Authenticity, Awakening, gratitude, Women's Work

On how I found a way forward by honoring my ancestors

I am the eldest daughter, of the eldest daughter, of the eldest daughter of another eldest daughter.

And so it may not surprise you to learn that I am the keeper of both my maternal and paternal families’ past, keeper of the keepsakes, the objects that mean “family,” “tradition” and “memory” and even “love” have mostly all passed to me.

I have not always wanted or appreciated these items or the task of “keeping” them.

The responsibility of continuity, the weight of time, I didn’t want it.  So I pretended for many years that it didn’t matter, my long, winding Scottish/Welsh/Irish ancestry was not important, the family I was born into was irrelevant. I wanted to be modern, to look forward, to shed the outmoded traditions of the past.

In my desire to walk my path unencumbered by the weight of so many people, old ideas, old outmoded expectations, judgments, and memories – I forgot that there was love and strength flowing to me.

I forgot to be humble and honor the great trust that was being handed to me, I forgot what it meant to be the eldest daughter of the eldest daughter.

Over the years I packed up these items and the stories that went with them – stories of war and love, hardship and loss, and joy. I stored them safely away, agreed to hand them down to the next generation – perhaps unused, unappreciated, by me. Never brought into the light, the flame of memory, of love and continuity.

But I see things differently now.

The strength in the bone and love in the blood of this lineage, my lineage, it matters.

It deserves so much more than my offhand acknowledgment, my casual care.

And so does yours, your lineage matters…because you are here now, singing its future into being, it matters.

“When you proceed on your course, never forget you are not alone. You have friends and family, but you also have your ancestors. Your ancestors sing in your blood. Call to them. Their strength through the ages will come into you.” Patti Smith

I have called upon the deep ancestries of others, I have cherished and practiced the traditions of other tribes and I have found there profound healing and grounding and I have felt rise up in me a loving connection to this land I call home, the forests and fields and hills of the sweet piece of earth I live on now.

But the question was asked: what about your own ancestors?

Are they not the medicine of your bones, is your own being not also rooted in the long line of people from which you spring?

All the ones who came before you in order for you to exist now, as Shona.

Do not dwell only in the borrowed wisdom of another family, dwell also in the sacred ground of your own blood and bone.

And from that moment on, I was able – for the first time – to truly see and cherish my own ancestors. I was willing to root down in to the truth and the customs and the love that was theirs.

I can hear them singing in my veins now…they have suddenly come alive in me. The flame of love and gratitude and reverence has been lit.

What is the story you hold in your being that longs to be told?

Can you let yourself be the bridge, the arc, that binds the past to the present and the light of an unknown future?

Can you, through your own healing, through your own understanding of who you truly are, light the way for all those who came before you and for all those still to come?

Can you call on them in times of need, find yourself and your way forward by resting into the arms of the ancestors who carried you here?

I know now, that to find my way forward, I will need to sing the song of the earth – who is mother to us all, our most ancient ancestor, the song in my very body that is my ancestral past, and the song in my heart that is mine alone to sing, and is the future of my lineage.

We all hold that sacred, fragile and potent potential within us.

I am the eldest daughter, of the eldest daughter, of the eldest daughter of another eldest daughter… it is a burden I take up willingly now and with joy. It has become a privilege.

Blood of my blood and bone of my bone, deep river, bounding deer, black earth and ancient rock…bring us all together in all our divine diversity to live again in love…bring us back to the love that carries us forward forever.

xo Shona

 

 

Authenticity, Awakening, courage, Joy, Mindfulness and Meditation, Women's Work

My struggle to be grateful and how it changed my life

Six years ago, as I was preparing to leave my corporate job and struggling to figure out how and when and why it was all going to work out, I was moved to rekindle my life- long love affair with meditation.

In my struggle to have it all, and do it all (you probably know this story: I tried to work full time at a demanding corporate job, commute into the city, enroll the girls in every evening activity going, and have the perfect home and the perfect outfit) I had become so detached from who I really was and what I really wanted that I felt almost numb.

I knew that one of the easiest ways to reconnect with myself was through the peace and presence of meditation and that when beginning a meditation practice, one of the best ways in is through cultivating genuine gratitude.  I knew that living in gratitude would open my heart and guide my thoughts through the challenges that lay ahead.

What I had not anticipated was how difficult it was going to be for me to feel grateful…for anything.

