I was walking through the jungle this morning, as I do nearly every morning when I stay at my friend Mary’s farm in Costa Rica, and I was noticing the beauty and variety of what has dropped onto the jungle floor. A couple of weeks ago, I photographed the endless variety of patterns in jungle leaves and, this morning, I turned my attention to what has fallen to the ground.
It was beautiful to witness the leaves, branches, fallen trees, and flower petals in various stages of decay. Some leaves were still green, some had turned various shades of orange, red, and yellow, and some were shades of brown. Those that had been on the ground the longest had deteriorated in shape and colour and were about to become one with the forest floor.
All that has fallen will serve as nourishment for the trees that continue to thrive and for those that have not yet sprouted. On some of the rotting branches and tree trunks, there were already the shoots of new plants sprouting from the decay.
Nature invites us to witness the cycles of life, and to recognize that death is built into the design. We don’t have growth without death. We don’t have new shoots without the rot of old leaves and branches to root themselves in.
Within many of our cultures, though, there is a great fear of death and a resistance to recognizing its inevitability. Our beauty industry sells us “anti-aging” products so that we can live in denial that our bodies are becoming wrinkled and worn, like some of the leaves on the forest floor. We turn away from conversations about death because we’d rather pretend it’s not going to happen to us. We sterilize the dying process and, if the body is visible at all, it is only when it’s been preserved so that it looks like the person hasn’t died that it’s acceptable.
Recently, I had the honour of walking alongside my friend Randy on his journey toward death. ALS was taking away his bodily functions and, in the end, he chose to leave his earthly body through medically assisted dying. In the year that I walked alongside him, I learned so much that I hope to someday write a book that contains the wisdom of that year. Randy was at peace with his dying and didn’t shy away from talking about it. Like the dying things on the forest floor, what Randy left behind will continue to nourish what can grow in me (and in others who were touched by his life) in the future.
This fear of death is not only a personal fear, it’s a collective fear, and we have embedded that fear into the systems we’ve developed and help to perpetuate. Within capitalism, for example, there is embedded a great denial that the system will ever need to die in order to serve as compost for the next system. We close our eyes to the destruction of a system that has completed its purpose and we pretend that it can continue to thrive and grow, because that seems safer for us to imagine. The death of capitalism seems too chaotic for us to consider, so we tolerate the harm it causes out of the fear of what is unknown.
As we all know, though, the kind of growth required to support our capitalist system is wreaking havoc on our planet and destroying many lives. It’s become a monster, swallowing up living beings in its hunger for perpetual growth.
I wonder what it would be like for us to lean into the wisdom that living systems need to die in order for new life to begin. I wonder how it would change us if we treated our systems like the trees in the forest, accepting death and decay as part of the process. I wonder what might grow if we stopped hanging onto the destructive, growth-hungry monsters that threaten to destroy us even as we feed them.
Perhaps, like Randy, we could even accept some form of “medically assisted dying” when we recognize that the purpose has been served, there has been joy in the lifetime of the system, and it’s time to let go. I don’t know what the future holds once we have allowed capitalism to die. Like everyone else, I am afraid of the chaos of the deconstruction process, and so I notice my own resistance rising up even as I write this.
Here’s what I do know, though… we are creative, resilient beings, living in a creative, regenerative world. We are not separate from that world. We are not set apart, better than, or worse than. We are in nature and nature is in us.
I also know that we have gained gifts from capitalism (just as I gained gifts from Randy) that will nourish us even as the system decays. It was not designed as an evil system, but as a system that sustained humans for many years. It was simply doing the job it was designed for.
AND I know that we need to resource ourselves so that we have the courage, strength and creativity needed for this great transition we’re entering. That’s why I’m committed to teaching people to hold space for discomfort, and why I have created the course Know Yourself, Free Yourself; self-exploration as a path to liberation and love (which starts in early March). I believe that embracing tenderness and liberation will help us find the resources we need in order to live through what could be a chaotic time.
It’s time for us all to imagine and co-create better ways of living together. I don’t know what those designs look like yet, but I know that we have the resources we need when we lean into our collective wisdom and courage. And I believe that there are clues on the jungle floor.
“The moment we commit ourselves to going on this journey, we start to encounter our three principal enemies: the voice of doubt and judgment (shutting down the open mind), the voice of cynicism (shutting down the open heart), and the voice of fear (shutting down the open will).” – Otto Sharmer
Lessons in colonialism and cultural relations
Recently I had the opportunity to facilitate a retreat for the staff and board members of a local non-profit. At the retreat, we played a game called Barnga, an inter-cultural learning game that gives people the opportunity to experience a little of what it feels like to be a “stranger in a strange land”.
