Can a city heal itself?

With some planner colleagues, we have been testing the idea of “the healing city”, or a “city that heals itself”. Some people get it, and some people don’t. I think our response to this idea depends on our relationship to trauma and discomfort.

In a bar on Thursday night, I was with a group of colleagues celebrating the winter season. As you can imagine, a lot of chit chat, some things to nibble on, drinks in our hands, and pockets of people in conversation. One of the conversations was about one of our colleagues, whose 13-year-old daughter committed suicide two days earlier. The news was just spreading and, of course, we are shocked and horrified, sorting out our own reactions to this news from how to make sure our colleague and her family are getting the support they need. One of the people connecting people with each other is grappling with her own child threatening suicide that very afternoon. A friend cancelled our Friday supper date because she has to be at home on what appears to be a suicide watch for her teenager. Which frees up tonight (Friday) to support a friend (and my son) whose 18-year-old (my son’s best friend) spent the night in emergency for a tricky medical situation and will be in the hospital for a few days.

This morning, I am thinking about the TVs in the bar last night. Screens upon screens of messages like this:

WTF? (What the f&*$?)

WTF? Why are three young people who have, are threatening and contemplating suicide? One of these young people is among a wave of classmates exploring suicide. Why is this converging in my attention?  WTF?

What are we not paying attention to, and why?

I notice two qualities of healing in my city. The first is the physical kind that can be clear and apparent (even when it sneaks up on us) and lands us in the hospital. It can be from a sickness, or an accident that causes injury, and it is usually obvious and clear how to handle it for medical professionals. This is the kind of healing our health system is largely created to do – like for my son’s friend – and we are learning as a society how to be more preventative and helpful, whether it is for disease or accidents.

The second quality of healing needed in my city is emotional, mental, and spiritual in nature. It is the trauma that comes with the physical events, or it is emotional, mental, and spiritual trauma that is experienced. It is the stuff we don’t see, or care to look at. It is the distress a teenager experiences that makes suicide an option. It is the attempted cultural genocide of colonial culture on Indigenous peoples. It is the upheaval experienced by refugees who have arrived in our city. It is the confusion experienced by newcomers finding their way in a new place. It is the settler population coming to grips with “losing” unearned power and privilege. It is everyone who has or is experiencing abuses of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual power. It is all the stuff we don’t want to talk about because it is too uncomfortable and disruptive.

A city that heals itself is a city with the courage to talk about the stuff that is uncomfortable and disruptive.

A city that heals itself is a city with the courage to talk about the stuff that is uncomfortable and disruptive. A healing city invites the legitimacy of others’ experience of life in the city; it invites revisiting our current power structures about who gets the help they need, whether physical, emotional, mental or spiritual. One conversation last night shone a light on two family suicide stories from a couple decades ago: the child on the wealthy side of the family got help and attention while the child on the poor side of the family did not.

I’m sitting with these questions today:

  1. Do we know why young people are contemplating and committing suicide? Are we doing anything about it?
  2. Do we know if all citizens have access to our hospitals and get the help they need? Do some people get better care than others based on colour of skin or language spoken? Are we doing anything about it?
  3. Do we know the truth about our colonial nature? Are we doing anything about it?
  4. Do we know the experience of people not at all like us? Are we doing anything to understand and accept the changes we need to make ourselves to allow them to improve their conditions?

A city that looks after its citizens looks after its citizens. Should a city choose to be a place where people are looked after, I recognize that there will always be healing work to do. A healing city recognizes that there is always healing work to do.

A city that looks after its citizens looks after its citizens.

Welcoming outsiders

At a conference welcome reception last fall in Canada, I stepped in to join a conversation in progress. The room was full of people I did not know, so I chose a group where there was one person I had met a few hours ago, and three others new to me. I did not interject and interrupt and overstep the unwritten rules for a new arrival; I waited for a sign that I would be welcome. The person I knew, gave me a quick nod and (appropriately) continued to speak in the conversation already underway. The others did not look at me, not even a glance. I thought to myself, “my, this is strange, to not acknowledge the arrival of a newcomer to a conversation at a welcome reception.” I discerned that it was not a private conversation and made the decision to not insert myself further and conduct a little experiment: how long would they continue to not acknowledge, let alone welcome, the presence of a newcomer?

I stood and listened, observing. I waited about 10 minutes then moved away to release the experiment. I allowed time for the conversation to shift and adjust, change its focus, find those moments of transition to bring in the newcomer. They did not do it. For 10 minutes they chose to not acknowledge the presence of a newcomer, let alone welcome and weave in the newcomer.

How long would they continue to not acknowledge, let alone welcome, the presence of a newcomer?

At a separate gathering last fall, I found myself in a conundrum: to participate—or not—in a North American Indigenous ceremony in Europe. I chose to not participate and begin to explore why it did not sit well with me (what I figured out can be found in this post: Colonial blind spot).

At this gathering we were not in the shape of a traditional conference, rather in the shape of listening, a circle, so I spoke what I was struggling with: that the use of an Indigenous ceremony by Europeans without the acknowledgement of the European colonial involvement in the attempted cultural genocide of North American Indigenous peoples did not sit well with me. A few others spoke of other forms of discomfort with the ceremony and somehow, despite being people good at listening and hearing and discerning, we did not know how to handle the uneasiness in our midst. The discomfort did not have a place to land and we who felt and spoke it were left sitting with our unease without the felt awareness or support of the wider community. We were left outside.