So, faced with a troubled marriage, mounting debt, numbing depression and a career crisis (so let’s say it felt like my life was literally teetering on the edge of destruction) I sat and tried to connect with what I was grateful for. And it was so unexpectedly hard.  For so long I had allowed myself to focus on what was wrong: wrong with the house, with my husband, with my children, with their school, with the town I lived in, with my work, with the car, with my life, with everything.

I had allowed myself to get into the habit of looking for flaws, and so my life was always full of problems and nothing was ever good enough just as it was.

I rarely experienced the joy of just resting in the life I had built and embracing it with all it’s beauty and cracks.   I can only guess how difficult I must have been to live with at this time, for I can certainly see now how miserable I was making myself and probably everyone around me in my carefully honed pursuit of all that was not just so.

As I sat on my meditation cushion, sometimes with tears streaming down my face, wondering how in the world I had gotten so off course, I kept reaching for gratitude, because I was determined that I was not going to live this way any longer.

I started with things that seemed obvious, but which I unquestionably took for granted. I started with simply being grateful that I had a place to call home.  That my children were healthy.  That we had great neighbors and lived in a safe community. That I had clean water to drink…and coffee.  These are things we can so easily take for granted, but for many they are luxuries to aspire to.

And I kept listing and repeating in my meditations: “I am grateful for this…I am grateful for that….”  And it took a long time, literally weeks, to actually feel what I could identify as genuine gratitude.  I had really gone to the dark side.

I could list the things I was grateful for but it wasn’t reaching my heart.

In truth, for a long time my meditations went like this: “I am grateful for my home…but it needs new flooring and the front door needs painted and my husband hasn’t fixed the railing on the porch yet and here’s another thing about him that frustrates me…”  Yes — it was ugly. But still, I was not willing to live in my self-created darkness anymore.  Only I could dig myself out of this hole.

So I would replace my thoughts with: “I am grateful for my home, with it’s big windows to let in the sun, with it’s old turn of the century charm, which was restored and renovated by my husband, who worked hard at it and did a good job, and I am grateful for that too.”

And then finally, after weeks, probably months, of working at it, I started to feel the energy of gratitude in my body.  It was a gentle hum.  It finally reached my heart and opened it to all the beauty in my life.  Gratitude slowly lifted me out of the black hole I was in, it loosened the crushing grip of my negative thoughts.

Finally, it was gratitude that gave me the power, the light, and the inspiration to find my way forward.

To realize I already had so much in my life that was so good, and I wanted to cherish every single bit of it.

I tell this story in the hope that it may inspire you, if you are in a dark place, to reach for gratitude.  And also to remind myself of the strength and courage it takes to change – to change our thoughts, to change long-standing habits that no longer (or perhaps never) served us, to change our lives.  And to assert that no matter how long you’ve traveled in the wrong direction, you can always turn around.

With gratitude,

Xo Shona

Authenticity, Awakening, courage, Joy, Mindfulness and Meditation, Mystery and Magic, Women's Work

Standing up to who you are not

I recently made a trip to Germany, a place I had long yearned to visit.  Shortly after I returned, a client asked me if I’d had a significant spiritual experience there, since I’d had such a strong calling to visit that country.

And so I thought about what my answer to her question might be, and I realized that while there were moments in Germany that were truly amazing and awe-inspiring and fun, what was most profound and provided me with the greatest context for growth were the experiences I had relating to the friend I was travelling with.

Over the years I have noticed that my ability to be true to myself is forged through the pressure from other people to be the opposite of who I really am.

In ways both subtle and blatant, friends and family have tried to mold my behaviour and choices, and even outlined what work or career path I am best suited for, usually out of a sense of love or knowing what will be “best for me.”

They have often encouraged me to abandon my innate gifts and adopt highly rational, sensible, and systematic ways of doing things.  While I certainly can be rational and analytical and systematic, it brings me little joy.

The contemplation and eventual pursuit of some of their options always eventually created a feeling of deep sadness and restlessness in my heart.

I have several close friends who are accountants, including the friend I traveled with through Germany.  To be clear, I have nothing but respect for the work that accountants do, theirs is a skill set I lack but I absolutely appreciate how their talents help the world to run. So it will come as no surprise when I tell you that our styles of travelling were different.

Weeks before we left, she made a spreadsheet with dates, times, hotels, bus and train options, and all the costs.  The arrival of this spreadsheet in my inbox nearly paralyzed me.   Over-planning (and I can sometimes be guilty of thinking that ANY planning is over-planning) is something that can bleed the joy and spontaneity out of life, and certainly out of a trip.

