How to Create the World We Desire

All of this complaining about what we don’t want in our presidential candidates is not creating one iota of effort toward what we do want – inclusive policies and spaces for all (people of color, who are LGBTQ, with disabilities, with mental illnesses, living in poverty, veterans, immigrants, etc.). We cannot sit around hoping a President and Congress of any political party are going to create the world we desire. We have to do it in our own neighborhoods and communities and cities. We have to envision and bring to life spaces where every voice is welcome at the table and where neighbors support one another in times of joy and times of hardness. We have to do more than imagine what is possible, we have to start doing the hard work of making it possible so that the people around us who are lost in fear can imagine it, too.
Tearing down other people – whether they support Trump, Hilary, Bernie or Jill – is only furthering the violence that sustains patriarchy, greed, and exclusion in our country. I am choosing a different way. I seek to build individuals up, no matter what they believe, because tearing people down will never change their minds. I seek to focus on the complexity of our humanness rather than make others one dimensional based on one belief they hold or one action they’ve taken. I seek to understand and find ways to include rather than judge, shame, blame, and exclude.
The only way the world will change is if we create the world we desire rather than sit on our asses arguing while waiting for national level politicians to do it. Thousands of self empowerment coaches are not going to change it or it would have already changed. Hundreds of thought leaders are not going to change it or it would have already changed. The only way the world will change is if those of us who envision something else get out into the world and take action to impact policy at local levels and go out to improve the lives of the marginalized in practical ways so that they know they matter now rather than hoping they’ll know they matter later. Talking about supporting marginalized communities online is all good, but many of them don’t have access or interest in the online world. What they know are the people who will look them in the eye when walking downtown and will have a conversation with them if they approach and will volunteer to provide much needed services like meal delivery. Our neighbors will be touched far more deeply by our reaching out to build relationships than if they happen upon our latest blog post that says we care about their story from a distance.
The past three years are actually the longest I’ve gone since my first year of college without volunteering for my local community. I had some deep internal healing to do. But now, no matter what I choose to do for a business, I know that I also need to volunteer on the front lines in my local community so that I can impact lives of marginalized people here and now. I have to go beyond my privileged bubble and get in the trenches. I will also seek ways to experiment with radically inclusive spaces for community members to meet and interact, spaces where someone homeless with a mental illness has as much of a voice as the highest level professional in the room as long as they are respectful. Listening spaces. Spaces for creative interaction. Spaces where the fullness of our humanity can be honored rather than excluded. This is the only way others will be able to see and believe that these kinds of spaces are possible and good for all of us.

What it Means to Hold Safe Space

Holding safe space does not mean that I should passively endure blaming, shaming, or judgment. That is not safe for me.
Holding safe space is for the expression of feelings. Feelings are emotions like sadness and anger, not judgmental thoughts and beliefs about others. Opinions are thoughts, not feelings. Saying “I feel like…” does not make it a feeling.
Holding safe space is for the sharing of direct experiences, not for sharing your assumptions and judgments of other people’s experiences or your opinions about how they should respond. If they ask for your advice or perspective, wonderful; but if not, then it’s disrespectful to impose it on them.
Holding safe space is for listening to each other’s stories, not for telling others that their story is invalid.
Holding safe space is not to allow people to say anything they want or to protect bullies from being called out for causing harm. Safe space is nonviolent by its very nature and requires nonviolent communication to be effective. Culturally our communication is full of violence. That’s why putting intention and effort into safe spaces and nonviolent communication is necessary and hard work. There is no room in a safe space for judging, blaming, shaming, criticizing, insulting, or any other form of attempting to control another person with words.
As I learn to hold safe space for myself and nurture strong boundaries around safe emotional space in my relationships, I am realizing how often we try to avoid our own pain by telling other people what they should be doing with their pain. We have a lot of subtle and insidious ways we try to control others to manage our own comfort, especially by shaming them. That’s not ok.
I will hold safe space for your feelings, your experiences, your story. Tell me about what happened to you and how you feel about it. Tell me about when you were betrayed. Tell me about the resulting anger and how it feels in your belly. Yell if you need to. I don’t care if you’re loud. Tell me about your fears and insecurities. Tell me how your anxiety wakes you up at night. Cry on my shoulder. Hold my hand in awkward silence. I don’t care if it’s weird or uncomfortable. Share yourself and your story with me.
I will always hold safe space for you to tell me your story.
But don’t think for one moment that you get to tell me about mine.

Community is the Antidote to Pain

Putting ourselves out there with a crowdfunding campaign for our little Humboldt wedding is a real big vulnerability for me and I’m experiencing a bit of a vulnerability hangover with anxiety thrown in. It’s an experiment in hope and trust, two things I haven’t allowed myself to feel for a long while. It’s hard to trust in the goodness of others when you’ve been betrayed. Choosing to do this so publicly after the recent workplace betrayal feels like a much needed act of resistance to cynicism and further isolation.