The discomfort did not have a place to land and we who felt it and spoke it were left sitting with our unease without the felt awareness or support of the wider community. We were left outside. 

Two yellow backpacks 

As I made my way through these two experiences, two women sporting yellow backpacks arrived to help me make meaning of them. Both are extreme explorers of the world, comfortable in their own skin and being their own self even it they don’t quite fit the ‘norm’. They both arrived when I needed them.

Yellow backpack #1 is Willemijn, who whisked me off to The Hague after the gathering in Europe. With a handful of compatriots, the Netherlands was revealed to me in the most beautiful fashion: by bicycle, by train, by bus and tram, by car; with guided tours of their favourite things; by sharing family and favourite food; and with time for me to explore on my own. Willemijn opened her home and her life to me, adjusted her schedule to fit me in. We got to know each other and appreciate each other. We had time to simply be with each other and talk about many things we found we shared in common. She coordinated the communication with her compatriots to help us find time together too. What she mostly did was share herself and it was beautiful and generous.

Yellow backpack #2 is Celine, who co-hosted a session with me at the traditional conference. We resisted the conference inertia and took our space in the conference to make room for participants to explore their own expertise. Afterwards, we decided to share a meal and found ourselves in an intense conversation about deep personal matters. After having revealed a bit of ourselves to each other with our conference session, we found in each other an instant trust and safety from having revealed. We both tuned in to there being more for us to explore with each other and we both said yes. It started with an unusual conference session where we were allowed to speak to each other. We were able to notice an interpersonal connection and then act on it. (Noticing interpersonal connections is not encouraged at traditional conferences by design, despite intention otherwise.) What she mostly did was share herself and it was beautiful and generous.

I met Willemijn first and had been feeling like she was a guardian angel sent to tend my hurting soul. We didn’t even talk about what was hurting; we enjoyed each other’s company and it was perfect. When I met Celine two months later, I first noticed her yellow backpack, just like Willemijn’s, and how they contain the essentials needed for the day, to serve its porter well. (It always amazes me what comes out of a backpack!) I also noticed how the cheery yellow backpack reflects the spirit of these two souls who make their way through the world with a happy confidence in doing things a bit differently than the norm. The backpacks are a bit dirty because they are well used; these are gals with practical life experience, around 30 years old, charting their unconventional paths with confidence.

What made me look more closely at the yellow backpacks and these two gals was the depth of conversation in which we easily found ourselves. 

What made me look more closely at the yellow backpacks and these two gals was the depth of conversations in which we easily found ourselves. Their openness to drop in and be honest and real about themselves and with another, was spectacular. As I listened to Celine, I could not stop thinking of Willemijn and her yellow backpack. I knew I had more to notice here when I heard Celine say that she is learning to play the cello – just like Willemijn. There just can’t be that many awesome yellow backback-sporting cello-learning 30-something-year-olds in the world, can there?

At 48 and recently single, these two yellow backpacks are a reminder of what I already knew:

  • I love that my life path is a bit unconventional
  • My body feels great when I wear a backpack
  • There are messages in the symbols of the wilderness of the human experience
  • There is more going on in a conversation than what we say, or the shape/form the conversation takes
  • Good conversation matters

Find and meet

Conference design has an energy that keeps the experts and participants separate from each other and, most importantly, keeps the participants separate from each other. Unconsciously and consciously, this is by design:

Whether there is one expert at the front of the room, or a panel, the effect is the same: expert and participants. Furthermore, in this format the participants are not expected or allowed to talk to each other. In an environment like this participants (and speakers too) might see each other across the room, session after session, but rarely speak to each other, and if they do it is more rarely substantial. We speak with those we know, lightly with those we do not know, and often not at all to those we do not know.

A loaded program of presenters and people sitting to listen to those presenters allows minimal community – the people in the room share a similar interest and do not talk to each other. The energetic emphasis on the design is on expert content, not creating the conditions for people to magically find each other. At this particular conference there was great emphasis on conversation in between conference sessions, and there is a significant limitation to where those conversations will go because they have little to build on from the conference itself – interpersonal connections are not cultivated. We keep our distance because we only, perhaps, see each other when we choose similar sessions, but we don’t ‘find’ each other. We don’t ‘meet’ each other. Even over coffee, we keep our distance.

We keep our distance because we only, perhaps, see each other when we choose different sessions, but we don’t ‘find’ each other. We don’t ‘meet’ each other. 

What I mean by ‘find’ and ‘meet’ is this: we share ourselves beyond a simple shared interest; we share stories and struggles and tap in to our collective wisdom; we give our ourselves and receive in return. It may be two of us or twelve or two hundred. But to do this, we have to let go of the sage on the stage—the expert outside of us—and trust the expertise within and among us as a community. When we don’t trust our own expertise we block our ability to access our own expertise.

Enable natural hierarchy 

When people find themselves in the same place at the same time a community of shared interest becomes visible, and because of this we can feel a sense of community, particularly when we are felling isolated. The mere existence of ‘people like me’ brings elation. There is more to community than this when we choose to consciously weave ourselves together, which amplifies our sense of community. And if that community sits in a circle, that shape itself is not enough if the field of relationships between us is not sufficiently nurtured.

If a community sits in a circle, that shape itself is not enough if the field of relationship between us is not sufficiently nurtured. 