We were (for the most part) able to talk and laugh our way through her spreadsheet, ensuring that she had enough planning done for her to feel confident, and that there was enough unplanned time for me to feel that we could live in the moment while visiting Germany.

This was one of the first hurdles conquered, as I am often guilty of staying silent and slowly allowing myself to get frustrated in situations like this.  We were able to see right away how we were different, and as it turns out, we traveled really well together, and we were eventually able to appreciate what the other brought to the table.

And so part of my insight was in seeing first hand and appreciating the times when planning really did make our trip better.  My friend was an expert at using her phone to find excellent restaurants (every time!) and to navigate the rail system.  We hit all the places we wanted to see, and I know we may have got no further than the airport in Frankfurt if it hadn’t been for her.

At the same time, when things didn’t go to plan, I was able to problem solve on the fly, without my phone, using a sense of direction to help us find our hotel, connecting with people who “I just had a feeling” wanted to help us when our train was cancelled.

But at times I struggled yet again with where I fit into a world that values and applauds the plan, the rational, the system, the map, the strategy, the schedule, the app, the efficiency.

Often in my life I have felt that what I bring to the table is lost, or not valued:  the improvisation, the spontaneity, the sitting quietly in trust knowing that the answer will reveal itself.  The joy of the big, wide, open unplanned path and feeling your way along it.  Knowing the journey through Germany and through life is going to take on a life of it’s own, if we let it.

That there has to be room for uncertainty in order for there to be room for joy. 

I have to appreciate who I am first, before anyone else can.

And then, right there in Germany, I realized, re-learned, remembered again, in the face of a force asking me to be something I’m not — that these are qualities that I have to appreciate and value in myself first.

And that the appreciation has to go both ways.  I can and do adopt some of the strategies that planners use in order to reach my goals and achieve my dreams, but I am learning to adopt these qualities as needed to support me in the pursuit of the work I love.  Like the subtle dance between my travelling companion and I to achieve a wonderful journey together, I know that the balance and appreciation for both the heart and the mind, for the intuitive insight and the spreadsheet, is key.

And my friend, who knows herself well, told me this: she could plan it all out and still hesitate, still not jump into action, out of fear of missing a detail or that something could go wrong.  I was the one who helped her jump, she said, who helped her trust in the moment and know that things would work out if we just took the first step.

And that little insight lit me up.

How I learn to define and remain true to myself has been through relationships with others who urge me to be the opposite.

This has certainly been an ongoing pattern in my life. And while I could feel frustrated and angry with the people I thought were trying to thwart my true expression, they were actually gifts.

They helped me to hone and define exactly what is important and exactly who I am by identifying who I am not, and for them I am eternally grateful.

XO Shona

Animals and Nature, Authenticity, Awakening, courage, Joy, Women's Work

Life in the driver’s seat on the road to happiness.

Last week as I was rifling through an old handbag, I came across a tiny yellow plastic giraffe.  I smiled, as this giraffe immediately transported me back to a conversation I had with my friend, Roland, several years ago, when I was still commuting to my corporate job in downtown Toronto.

Roland and I had agreed to meet after work and when we ordered drinks, they both came with a small, plastic giraffe on the edge of the glass.  My giraffe was pink and it was cracked, almost broken in half, barely hanging on, much like myself at that time.  His was yellow and whole, and seeing that mine was broken he gave me his, stating “I think this one is meant for you.”

When I look back on this period in my life, I can see that I was deeply unhappy.

For whatever reason, I felt trapped in a job that was not satisfying, and I was commuting three hours everyday to get to and from that unsatisfying job.  The work and the commute were taking their toll on me and on my family.  I had so little time to spend with my young daughters. I had no time or energy left for my husband, who was facing his own challenges that I wasn’t even aware of.  Our marriage was in trouble.  I was in despair.

This wasn’t the life I had wanted.

I kept asking myself “how did I get here?” and “how do I get out of here?” I didn’t know how or where to begin to move towards something better, or even what “better” might look like. It was as if I had closed my eyes, or put blinders on, and had no vision for my life other than getting through the next commute, work week or month until my next vacation.

Although Roland knew only a fraction of what was going on in my life, he must have seen my misery, for he shared with me, with a kind of divine clarity, two very important things.

The Importance of Accepting What Is

First, in what initially seemed like a random conversation, he told me what his daily morning ritual was.  That when he wakes up every morning, he sits still and looks around and acknowledges everything he can see in his room or apartment.