To play Barnga, people sit at tables of four. Each table is given a simple set of rules and a deck of cards. After reading the rules, they begin to play a couple of practice rounds. Once they’re comfortable with the rules of play, they are instructed to play the rest of the game in silence.
After 15 or 20 minutes of playing in silence, the person who won the most tricks at each table is invited to move to another table. The person who won the least tricks moves to the table in the opposite direction. All of the rules sheets are removed from the tables.
The game begins once again, but what people don’t realize until they’ve played a round or two is that the rules are different at each able. At some tables, ace is high and at other tables it’s low. At one table, diamonds are trump, at another clubs are trump, and so on.
Newcomers (ie. immigrants) have now arrived in a place where they expect the rules to be the same, find out after making a few mistakes that they are in fact different, and have no shared language to figure out what they’re doing wrong. Around the room you can see the confusion and frustration begin to grow as people try to adapt to the new rules, and those at the table try to use hand gestures and other creative means to let them know what they’re doing wrong.
After another 15 or 20 minutes, the winners and losers move to new tables and the game begins again. This time, people are less surprised to find out there are different rules and more prepared to adapt and/or help newcomers adapt.
After playing for about 45 minutes, we gathered in a sharing circle to debrief about how the experience had been for people. Some shared how, even though they stayed at the table where the rules hadn’t changed, they began to doubt themselves when others insisted on playing with different rules. Some even chose to give up their own rules entirely, even though they hadn’t moved.
In the group of 20 people, there was one white male and 19 women of mixed races. What was revealing for all of us was what that male was brave enough to admit.
“I just realized what I’ve done,” he said. “I was so confident that I knew the rules of the game and that others didn’t that I took my own rules with me wherever I went and I enforced them regardless of how other people were playing.”
It should be stated that this man is a stay-at-home dad who volunteers his time on the board of a family resource centre. He is by no means the stereotypical, aggressive white male you might assume him to be. He is gracious and kind-hearted, and I applaud him for recognizing what he’d done.
What is equally interesting is that all of the women at the tables he moved to allowed him to enforce his set of rules. Whether they doubted themselves enough to not trust their own memory of the rules, or were peacekeepers who decided it was easier to adapt to someone else who felt stronger about the “right” way to do things, each of them acquiesced.
Without any ill intent on his part, this man inadvertently became the colonizer at each table he moved to. And without recognizing they were doing so, the women at those tables inadvertently allowed themselves to be colonized.
If we had played the game much longer, there may have been a growing realization among the women what was happening, and there might have even been a revolt. On the other hand, he might have simply been allowed to maintain his privilege and move around the room without being challenged.
Making the learning personal
Since that game at last week’s retreat, the universe has found multiple opportunities to reinforce this learning for me. I have been reminded more than once that, despite my best efforts not to do so, I, too, sometimes carry my rules with me and expect others to adapt.
Yesterday, these lessons came from multiple directions. In one case, I was challenged to consider the language I used in the blog post I shared yesterday. In writing about the race relations conversation I helped Rosanna Deerchild to host on Monday night, I mentioned that “we all felt like we’d been punched in the gut” when our city was labeled the “most racist in Canada”. Several people pointed out (and not all kindly) that I was making an assumption that my response to the article was an accurate depiction of how everyone felt. By doing so, I was carrying my rules with me and overlooking the feelings of the very people the article was about.
Not everyone felt like they’d been punched in the gut. Instead, many felt a sense of relief that these stories were finally coming out.
In the critique of my blog post, one person said that my comment about feeling punched in the gut made her feel punched in the gut. Another reflected that mine was a “settler’s narrative”. A third said that I was using “the same sensationalist BS as the Macleans article”.
I was mortified. In my best efforts to enter this conversation with humility and grace, I had inadvertently done the opposite of what I’d intended. Like the man in the Barnga game, I assumed that everyone was playing by the same set of rules.
I quickly edited my blog post to reflect the challenges I’d received, but the problem intensified when I realized that the Macleans journalist who wrote the original article (and who’d flown in for Monday’s gathering) was going to use that exact quote in a follow-up piece in this week’s magazine. Now not only was I opening myself to scrutiny on my blog, I could expect even harsher critique on a national scope.
I quickly sent her a note asking that she adjust the quote. She was on a flight home and by the time she landed, the article was on its way to print. I felt suddenly panicky and deeply ashamed. Fortunately, she was gracious enough to jump into action and she managed to get her editor to adjust the copy before it went to print.
Surviving a shame shitstorm
Last night, I went to bed feeling discouraged and defeated. On top of this challenge, I’d also received another fairly lengthy email about how I’ve let some people down in an entirely different circle, and I was feeling like all of my efforts were resulting in failure.
At 2 a.m., I woke in the middle of what Brene Brown calls a “shame shitstorm”. My mind was reeling with all of my failures. Despite my best efforts to create spaces for safe and authentic conversation, I was inadvertently stepping on toes and enforcing my own rules of engagement.