Circle is form of meeting where leadership is shared and a diversity of perspectives is welcomed and accommodated. This is also an environment in which ideas in conflict can be difficult to handle if power imbalances are not acknowledged.

If a circle is flat, with no hierarchy or resistance to hierarchy, there is no room to acknowledge power imbalances—and diversity of life experience. A flat circle resists conflict because it wants to consider itself peaceful and welcoming no matter what, even if the opposite is the case. A flat circle, despite its claim to welcome diversity, remains shallow in experience, meaningful only for those on the inside. There isn’t room for those with an ‘outsider’ point of view.

A not-so-flat circle acknowledges the subtle and explicit hierarchies that naturally occur in human systems and explores them.

A not-so-flat circle acknowledges the subtle and explicit hierarchies that naturally occur in human systems and explores them. In doing so, conflict can be held, explored and resolved. This is a circle that endeavours to hear itself and the power dynamics within, and this accommodates more diversity.

Acknowledging the natural occurrence of hierarchy is enabling, both from the structural support it provides, but also as a topic of conversation that allows us to see ourselves better. When we allow ourselves to talk about power, real and perceived, we see our relationships far more clearly. When we don’t, we block ourselves from creating community beyond the sharing of a common interest.

Community means belonging 

We feel community when we feel we belong. We can share a family bloodline, or share geography, in a neighbourhood or city. We can feel community in an organization of any size. We can feel community in social media as we find people with shared interests across the planet. This experience can be meaningful and superficial at the same time (this is often just the right thing!), or it can be meaningful and involve being deeply held as we make our way through the challenges of life as individuals and as communities. As we find ourselves increasingly challenged with the pace of change and conflict in our world, being deeply held and having the capacity to hold and examine conflict is essential. We need to do a better job of finding and meeting each other.

As we find ourselves increasingly challenged with the pace of change and conflict in our world, being deeply held and having the capacity to hold and examine conflict is essential. We need to do a better job of finding and meeting each other.

The conference participants shared an interest in building community sustainability and the standard conference design fostered surface belonging. Community resilience is fostered when a range of ways of being in relationship are activated in the community, ways that reach below the surface of a shared interest.

The circle gathering participants shared a way of meeting (in circle) that fosters conversation in ways that reach below the surface. In this case, when community struggles with noticing and acknowledging power imbalances, it resists the diversity needed to enable resilience.

A resistance to welcoming and accommodating non-expert or outsider perspectives was present in both gatherings in explicit and subtle ways. It manifested as a resistance to talk to each other and invite the outsider in. In both cases, there was a yellow backpack in the room, sitting there, waiting to be unpacked, waiting for its mysterious contents to be revealed and examined. And for the people who gather round to invent their way forward in the mutuality of community.


In your experience, what enables community to welcome and explore the outsider? 


ps – so far, I am resisting the urge to acquire a yellow backpack as I already have too many backpacks…


Recent and related posts

  • The unspoken – a poem on the question of what to do when you find yourself holding the unspoken.
  • Colonial blind spot – People of European lineage – if we are not accepting our story of attempted cultural genocide, we are causing harm. We are propagating the bliss of ignorance.
  • Care out in the open – Care needs to be out in the open or it isn’t happening. To care out in the open means I am willing to be changed by what I hear.
  • Harm happens, intended or not – A welcoming city examines how it defends itself from change, how it maintains the status quo by denying that others are harmed.
  • A welcoming city has transportation choices – All people, regardless of their chosen mode of transportation, exhibit care and look out for each other. That’s how it works: accommodation.

The unspoken

They were the unheard
holding the unspoken
the taboo
and they told you
so what do you do?

 

The unspoken
just because unspoken
does not leave the room
it remains unsaid
so what do you do?

 

What do you do
with what is both
known and unknown
not wanted
and wanted?

 

Do you sit with it
withhold it
leaving the shadow
a glimpse of light
in the shadows?

 

Do you speak it
daring to light
a fire of possibility
that brings on the heat
of discomfort?

 

When is the unspoken
best left unsaid?
Is it a choosing
of discomfort
yours or the other?

 

And who gets to decide,
to choose the discomfort
in the end unknown
and unknowable
and who it will serve?

 

Who gets to decide
who remains comfortable
not knowing the discomfort of others
closed off to the shaking
mystery working us?

 

Those unspoken words
are (mysteriously)
yours and not yours
to be handled with care
as you decide how to share.

 

Is the readiness
you seek yours or theirs,
a seed for now or later?
A ‘see’ for now or later?
Who is ready for what?

 

Who is ready for what?
Is this yours to carry?

 


 

Colonial blind spot

2018 begins with a contemplation of the settler / colonizer story in me and my European cultural lineage on the Canadian Prairies. My understanding of this story and its implications has been growing over many years, most recently with a trip to Germany last fall. It was one of those trips where I realized I had to leave North America to see the story of European settlement in North America more clearly—the story of the changing nature of our nations, cities and communities and how power shows up.

I am of European descent (Norwegian, English and Irish), born in North America. My sense of home is in North America but by lineage I am indigenous to Europe, so time at a retreat center in Germany last fall came with this question:

What in Europe is indigenous to me?

