  creating and shaping the world around us, unfolding our earth story before us with the dawn of each new day.”


By the way, my dear reader, YOU ARE IN MY WISDOM CIRCLE TOO! Join the conversation. Add your response to the question in the comments below. Why is this important?

Note: Registration for Lead with your Wild Heart is still open. You can download the first lesson free here. Join us in this exciting conversation about what can happen for the world if we step into our wild hearts.

My heart out on my sleeve

I want to put my heart out on my sleeve
Wear it where the world can see it pulsing.
I want to love wildly. To live vibrantly. To speak daringly.
To laugh until I cry. To cry until I laugh.

I want to believe that my heart can be safe,
Out there in the wild open air.
Pumping life into everything and everyone that needs it.

I want to stop tucking it away when I hear that it is too much for people
That I should be ashamed.
That I should be more fearful.
That I should be silent.

I want to believe that my exposed heart
Will nudge your heart out of hiding
And soon our hearts will all be pulsing together
Giving us the rhythm we can dance to.

I have a big beautiful dream about us – you and me, wild and free.
Living in the mystery of the pulsing of Mother Earth’s heart.
Our hearts in tune with hers. Our blood mingling with hers.

In my dream, we love much, we dare much, we forgive much.
We share because we believe in abundance.
We live simply because we believe we have enough.
We tell stories because we believe in ourselves.

I want to keep dreaming this dream,
Even when my heart gets hurt.
Even when it’s so bruised, I have to tuck it back into my chest for awhile.
Even when I see so much pain, I wonder if the pulsing will stop.

I will be courageous in my dreaming,
Because I know the world needs dreamers.

I will keep putting my heart out there in the open air,
Because I know the world needs wild open hearts.

Want to put your heart out there with me? Let’s learn to lead with our wild hearts.

My lack-of-vision board

Every few months, I like to make a vision board. It’s my feminine, right-brained version of strategic planning. Instead of filling a page with boxes and goals and strategies, I fill it with images and words plucked from magazines that I feel drawn to and that my intuition tells me have something to do with the direction my heart is heading.

I haven’t made a vision board in a long time. One day in August, I sat with my mom in an oncologist’s office and heard the words “cancer spreading” and “six to twelve months to live”, and since then, my vision is too narrow for a vision board. The only thing I can see in my future is “fatherless, motherless daughter” and that’s hard to pluck from a magazine.

Since then, my focus and energy have been limited, at best. Not only am I dealing with grief, but I’m dealing with a pretty serious lack of paying work because I just don’t have what it takes to drum it up right now. I’m looking for part time work that will bring in some income while I deal with whatever the future holds.

Where’s the “vision” in all that? Pay the bills, feed the kids, sit with Mom, worry about money, drive the kids to where they need to go, visit Mom again… that’s about all I can muster these days.

This week, though, my friend Segun dropped off a bag of old maps, and suddenly I found myself missing my paints and scissors and Mod podge. Something about those old maps made me want to create again.

Tearing up old maps can feel surprisingly cathartic when there’s no roadmap for the journey you’re traveling along. I tore and I placed and I glued. I shredded roads and lined them up with wasteland. I tore up countries and provinces. I cut lakes in half. I destroyed international borders. I had no idea what was emerging, but it felt good to destroy and then to begin to create again.

After the page was full of torn map pieces, I turned to my stack of old magazines. Not a lot in them inspired me. I wasn’t dreaming of parties or feasts or published books or beautiful retreats. All of that felt foreign and far away.

Suddenly I realized that instead of making a “vision board”, I was making a “lack of vision board”. Something about that acknowledgement felt like a release. I didn’t have to find anything in the images. I didn’t need it to be anything. Maybe just tearing up map pieces was enough for now. Maybe it was the journey and not the destination that I needed.

I left it alone for awhile. I made a pot of soup and sat down to stare out the window while I ate.

Eventually, I came back to it, knowing I wanted to add something more. Paint? Images? I had no idea. I was listless and unfocused, the way I spend much of my time these days.

A few images and words caught my attention. Images related to being on a journey – a man feeding his donkey, a couple in a canoe, a woman on a bicycle, the path of a turtle returning to the sea, a woman carrying her basket on her head. And then there were several images related to the wild – elephants, a butterfly, an eagle, balanced rocks in the tundra. The words were similar – bleak, restless, and a little wild. “Foreigner in their own land.” “The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” “Cry of the wild.” “Life-giving death.”

I glued the pieces on. They were sparse on my huge paper, but I didn’t feel like adding more. I didn’t feel like overlapping images the way I usually do. I didn’t want them to touch.

I grabbed my paint. There was too much clarity on the board – I needed it to be muddier. I started adding layers of ochre, orange, and brown – first a wash, then random brushstrokes.

Suddenly I realized that the brushstrokes weren’t random at all. I was creating a series of intertwining paths connecting the images and words. It was all about a journey, but this was no clear map-driven journey. It was random and chaotic, with detours and bumps and unexpected curves. A map to nowhere and everywhere, all at once.

To the paths, I added even more detours – spirals jutting out at random intervals – the pauses along the journey where one must take a deeper spiritual journey before returning to the path.

When the paths were finished, I added the words that came to me: “Pilgrim, there is no path. The path is made by walking.” (from a poem by Antonio Machado) And at the bottom, I added a note just for me. “Walk on.”

I am very fond of my lack-of-vision board. It speaks to me of surrender, trust, and pilgrimage. It tells me to stop trying to control things, to accept the detours when they show up, and to be willing to pause for nourishment and spiritual spiralling. It tells me to follow my wild heart and just keep walking. It lets me know that the detours are not mistakes. It doesn’t expect me to be perfect or focused or even strong. It just lets me be who and where I am right now.

I especially like that at the top left, where the paths seem to be heading, there’s a fierce beautiful eagle taking flight and heading into the light.

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A Lack of Vision Board is one of the exercises you’ll find in Pathfinder: A Creative Journal for Finding your Way.

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