As one does in the middle of the night, I started second-guessing everything, especially what I’d done at the gathering on Monday night. Was I too bossy when I hosted the gathering? Did I claim space that wasn’t mine to claim? Were my efforts to help really micro-aggressions toward the very people I was trying to build bridges with? Should I just shut up and step out of the conversation?
By 3 a.m., I was ready to yank my blog post off the internet, step away into the shadows, and never again enter into these difficult conversations.
By 4 a.m., I’d managed to talk myself down off the ledge, opened myself to what I needed to learn from these challenges, and was ready to “step back into the arena”.
Some time after 4, I managed to fall back to sleep.
Moving on from here
This morning, in the light of a new day, I recognize this for what it is – an invitation for me to address my own shadow and deepen my own learning of how I carry my own rules with me.
If I am not willing to address the colonizer in me, how can I expect to host spaces where I invite others to do so?
Nobody said this would be easy. There will be more sleepless nights, more shame shitstorms, and more days when my best efforts are met with critique and even anger.
But, as I said in the closing circle on Monday night, I’m going to continue to live with an open heart, even when I don’t know the next right thing to do, and even when I’m criticized for my best efforts.
Because if I’m not willing to change, I have no right to expect others to do so.
I was raised on a healthy dose of “only a sinner, saved by grace”. Again and again the Sunday School songs reminded me to carry the shame of the sin that had separated me from God. I was nothing without salvation – a wretch, a lost soul, a disgrace.
On top of that, I was a woman – reduced to second class in the eyes of a male (understanding of) God. Not good enough to have my own voice. Not strong enough to lead without a man as the head.
And then, to add to those stories of unworthiness and submissiveness, I was a Mennonite, taught to be a pacifist, discouraged from standing up for myself. Turn the other cheek and don’t rock the boat.
Let’s not forget that I’m also a Canadian, and people in my country place politeness high in our values.
That’s a lot of old stories that contribute to my “I am worthless” back story.
Now…I’m not going to argue the theology or “rightness” of any of those belief systems – I’m just speaking from my own experience here. I’m just saying that it’s hard to emerge from a history like that with a healthy self-confidence and a belief in one’s worthiness.
It took a lot of personal work to start telling myself other stories. It took a lot to begin to believe that I was worthy of love, that I was equal to men, that I could believe in a God that was both masculine AND feminine, and that I was “fearfully and wonderfully made”.
For awhile the pendulum swung in the other direction. I started to embrace those self-help books that told me that I am awesome, I am powerful, and I can do anything I set my mind to. I started to believe that I was a self-made woman and that I didn’t need faith in a God who made me feel worthless.
But the other end of the pendulum wasn’t comfortable for long either. If I am awesome, than I don’t need other people. If I am perfect the way I am than I can get away with treating people poorly and not cleaning up after myself. If I can do anything I set my mind to, then I don’t need grace and I don’t need God and I certainly don’t need to pay attention to the wounds all of us AWESOME people are inflicting on the world.
And what if I don’t FEEL awesome all of the time? Then do I send myself back to the “unworthy” end of the pendulum because other people have figured out this self-help stuff better than I have? And what about when I do something that is really selfish – do I simply excuse myself with an “I am worth it” mantra? Do I never hold myself accountable for my screw-ups or unkind acts? And if there’s no need for grace, then how do I pick myself up after a particularly horrible failure?
Gradually the pendulum swung back, but this time it landed somewhere in the middle. This time it stopped in the grey area – the paradox.
I am beautiful AND I have a lot of flaws.
I am smart and capable and have a lot of gifts AND I need to be forgiven when I make mistakes.
I am loving and kind AND sometimes I do things that are downright mean and hurtful.
I have been fearfully and wonderfully made AND I need a lot of grace for those times when I don’t act or feel like it.
I am full of wisdom AND I rely on God/dess to help me use that wisdom with discernment.
I am a sinner AND I am a saint.
I am good enough as I am AND I need to keep working to improve myself.
I am as worthy as any man on earth AND I want to keep living on a planet where both genders are needed.
The grey area is a good place to live. It feels comfortable, because I don’t need to be perfect, but I also don’t need to believe that I am worthless. It’s the field that Rumi talks about – I want to lie down in that grass with you.
“Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make sense any more.”
p.s. There is still space in tomorrow’s Openhearted Writing Circle, if you want to explore how your own writing can help you get to an “I am enough” place.
“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” ~ Mark Twain
Tomorrow, after I teach a storytelling workshop for a national non-profit, I’ll be heading out on a special annual pilgrimage. A twelve hour road trip in good company will take me to the Black Hills of South Dakota, where I will gather once again with the women of Gather the Women.