Germany and Europe is the lineage of many who populated the Canadian Prairies and who I grew up with. Just over 100 years ago, my Norwegian forebears settled in New Norway, Alberta. My former husband’s forebears settled in Stockholm Saskatchewan. Settlers from Germany began arriving in Alberta in the early 1880s and came from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds and countries: Austria-Hungary, Switzerland, Russia, Russian Poland and Romania. By 1911, they were the largest group of non-British settlers in Alberta (Source: Collections Canada. More on German-speaking communities can be found at the University of Alberta, here.)

Many place names on the Canadian Prairies reflect settler’s homelands, such as New Norway and Stockholm. German place names in Alberta include:

  • Bismarck
  • Bruderheim
  • Carlstadt
  • Dusseldorf
  • Fribourg
  • Friedenstal
  • Gleichen
  • Gnadenthal
  • Greisbach
  • Hussar
  • Josephburg
  • Rosenheim
  • Rosenthal
  • Stettin
  • Swastika
  • Volmer
  • Wagner
  • Waldheim
  • Wiesenthal

This is a simple and phenomenal fact: my culture arrived from Europe—we settled here—to colonize North America. Another simple and phenomenal fact: there were people already here, a sophisticated and rich culture, indigenous to this land.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada recognizes this as part of a global occurrence:

The Age of Empire saw powerful European states gain control of other peoples’ lands throughout the world. It was an era of mass migration. Millions of Europeans came as colonial settlers to nearly every part of the world. Millions of Africans were transported across the Atlantic Ocean in the European-led slave trade, in which coastal Africans collaborated. Traders from India and China spread through out the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, bringing with them servants whose lives were little different from those slaves. The activities of explorers, farmers, prospectors, trading companies, or missionaries often set the stage for expansionary wars, the negotiation and the breaking of treaties, attempts at cultural assimilation, and the exploitation and marginalization of the original inhabitants of the colonized lands.

Source: Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 1 Origins to 1939, The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 1 (p. 9-10). Includes references to Howe, Stephen. Empire: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002 (p. 21, 22, 57).

The arrival of my European culture here was colonial. Two examples:

  • The founding of Hussar, a village east of Calgary, was settled by a group of German noblemen and reservists in 1913. They created the German-Canadian Farming Company Ltd. and bought lands from the Canadian Pacific Railway to establish colonization farms in the area (for more, see the Our Roots website).
  • The German-American Colonization Co. was founded in 1906 ​​​​​​​by John Steinbrecher to bring Germans from the US to Canada.  The company sold over 100,000 acres of farm land (1910), located 400 homesteads in the Stettler District in Alberta and developed subdivisions in Calgary (Source: Settlement history of “the Germans” in Calgary between ca. 1900 and 1914, University of Alberta.)

A few weeks ago I was gifted an 1846 map of Upper and Lower Canada. The title: British Possessions in North America. It is a map that reveals the initial city plans for Montreal and Quebec city, the division of land for townships, and remaining “Crown Land” and “Indian Territory”. The purpose of settlers–of whatever their descent–is to colonize the land; in 1846, or the early 1900s, it was to claim it for the British Crown.

As we Europeans arrived, we were part of Canada’s efforts to cause harm to Aboriginal people.

As we Europeans arrived, we were part of Canada’s efforts to cause harm to Aboriginal people.

The first words of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada:

For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal people to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can be best described as ‘cultural genocide’.

Physical genocide is the mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction of the group’s reproductive capacity. Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.

In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.

Source: Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 1 Origins to 1939, The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 1, (p. 3).​​​​​​​ 

I don’t like to think that I have caused others harm, yet I must acknowledge that I, and my European culture, have caused harm. My people were part of a wave of settler immigration to colonize Canada. This is my cultural lineage, and it is a lineage that belongs to European culture resident both in Europe and North America.

Commitment to not cause harm

I am a fourth generation settler in Treaty 6 Territory. I am part of the settler culture that colonized Canada generations ago, and in addition to this I enjoy privileges of being white. (I have a great-grandfather who stopped speaking Norwegian so his progeny could easily assimilate. He noticed that by speaking perfect English and being white, we would “fit in” with dominant society.)

In Canada, we settlers are growing into our understanding of what this means; we are just starting to reconcile how this changes our sense of personal identity. We have caused harm and will continue to cause harm if we are not able to respond (i.e. be response-able).

I arrived in Germany pondering Pema Chodron’s five precepts that form part of a commitment to not cause harm (Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change). My summary:

  1. On protecting life—awareness of ways to cultivate nonaggression and compassion, rather than cause suffering with the destruction of life.
  2. On respecting what belongs to others—awareness of ways to protect the ‘property’ of others, rather than take what is not offered.
  3. On not harming others with sexual energy—awareness of ways to nurture love and respect for all beings, rather than cause harm with unwanted sexual energy – to myself and others.
  4. On mindful speech—awareness of ways to speak truth, rather than gossip, slander, lies, idle speech, words that create division or hatred.
  5. On protecting body and mind—awareness of ways to be open to all beings and to life itself, rather than engage in things that diminish my inner strength and flexibility.

The legacy of residential schools in Canada is one of intergenerational trauma for Aboriginal peoples. There is another legacy for settlers to live into; I call it intergenerational responsibility. I can take responsibility–on behalf of myself and those before me–for having caused harm and to work to not cause harm.

It takes courage to accept, without defense, that we did not protect life, that we took what was not offered, that we caused sexual harm, that we created hatred toward Aboriginal people, that we were closed to appreciating a way of life different to our own. It takes courage to accept that this is still happening.