It would be easy to just give up and stay hidden in our cozy nest, the two of us against the world. However, even though my lizard brain and frightened heart says otherwise, I know deep in my bones that community is the antidote to pain. We belong to each other, which doesn’t just mean that everyone belongs to me, but it means that I belong to everyone. It means I am worthy of safe space, respect, and kindness. It means there are people who hold me in their heart like I hold them in mine. We’ve already received two donations and many shares and we are incredibly grateful to be seen, held, and loved. Whatever unfolds from this moment, this is already a beautiful community experience we need to heal.

The Heroine’s Journey: I am an Emotional Mountain Climber

540361_10201504920558445_1441567995_nI am struggling as I live between two opposing forces – the desire to build community with my son and his adoptive parents, and the desire to run as far as possible from the birth mother bruising of mine-and-not-mine every day. My heart is being pushed and pulled between conflicting needs, a daily wrestling match that leaves me emotionally exhausted and withdrawn.

I crave this family, the belonging, and the sense of purpose I have found here. And my heart aches daily as our son simultaneously cements his preference for Mommy and shifts toward the independence of toddlerhood.

Despite the perception in popular books and movies, the Heroine’s Journey looks different than the Hero’s. Women undergo journeys of awakening and self definition, but it is often an internal process that happens through our emotions and our intimate relationships rather than through confrontation with forces in the world. Heather Plett says that feminine rites follow a pattern of containment, transformation, and emergence (vs the masculine rites of separation, transition, and reincorporation). I am currently between containment and transformation, waiting for emergence to occur.

I have come to understand that I am an emotional athlete of sorts, an emotional mountain climber. Much like people who train to endure, and even enjoy, the growing pains and discomfort of intense physical adventures (marathons, surfing, skiing, etc.), I am trained to endure and enjoy the growing pains of seemingly unbearable emotional circumstances. The traumas that often damage and break other people are just added weight to the barbell my powerful heart can bench-press.

I experienced life as deeply emotional and profoundly painful from an early age. I score at least a 7 on the ACES test regarding childhood trauma, although there are many more traumas that aren’t listed. I also have an unusually deep capacity for empathy, meaning I feel other people’s emotions in addition to my own. Imagine what that is like when everyone you are a developing child/adolescent and everyone you love is suffering in a significant way. And I’ve worked to recover from Borderline Personality Disorder, also known as Emotional Intensity Disorder. I am running a lifelong marathon to maintain my sanity, emotional regulation, and the chance to thrive in a healthy family dynamic.

My Heroine’s Journey is a map of how to navigate the world with a raw and open heart. I don’t wear emotional armor to protect myself. I don’t know how. Instead, when I am too raw for exposure I hide in my bedroom, my sanctuary, away from people. I am not interested in fighting – not other people, not my own demons, nor the world’s evils. I am passionate about creating and nurturing justice, reconciliation, and belonging through acts of love and generosity. As part of my training, I strive not to turn words into weapons against others when I’m hurt and angry, whether beloveds or strangers. I’ve spent my entire adult life disarming the triggers that can transform my typical gentleness to verbal violence.

One of the primary challenges for people with Borderline is that we have difficulty living with opposing truths, called dialectics. The term’s dialectical means a synthesis or integration of opposites. This is why Dialectical Behavioral Training (DBT) is vital to recovery. Through my research I’ve learned that I consistently provide my own DBT by confronting opposing truths over and over, often on purpose, in order to learn how to regulate my thinking, feelings, and behavior in relationship. For instance, my experiences of polyamory required embracing the opposing truths of my desire for big open love and my abnormally strong fear of abandonment (another BPD trait). I could simultaneously feel compersion and jealousy. I could be deeply frightened and keep choosing love anyway.

Physical masochism is also a dialectic. I surrender my body to experiences of pain from someone who cares for me. Pain, pleasure, love, and fear usually weave together to carry me into ecstasy. But sometimes the physical pain gets wrapped up with my heart pain and I have an emotional release, where something that causes me deep heartache becomes more bearable as the pain is pushed through me with a flogger or a cane. This happened over the weekend when my fiance and I played a relatively mild BDSM scene,  the day after I read a memoir excerpt from a birth mother in an open adoption. Seeing myself in the mirror of her particular words and phrases brought my pain to the surface so that the slightest stimulus rubbed me raw and left me sobbing.