This will be my third year in this circle of women. I can hardly wait to be with them again. When I am in this circle, I feel fed, held, honoured, encouraged, and strengthened. Even though we only see each other once a year, women in this circle have supported me through the grief of losing my mother, encouraged me in the growth of my business, and cheered for me every time I’ve done something brave.
But the primary reason why I keep going back?
They call me into my greatness.
These women want me to succeed. They want me to be bold, strong, and successful. They want me to make a mark in the world. They believe wholeheartedly in my work and cheer with their whole hearts when I do it well.
Why? Because MY work is OUR collective work. And because when I succeed, we ALL succeed.
That’s the way it is when you surround yourself with powerful women who aren’t threatened by other people’s power. We succeed together and we leave the world a better place.
Are you longing to surround yourself with that kind of support?
I can help. What those women do for me, I want to do for you.
I want to call you into your greatness.
I want to cheer from the sidelines as you succeed. I want to nudge you into those places that feel scary but you know are right. I want to help you find your path.
How can I help you?
1. Come join Pathfinder Circle where you’ll find yourself surrounded by other women who are also daring to find their paths and step into their greatness. (It’s an online coaching circle that meets once a week for 8 weeks, starting September 30th.)
2. If you want to step into your greatness in your writing, sign up for Openhearted Writing Circle. (It’s a one-day online writing retreat, on October 4th, that will help you crack open your heart and pour it onto the page.)
3. If it’s one-on-one support you need, sign up for coaching. If you’re a leader/facilitator/teacher/coach, check out this offering.
Many years ago, when I was in my first leadership position, I realized that helping other people shine is just as good as shining yourself. Because we all benefit from each other’s glow.
There’s something about September – the way it hovers in between seasons, reminding us of what we’re leaving and what is yet to come.
I always feel a mix of emotions at this time of year.
I feel the melancholy of summer ending. I feel the sadness over school starting again (mixed with a little joy that I’ll have a quiet house again). I feel the dread of winter just around the corner.
I also feel the delight over the weather shifting and the vibrant colours showing up on the landscape.
When I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I love September. It’s probably one of my favourite months. I don’t love the heat and I don’t love the cold and September is usually just right.
And yet… I don’t always let myself love it. I get caught up in the rush of trying to get the girls back to school and I get mired in that sinking feeling of winter coming and I forget to pause long enough to really appreciate the way the weather has shifted into a more gentle warmth with cooling evenings and the way the trees are adorning themselves in orange and yellow and red.
I love long walks in crunching leaves. I love campfires on cool evenings. I love the quality of light at this time of year. I love slipping on a sweater when the weather begins to cool.
Despite the melancholy it brings, I truly love September.
But… there’s something else about this time of year that I don’t love.
It’s the season when death feels close at hand.
There’s a pattern in my family. Most of the births happen in the first half of the year, and most of the deaths happen in the second. My dad, my mom, my son, my father-in-law, and most of my grandparents – they all died between August and November.
And so this time of year comes with reminders of all that I’ve lost.
And this time, September brings with it the possibility of another loss. My oldest brother, who’s been battling cancer for over a year, with multiple surgeries and lots of chemo, has been told the cancer is growing again and there may not be anything they can do. He was told he may have only months to live. (And then, a few days later, he was told they’ll probably make one last ditch effort to save him through surgery.)
When I let myself think of the possibility of losing him, desperation closes my throat and it’s suddenly painful to breathe and impossible to swallow. NO! Death can’t take another member of my family! It’s too soon! I NEED him! It’s not even two years since Mom left us. Please God NO! He’s my big brother. He’s always been a rock in the storm, a solid place to land – as dependable as the earth beneath my feet. I need something dependable in my life. He JUST. CAN’T. GO.
And then I realize… it’s just like September. If I focus only on the fact that I might lose my brother, I’ll forget to live in the now. I’ll forget to see the beauty. I’ll forget to laugh at the jokes he sends, forget to appreciate all that he’s been in my life, forget to recognize what a gift it’s been to grow up in a family so full of love, faith, humour, and wisdom.
If I rush through September, lamenting the summer that’s been and dreading the winter that’s coming, I’ll miss this month that I love so much. If I rush through my life, feeling sorry for myself over all that I’ve lost and dreading the losses yet to come, I’ll miss everything that makes my life so good and beautiful.
I don’t want to miss September. I want to be present for what’s here. Now.
Winter might be hard and long, but right now is beautiful. Right now the sun is painting the tips of the trees with gold. Right now the birds are still singing, the butterflies are still dancing, and the sun is still warming my skin. Right now I have friends who invite me to campfires in teepees and other friends who don’t mind walking through the English gardens in the rain with me. Right now I have daughters who make me laugh. Right now I have a brother walking a courageous path through cancer, who’s crazy in love with his family, and I get to be part of that big love.