It takes courage to accept, without defines, that we did not protect life, that we took what was not offered, what we caused sexual harm, that we created hatred toward Aboriginal people, that we were closed to appreciating a way of life different to our own. It takes courage to accept that that is still happening.

A first step for colonizers: assume a stance of intergenerational responsibility.

Intergenerational responsibility 

My trip to Germany involved several days at a retreat center with a group of mostly Europeans, either resident in Europe or of European descent (a few of us from Canada and the US). The retreat posed a challenge to me when we started our time together with a Lakota sweat lodge ceremony.

The authenticity appeared clean to me, with the local German hosts having spent decades learning the ceremony with the Lakota people from North America—with this I have no quarrel. (This was not an example of Winnitou-like German fascination with North American Indians). It took me a while to figure out what was bothering me, careful not to step in and speak on behalf of anyone, in particular not on behalf of North American Aboriginal people who are fully capable of speaking for themselves.

What I figured out was this: there was a lack of reciprocity in this sacred exchange.

The offer of a cultural ceremony from another culture is a sacred exchange that demands some form of reciprocity; in this case, this exchange must include acknowledgement of the efforts we, as Europeans, made to eradicate that very culture. This would have involved naming what we Europeans have taken that is not ours to take. We:

  • Took land
  • Took art
  • Took sacred practices
  • Took language
  • Took children from families
  • Took hair off children
  • Took lives of children
  • Took culture

Without acknowledgement of what we have taken, we continue to take.

I’ve come to understand that when a gift is offered, the spirit in which it is received and shared matters. My German hosts do not live in Canada, where Truth and Reconciliation is beginning to run in our veins. They are not aware of the harm caused to North American Aboriginal people by us, Europeans. As a result, the ceremony was offered without acknowledgement of harm, which meant the ceremony was received, by participants, without knowing that their very culture organized itself and went to great lengths to eradicate Aboriginal culture in North America.

Participation in such a ceremony comes with an obligation to understand that our European culture attempted cultural genocide.

Participation in such a ceremony comes with an obligation to understand that our European culture attempted cultural genocide.

I write as a European-settler, making an observation about the historic relationship between Europe and North America that is still present today, perhaps helping people of European lineage, residing both in Europe and North America, to see this story more clearly. We share the same lineage and the same colonial pattern regardless of which continent we now call home.

In the moment, at the retreat, I cobbled together some of these thoughts. It was difficult for people to hear, because, of course, we don’t like to hear that we have caused harm to others, but we need to be courageous enough to hear it. If we can’t hear it, then we won’t be receptive to reconciling ourselves with new truths that will change how we think about ourselves.

For some of my colleagues, this seemed like a crack they wanted to open. For others, a quick look and then a desire to look away. And for some, no desire to look at all. All of these responses are normal, for there is only so much rocking we can take.

The challenge we face is thinking we are looking when we are not. A blanket of love and fascination for the spiritual practices of Aboriginal people can serve as a defense: I love it, therefore I can not possibly be causing harm. As people of European lineage, if we are not accepting our story of attempted cultural genocide, we are causing harm. We are propagating the bliss of ignorance.  We are taking culture. Love comes with listening, whatever it takes, to the hardship we, ourselves, have caused.

As people of European lineage, if we are not accepting our story of attempted cultural genocide, we are causing harm. We are propagating the bliss of ignorance.  We are taking culture.

This matters because the consequences of our taking—the harm—continue. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has documented the legacy of this colonial relationship:

  • Overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in care
  • Educational and income gaps
  • Erosion of language and culture
  • Staggering health challenges for Aboriginal people
  • Overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in prison
  • Denial of justice
  • Overrepresentation of Aboriginal people among victims of crime

Harm continues.

Now is not a time to pretend that our love and affection for any practice or ceremony from another culture—as participants and as hosts—is enough. Now is a time to dig deeper to find what the use of the practice means, to find the sacred exchange and enter into that exchange.

Now is not a time to pretend that our love and affection for any practice or ceremony from another culture—as participants and as hosts—is enough. Now is a time to dig deeper to find what the use of the practice means, to find the sacred exchange and enter into that exchange.

We are a global culture, with colonial behaviour and residue everywhere. I embody European colonialism, even when I didn’t know it. I sense this: as I have lost track of my European lineage in Europe, Europeans have lost track of their colonial lineage in North America and around the globe.

There is much to heal when it comes to colonial and indigenous facets of humanity, and healing will only take place if we, of colonial bent, are:

  1. Ready to hear about harm
  2. Receptive to a shaken sense of identity
  3. Willing to step into a relationship of reciprocity

And along the way, we must strive to notice what we take, large or small, particularly when the culture we are potentially taking from is working to reclaim itself from us.

In my patch of the world, I recognize that I have a lot to learn with the Aboriginal people who welcomed my family to Treaty 6 territory four generations ago. Waves of newcomers arrive, all accommodated with unimaginable grace. A sacred exchange is underway, even if we don’t acknowledge it. We have a lot to reconcile.

A sacred exchange is underway, even if we don’t acknowledge it. We have a lot to reconcile.