He told me “I acknowledge everything I have and everything I get to do in my work and personal life.  And I acknowledge everything I am feeling, from gratitude to frustration, all of it.  Because I am responsible for all of it – good and bad.  These things are in my life because of decisions I have made.  I am grateful for all that I have and I accept responsibility for my life, everyday.  And if there is something happening in my life that I don’t like, then I begin by accepting that it’s there, that it’s in my life just as it is.  And only then, when I have accepted it completely, can I begin to change it.”

I was immediately captivated by what he was telling me.  I am sure I sat open mouthed as he went on, feeling like a stone had been thrown into the deep well of my psyche, an inner knowing inside me rippling out to greet the truth of his words. Roland had just handed me a gift, not just a plastic giraffe but a truth I had not thought to seek in a rooftop Milestones in Toronto.

Knowing You’re in the Driver’s Seat

And there was more.  Next, he looked into my eyes and said: You are in the driver’s seat of your life, Shona. Or if you prefer a different analogy, you are writing your own story.  If you can accept that the situation you are in is of your own making (based on conscious and unconscious decisions with both intended and clearly unintended outcomes) then you can accept that only YOU can find a way out of it…by making different choices.   Only you can determine what road you’re going to travel down from here. You are driving this bus.  You can write a new story.  One where you are happy.

And so, clutching my untouched drink with it’s broken pink giraffe, I had an epiphany.  And nothing was the same for me after that moment.
I opened my eyes.
I  began to wake up and see that only by accepting the predicament I was in, and my role in creating it, could I claw my way out of it.

As it turned out, there was a lot of work ahead of me, clarifying what mattered, and what I was willing to give up in order to have what mattered.  And even though some decisions were very, very hard, I reveled in the fact that they were my decisions to make.

I put my hands on the wheel, threw the bus into drive, and took an exit for a road I hadn’t traveled down before.

“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”
Mae West

I slowly made choices that were better for me and my family.  Although I took a massive pay cut, I found a job closer to home. In fact, I was able to walk my girls down our street and put them on the school bus and then continue walking to work!  For the first few months, I felt like I was on vacation, so much time had opened up in my life.

I won’t lie and tell you that adjusting to a reduced income was easy because often it was very challenging, partly because I didn’t really know how to prepare for it. What always brought me back from the brink of taking my hands off the wheel was remembering that now I had what mattered: time and energy for my children, time to talk with my husband, time to clean my own home and really appreciate it (now that the cleaning lady was gone) and time to think and dream and find myself again.  Time to have a vision for my life that was more than just surviving it.

I showed up for my drink with Roland all those years ago feeling buffeted by life’s circumstances, that life was happening to me and that I was at the mercy of forces beyond my control. But the reverse is true.  We are only trapped if we say we are.

Every day we can choose to create a different life.

We have the power, we really do.  I am not naïve, I know that dark times come to us all, and that hard, unwanted circumstances arrive on our door, sometimes without warning.  What you do in those moments though, what you choose to do in all the moments, is what matters. And while the reality of knowing you are in the driver’s seat is sometimes terrifying it is ultimately liberating.

I have carefully placed the yellow plastic giraffe on a shelf above the desk in my home office.  Giraffes, with their long necks, are creatures of remarkable vision who can see far, who can see all the paths across the savannahs. That giraffe marked the beginning of my awakening, when a wise friend planted in my heart a hope and in my mind a seed of possibility. He knew that the whole, yellow giraffe was for me, as a symbol of what my life could be if I had the courage to put myself in the driver’s seat and follow my vision of a better life.

xo Shona

“You are one decision away from a totally different life.”
— Mark Batterson

 

Authenticity, Awakening, Women's Work

How optimism is the antidote to positive thinking.

I remember as a child watching the 1962 movie The Miracle Worker, based on the true story of how Anne Sullivan was able to break through the young Helen Keller’s walls of silence and teach her to communicate.  While Anne Sullivan’s tenacity and love are clearly moving, this film actually sparked in me a life-long admiration for and fascination with Helen Keller.

Born in 1880 in Alabama, Helen Keller was rendered deaf and blind as an infant from what was likely scarlet fever. Thanks to Anne, Helen learned to communicate through sign language and eventually to read, to write and to speak.  We can only imagine how incredibly dark, confusing and lonely a place young Helen’s world was, until Anne Sullivan arrived on March 5th, 1887 – a day which Helen describes as “my soul’s birthday.” (theattic.space)

Helen Keller went on to become the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She gave talks and lectures all over the world, was the published author of a dozen books and an intellectual hero (certainly she’s my hero!) and one of the most celebrated women of the 20th century.