The emotional strength training I put myself through the last 20+ years gave me the ability to make an impossible choice – to give mommyhood to a beloved friend and  retain my place as a different sort of mother in my child’s life. I live the dialectic of mine-and-not-mine with my son every minute of every day. I feel the biological and emotional pull to be his mommy and I keep my distance to allow another woman to be the foundation of his safety and belonging. I ache because he favors her now and I am immensely grateful that I don’t often have to endure all of the hard parts (irregular sleeping patterns, tantrums, etc.).

I try to nurture connection and distance at the same time, both with my son and his adoptive parents. I truly crave the intimacy of chosen family and intentional community. I also choose to live with them because I desire to lighten the burden of full time parenting and help them afford a nice home in a good neighborhood with all of the related benefits. After so many years as a single mom, I don’t want our son’s parents to ever feel alone in their care and responsibility of him.  Yet as my relationship with our son shifts I become more withdrawn, spending less time with the family. I focus my attention on the parts of my life that aren’t so painful and complicated, like my relationship with my fiance and my book creation (and a good dose of television).

I am living in this family dialectic, navigating it mostly with grace, and yet I worry that I am not doing enough. I worry that I am not present enough, connected enough, or co-parenting enough. Because my work in the world is now focused on belonging, I am learning about the psychology of community and the practices that are required to keep community functioning in vibrant ways. Yet I refuse to act on these knowings with those closest to me because I am frightened of my own vulnerability. I don’t know how to be this raw with other people. In my journey to find emotional stability I have always lived in my own head – and bedroom – when in pain. It is how I contain myself, keep my emotions from overwhelming others. I have no idea how to be in this strange place I now live between love and pain in a home and intimate relationship with other adults.

Some days I feel like a fraud. Who am I to write about courage, connection, and community when I can’t yet find the strength to bring my own vulnerability to the table with those closest to me? I was able give a child from my body, I can give my work to support my family, and yet these past few months I can rarely share myself with them.

The focus of my self work these days is to hold myself in the same compassion and acceptance that I give others. I am working to stop beating myself up for falling short of my own high standards for conscious living and relationship. The truth is that to evolve from suffering a mental illness that will not allow opposing truths to living peacefully in a situation that is built of opposing truths is a significant accomplishment. It is in recognizing how far I have come these past 20 years that I  see I need to give myself patience. I am in the endurance race of my life. I will be living in some form of this dialectic with my son and his adoptive parents forever, whether or not I continue to live in the same home with them. I have plenty of time and safe space in which to build my emotional muscles with people who love me no matter what I bring to the table on any given day. I am already enough simply by choosing to be here and contributing in this home with this family.


Image by Flickr Artist Christian Thompson

Grief as Deep Activism

Recently I was introduced to the idea of grief as deep activism and today I experienced it in action.

“What has become clear is the powerful role grief plays in enabling us to face what is taking place in our communities, our ecologies, families, nations, etc. What I mean by that is that grief is a powerful emotion capable of keeping the edges of the heart pliable, flexible, fluid, and open to the world, and as such, becomes a potent support for any form of activism we may intend to take, indeed is itself a vital form of soul activism.” Francis Weller

This afternoon I attended the annual interfaith memorial service for those on the streets of the Old Town community who died in the last year. Operation Nightwatch in collaboration with several downtown religious leaders (Christian, Muslim, Native American, and others) led the service with prayers, music, poetry, and a reading of the names/lighting of candles for those who died.

I went into it thinking about this concept of grief as activism. I didn’t know anyone on the list of over 100 names. I’m certain I will next year, as it turns out more than 20 were once members of our center. But each of those names represents a life, a person. Someone who was once a mother’s child. Someone who has brought moments of exquisite goodness into the world. I believe each and every one of them are worth honoring. Every one is worth taking an hour of my time to hold them in my heart and mind as if they matter. Because they do matter.

There aren’t very many of us, people who will take the time and heart to share in this celebration and grief. There aren’t many of us who say with our actions that these humans have value in our lives. In a city of more than half a million people, there were only 50 people in the sanctuary, less than half a person for each person on the list.

Fuck. I used to think I was invisible. Now I understand that I really have no idea what it is to truly be unseen. I have always mattered to someone, even if in specific moments it was only my crazy mother or my children. I have had many friends, lovers, mentors, and people who believed in me. I know people will show up to honor me when I die. I am blessed beyond measure in this way.

But because I do know the pain of feeling invisible, and I now know the joy of finding my place, I want everyone to be blessed with belonging. I want everyone to know that they matter to someone. I want my local community to understand that these are our people and we need to take care of them!

Whether you break it down biologically, through quantum physics, or through spirituality, it all comes down to the absolute Truth that this is our family. We are all connected and we are hurting ourselves by allowing our people to suffer.

We all deserve belonging.
We all deserve to be witnessed in our lives and our deaths.
Damn it, we can do better than this.