RESOURCES

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Report
  • Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 1 Origins to 1939, The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 1.
  • Canada’s Residential Schools: The Legacy, The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 5, retrieved at on January 10, 2018.
National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation
Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21
German and Norwegian Immigration to Canada and Alberta

Self empowerment threatens

Self empowerment threatens the stories we have been telling ourselves for as long as we can remember. Whether its myself I’m empowering, or watching another reach into their own empowerment, my life is changing. My choice:

  • be upset, feel threatened, find ways to thwart the coming change
  • be supportive, feel excitement, find ways to nuture the coming change

The choice is, in the end, about fighting or allowing.

The choice is, in the end, about fighting or allowing. 

In my last post, Beware listening through stories, I describe two ways people showed up for me while I was going through a tough time. Simply put: they listened through their stories and grief and were unable to support me, or they put their stories aside and listened and encouraged me in my own story. The former was about fighting threats to their view of the world; the latter was about creating the conditions to help me find my way. (Both are reasonable responses, yet as the receiver, only the latter feels like love and care.)

At Donald Trump’s inauguration in January there was great talk of a wall. At that same time, I was making my own wall to protect myself in a difficult time. I needed to figure out what my boundaries were. Here’s what it looked like in my journal:

I came to the realization that I am not going to stop doing what I need to do to be me, to grow into who I am growing into. On my side of the wall, at the end of a 21 year marriage, it meant looking after myself in a whole new way. (I know, this begs description and this will come.) What it meant was self-empowerment.

I am not going to stop doing what I need to be doing to be me, to grow into who I am growing into. 

On the other side of the wall was upset. What came my way was advice, fury, sadness, directions, and explanations — and a need for explanation. I imagine what was brewing for many behind the scenes: confusion, envy, anger and grief. When I am low, however, support does not come in their reactions to my reality, despite their best intentions. Others’ advice, fury, sadness, directions and need for me to explain what happened are about them and their journey, not me and mine. Hence: a wall.

Others’ advice, fury, sadness, directions and need for me to explain what happened are about them and their journey, not me and mine. Hence: a wall. 

Travel through the wall is two-way. When fragile, I stay on my side and raise the ramparts for those stuck in their story and their projections, unable to support me when I need it. Those able to walk alongside me, to care for me and my story, come through. This is moment by moment boundary setting to ensure that when I feel fragile, my needs come first.

When I feel strong enough I travel through the wall into other people’s stories, to walk alongside them without my story. To support them in their own awareness and self empowerment. I do this when the following conditions are in place:

  1. I am open, able to release my story
  2. The other is self-aware, knows that their story is their story
  3. The other is open to exploring the tension they experience in their story, what is going on for them
  4. There is love, care and safety for us

I realize now that what I have made for myself is perhaps more of  a cocoon of sorts, than a wall. It’s a safe place where I become more me, to prepare to be more me out in the world. Inside the cocoon I am not necessarily alone; there are people who join me and support me in my journey. Those that are able to travel with me join me. I leave the cocoon more frequently now, I go back and forth, stronger and more able to leave the parts of my story behind – not forgotten – to join others in their journey.

It seems the cocoon is not a one-time place and time for transformation, but one I can carry with me and make for myself whenever I need it. It is the boundaries I set for myself and the interactions I have with people, and the discernment about when I am able to be with them in their story out in the world and my expectations of people I invite into my cocoon, my side of the wall. I imagined the wall as permeable and so too is the cocoon. In addition, the cocoon is not a one-time event; I conjure it when I need it because change is not a one-time event. (I like my friend Michael’s take on change: think of it not as a noun, but as a verb.)

We all have the same choice, whether the change comes from within or without: resist our transformation or allow it. 

Self-empowerment is threatening to our sense of self and others’ sense of self. People will go to great lengths to keep us we were, and we will go to great lengths to keep them as they were. We all have the same choice, whether the coming change comes from within or without: resist our transformation or allow it.

As you become more you, what boundaries do you put in place to support your own empowerment?


 

The world is wide enough

The stories we tell ourselves shape our lives and the world around us. When we are closed to learning more about ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves knock us about and take us wherever they want to take us. If open to learning about ourselves, we see that the stories we tell ourselves are stories we choose, whether consciously or unconsciously.

If open to learning about ourselves, we see that the stories we tell ourselves are stories we choose. 

Continue reading The world is wide enough

Say no to this

Staying true to who I am — and figuring out who I am — means choosing what to say yes to and what to say no to. My choices shape everything.

Alexander Hamilton, protagonist in the Broadway hit Hamilton (and founding father of the United States), finds himself in a tricky situation:

I hadn’t slept in a week.

I was weak, I was awake.

You’ve never seen a bastard orphan

More in need of a break.

Longing for Angelica.

Missing my wife.

That’s when Miss Maria Reynolds walked into my life…

And he slept with her, over and over, when he knew he should “say no to this”:

I wish I could say that was the last time.

I said that the last time. It became as pastime. 

A month into this endeavour I received a letter

From a Mr. James Reynolds, even better…

And so the blackmail begins and eventually the truth must come out. When accused of embezzling government funds he has to come clean to Jefferson, Madison and Burr:

She courted me. 

Excorted me to bed and when she had me in a corner 

That’s when Reynolds extorted me

For a sordid fee. 

I paid him quarterly.

I may have mortally wounded my prospects but my papers are orderly!

Jefferson and Madison are clear: “The people won’t know what we know.” His confidence will not be betrayed. Burr teases him: “Alexander, rumors only grow. And we both know what we know.”