Who better to write about optimism than Helen Keller?

Long before our era of “positive thinking” and decades before any scientific evidence would appear on the health benefits of optimism, the remarkable Helen with love and grace was writing about optimism as a life philosophy.  “Her essay, simply entitled Optimism was originally published in 1903 and written – a moment of pause here – after Keller learned to write on a grooved board over a sheet of paper, using the grooves and the end of her index pencil to guide her writing.” (Maria Popova)

So I talk to my children about Helen Keller, the little girl imprisoned in silence and darkness whose actions and outlook show us all the way to the light.  And I focus on these two things:

1) How optimism will serve you better in life than positive thinking. Although not yet teenagers, my daughters have heard that it’s important to “think positive” and of course they struggle with this in the face of life’s day to day challenges – and don’t we all?  The plain fact is, that it’s simply impossible, and I would argue unhealthy, to be positive all the time.  In fact, in asking ourselves to be positive all the time, we often stuff down or gloss over the pain and reality of whatever we may be feeling – sadness, guilt, anger, frustration – they all have a place in our lives and are the emotions that help us to develop the skills to navigate the world as it is.

So often we leap into “raising our vibration,” into “fixing” a low feeling that we miss the opportunity that it presents.

Or, to put it more eloquently, in his poem The Guest House, Rumi explains:

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in…
Be grateful for whatever comes.
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.
Welcome difficulty.
Learn the alchemy
True Human Beings know:
The moment you accept
What trouble you’ve been given,
The door opens.

We have “pathologized the wisdom of the darker, lunar shades of the spectrum” says Matt Licata, we have labelled some of our emotions “bad” and “negative” to our peril.  And in our efforts to be always “up” and sunny and happy-happy we have forgotten the gift of hope – which can only be found in the darkness.  What do you need with hope if everything is always, already great?  To be optimistic is to have confident hope that things will get better, that it wont’ stay hard and dark, that things will change and shift and the sun will rise again.

Optimism: it’s what gets you through the hard, dark times which come to us all.

Few had to work harder or live through darker times than Helen Keller…and perhaps that’s why her light is so bright.

2. My children also know, that for me personally, Helen Keller is my talisman against crippling self-pity. Whenever I start to feel sorry for myself, I allow myself to be inspired by her story.  Quite simply, it gives me hope. If she could accomplish what she did in the face of so many challenges, then how can I possibly think the odds are stacked against me?  I can see, I can hear, I can talk, I have been well educated and I am well fed and comfortable.  All that’s missing is a disciplined mind and a different perspective.

There’s nothing stopping us from living purposeful, intentional, happy lives except ourselves, our limiting beliefs, and our negative self-talk.

Helen Keller knew this and proved this better than anyone I know. And before I am accused of using Helen Keller as a way to “think positive” I can assure you that like you, I have bright days and dark days, days when I am not so proud of myself, days when I weep in sheer frustration and days when frankly I have no idea what I’m doing.  I have been speaking with a gifted Jungian therapist for 15 years because I know I have to explore what makes me uncomfortable, I know that what Susan David asserts in her Ted Talk is true: “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”

I choose hope, for in the dark messy weeds of my issues lies the golden light of opportunity and redemption. 

Most days, I am more than willing to work hard at this because like Helen, I am not interested in a falsely positive life, I am interested in a real and meaningful one.

Helen’s ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in her life was a superpower. People who heard her speak reported that they felt lighter, even happier after being in her presence.  I can imagine the golden glow of optimism that must have fallen from her like gentle rain on her audience.  How hope, like honey in her veins, kept her going in the quiet, dark but undoubtedly full and happy world that was eventually hers. Against all odds, and indeed because of those odds, Helen Keller was able to bring us the grace and beauty of her optimism.

I often believe that this is what is needed, in a world that seems to be growing ever darker, where we seem to have lost our way, where you could turn to the dark and let it engulf you — can we instead look to the brilliant example of a woman unconquered by darkness, who by the light within her shows the way to the light through optimism.  This is not the endless call to pretend all is well or to give up in the face of pain, but to acknowledge the dark and keep going anyways…with optimism in our hearts, following the light of hope.

xo Shona