Yet Hamilton makes the decision to sabotage his dream of being president of the United states–he comes clean and writes the Reynolds Pamphlet, making his torrid affair explicit. He destroys his dream, his wife and his mistress. And, of course, Jefferson, Madison and Burr celebrate:

He’s never gon’ be present now.

Never gon’ be president now.

That’s one less thing to worry about…

And they are stunned:

Did you ever see somebody ruin their own life?

I, too, am stunned, by the contrast in his behaviour: this inability to say no to Maria Reynolds and his ability to say yes to coming clean. And he comes clean not only with his rivals Jefferson, Madison and Burr (and their gentlemen’s agreement to keep it secret), but he makes the whole affair public.

He couldn’t say no — and it reshaped everything. And then he said yes — and that reshaped everything. What we say yes to and no to shapes our personal and professional lives, and the endless intertwining of our personal and professional lives

I’ve said yes to figuring out what compels me to dig into Hamilton over and over again. I’ve said yes to writing about it to see the possibilities for my work and life. This time, I receive the gift of noticing what I say yes to, and what I say no to. It shines a light on the choices I make that make me the kind of person I am. I am of my own making.

Thank you, Lin-Manuel Miranda.


What did you say no to that changed your life?  


This is the third post in a series that touch on the Broadway hit Hamilton. It started with Room where it happens, followed by Stay in it.

Room where it happens

I found myself in the company of people a couple weeks ago who completely understand and respect others’ needs to set limits and boundaries for themselves, so we can enable each other to show up well. In the language of The Circle Way, this is the “ask for what you need” agreement. In reflection, I have learned that I am not always quick enough to realize what I need, let alone ask for it. I didn’t.

Here’s what happened. We circled up for a board meeting for a few days and we had a lot on our agenda so we met for long, full days. On day one, I got up early to maintain my morning practice of writing and walking. On day two I was feeling under the weather, so I chose to sleep in the morning. Still under the weather on day three I chose to sleep. My ability to function and contribute lessened and lessened with each day both because of not feeling well, but also because I did not give myself the things that nourish me every day: time to exercise and fresh air and time alone to write and read.

Over the last several years I have become more introverted; I need more time alone to figure out what I think and feel about things. A day full of other people (including mornings and evenings), let alone several days, is a challenge to my inner well-being. I need time alone to look after my introvert so I can be my best self, for me and others. Without this time my energy stores deplete and my ability to be my best self declines.

I need time alone to look after my introvert so I can be my best self, for me and others. 

Last week I didn’t take the initiative to make more time for myself, or to ask for our work schedule to change to allow more spaciousness. This opportunity to reflect has allowed me to see two underlying ideas.

First idea: I want to be in the room where it happens. Just like Aaron Burr in the Broadway hit Hamilton, I want to be there when great stuff happens. I don’t want to miss out on anything and I want to be a part of everything. If something neat is happening, I want to be a part of it.

Second idea: my needs are not as important as others’ needs. In my drive to be in the room where it happens, I fear rocking the boat, or letting other people down by either proposing something preposterous, or by simply not being available when needed.

Our meeting was productive and meaningful. It was a challenging time for us and we met each other well and yet I feel that for me, and how I show up for myself, there is room for improvement. How can I spend days with others, from dawn into the evening, in ways that maintain or even increase my energy stores?

Two contrasting shapes of how to spend three days together come to mind:

All together all the time
All together all the time
Meet the needs of the work and people who do the work
Meet the needs of the work and people who do the work

Here are five simple ideas about organizing full days of meeting:

  1. Understand the purpose of the gathering at all scales: the reason to gather, the intention for each day and each chunk of time in each day.
  2. Identify expectations and outcomes for the gathering that include both the tasks of the work and needs of the people to do that work. What kind of spaciousness is needed for what purpose?
  3. Start a bit later than usual to allow for the spaciousness of life in the morning (checking email or social media, exercise or meditation).
  4. Decide what works best for lunch and supper breaks. Is it a short break so the day can end early? Is it a longer break for spaciousness? Is the spaciousness needed before the meal or after? Are we sitting down together or can individuals go off on their own to eat?
  5. Designate chunks of time for the whole group to meet. When does everyone need to be together? When can people work on their own schedule? Remember: the days do not have to be the same.

Unscheduled time in our lives helps us do our work. Over a few days of meeting, it is essential to find play time both with others and alone. It helps a group be its best self. When we look away from the tasks at hand, for a moment even, we can see what needs to be done more clearly.

Unscheduled time in our lives helps us do our work.

In my case, I learned that I need to let go of the need to be in the room where it happens and give myself space to discern which room I want to be in. Further, I need to make room for the work to work me, for this is how I find my way, how I figure out what and how to contribute to the world around me.

Asking for what I need is about enabling myself to be me.

How do you make room for you to be you, for “it” to happen?


 

Do the work that is yours to do

Finding work that feels right is both complicated and simple. It is complicated because it can be hard to find. It’s complicated to figure out what we want to do for our work, and then complicated to find the right job, one that suits us and our aspirations. It feels simple when we’ve found it, when we look back and can see it was clear all along, even when we weren’t looking.

For a few years now I’ve been exploring what our work means in our cities and I’ve landed on the understanding that our work is the force that generates cities. Our work matters to our cities because it creates them; it shapes our economic life, our social habitats and our physical habitats.

We are each meant to contribute to our cities through our work. But what is the work we are each meant to contribute? How do we know if we are doing the work we are meant to do? I’ve noticed two things that help me notice if the work I am doing is truly mine to do.

First, work that depletes me is not my work to do.  Even if I am good at that work, if it takes energy from me it is time to let it go. It is the work that gives me energy that is the right work to do. This is a simple and staggering realization. It is the work that fuels me that is worthy of being done by me.

If your work depletes you it is not your work to do. (Choose work that fuels your being.)

Second, work done from a place of panic and urgency is from a place of fear and mistrust. There are times when urgency is necessary, when lives are threatened or harm to others is immanent. For most of us this is not the case, yet we behave as if it were. Many of us do work that we believe will not be done if we don’t do it. The opposite would be to trust that with others, all the work that needs to be done will be covered.

Do the work that is yours to do and trust that, with others, all the work that needs to be done will be done.  

All the work that needs to be done in the world can not be done by any of us alone. Moreover, we all have different skills and interests, and we have different passions and purposes to pursue in our work. If we trust in this, we make room for ourselves to take very unselfish action and do the work that is authentically ours to do. In doing this, we make the world a better place.

There is a voice inside each of us that tells us about the work we are meant to do. It is in the classes we loved in school. It is in the games we love(d) to play. It is in our hobbies. It is in the things that thrill us. Our duty is not to do the things that someone else says we ought to do, but in figuring out the work we are meant to do.

I am convinced of this: the essence of who we are as mall children gets obscured as we age. The journey of work is to find the lost parts of ourselves and stitch them into the lives we live. This might take years or decades, even a lifetime, yet the time it takes is not a reflection of our worth. The value is in noticing we are on a journey.

At 46 years old I recognize that my own journey unfolds in stages; just when I think I know who I am an the work I am to be doing a wrinkle comes along to nudge (or knock) me into the next stage of my journey. I can feel, though often in ways I can not articulate with words, the direction in which I am moving.

Now as I look at my life story I wonder at how I missed some of the clues, though I recognize that there was no other journey for me to take. I now pay more attention and I can better see the hints and synchronicities that feel like my soul sends to me about where I’m going and the work that’s mine to do. When I pay attention it’s far simpler.

What is the work that is yours to do? 

How do you know that work is yours to do? 

_____

Numbed + augmented reality

The last few weeks have been startling. Shootings. Killings. A rogue truck in a crowd, intent to kill. Murder of a small child and her father. Racism. Hatred. And a political campaigns in the United States that feel like they either fuel hatred or somehow pretend that it is all going to be ok. I am sensitive to the fact that whatever happens anywhere affects everywhere.

I’m worried about things and yet I find a way to trust that all that is happening is to teach us about ourselves. It is in us to be mean–and good. It is in us to be full of hatred–and love. It is in us to be numb–and pay attention.

What is happening in the world right now is a reminder that if asleep or distracted we miss out on what our choices are, which is in itself a choice. We may well be–collectively–in a place where a jolt is exactly what we need so we pay attention to the world we are creating for ourselves.

When not paying attention we may find ourselves exercising hatred. We may find ourselves oblivious to others’ hatred. We may find ourselves condoning hatred. This can happen at any scale–in myself and my family, in my workplace or neighbourhood, in my city, in my country and across the planet. But it all comes down to me and how I choose to show up.

It all comes down to me and how I choose to show up. 

From time to time, I find myself playing a game on my phone, dragged into a place where time no longer matters and I return to my life drained and deadened. I have no idea what’s going on around me. For a while it felt good, but when I come out I am completely disconnected, numbed. Writ large, I see this as Pokemon Go. It can be fun and healthy, or it can be a dangerous distraction from reality–not augmented reality at all. It can get people out getting exercise and meeting each other AND it has the potential to lure them–and all of us–off a cliff, to death. Maybe it is augmented reality in that it demonstrates the lengths we will go to ignore the world around us.

We need distractions that are healthy, that allow us to take in what we need to take in without destroying ourselves by seeing too much. When we each pay attention to what we are called to pay attention to we can find a place of trust where collectively we pay attention to everything. “Distractions” like Facebook can be constructive ways to let each other know what we are paying attention to, or what we are not paying attention to, in that it allows us to see a hint of where our collective attention is placed.

It is not possible for all of us to pay attention to everything. There is too much to pay attention to and we have limits to how much we can take in without harming ourselves. As citizens we each have a responsibility to explore what we care about, to pay attention to what has our attention. I don’t have to pay attention to everything, and neither do you. That’s not how this works. What you do have to notice is what wants to be noticed–by you. That’s what you pay attention to.

I don’t have to pay attention to everything, and neither do you. That’s not how this works. What you do have to do is notice what wants to be noticed–by you. 

I choose to notice and witness the world around me. I step in in ways that are true to my heart, and in doing this I play my part. I numb myself from time to time, but mostly I choose to look at the things that upset and scare me so I can learn about myself and so I can learn about the world around me. Often, there is nothing for me to do but simply watch and witness, without turning away. It might look like I pretend everything is ok, but that’s not what’s happening. I carry make my way by looking for what I care about and contributing there.  

notice what you notice

I’ve also recognized this: if I tune into everything, I can’t tune into the things that matter most to me. and then I can’t do the work I want to be doing. So there’s a fine balance here. It is different for each of us, too. We are not all the same. What is too much for me is insufficient for others, and what is insufficient for me is too much for others.

What do you tune into?

What has your attention that you can’t turn away from?

_____