Coming Home--My Thrive Talk

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Mary Oliver

“The Journey”

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice --

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.  

"Mend my life!"

each voice cried.

But you didn't stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do --

determined to save

the only life that you could save.


I like to think of life transitions as the ultimate invitation. The call? To live more deeply. To be a bit more aware of our own fragility and strength. To practice compassion for ourselves and for others.  I have had many invitations. Have you? Death and loss. Marriage transitions. Parenting transitions. Starting a new career. Moves. Faith transitions. Some other potential invitations might be ending a career. Beginning college. Experiencing empty nest. Coping with physical or mental illness. Enduring debilitating pain. Divorce. Sometimes, I wish the invitations felt more...inviting! Regardless,  life transitions may offer us the potential of bringing us back to ourselves--to what we value, to how we love, to what we dream about, to how we choose to engage with the present moment. Our very humanness is inherently linked to how we navigate these changes in life.

Do you have a sense of who you were in your beginning? Before structures or expectations found their way into young head and heart? Do you have moments you remember where you felt entirely at peace with being you?

As a girl, I grew up on the East coast in Maryland. Outside my home, we had a good amount of trees. Enough to lose myself in. I can still see myself there. A young girl. Maybe 5. Wandering amidst trunk and branch, my arms outstretched to touch and feel every nub, crack, and rough patch, the dance of sunlight streaming through the umbrella of leaves overhead. There was a little stream that ran through it all. My brother and I would find our way to the water’s edge, take off our shoes. and immerse our feet into the muddy sludge of the creek bottom.  In retrospect, the forest was one of the first places I really felt fully relaxed in myself. I felt enough-- with no striving needed. I could just BE.

In addition, I have a memory of my dad--a consummate lover of water. I will always pair him with ocean waves, lakes, and our backyard pool. My dad would spend evenings swimming with my brother and I, long after the sun went down. The night sky spread out before us like a blanket. He would turn off the pool light and invite us to lay on our backs for a moment.  Our ears under the water so the world went silent. Our bodies felt so supported as we floated effortlessly. The stars seemed to emerge suddenly. They were the lights in the darkness that seemed to say--”You are not alone,” My connection with tree and bird and star and sky bonded me to myself and to those I shared these moments with. I loved the feeling of moving my body. The sensory experience of hearing the crush of leaves or feeling the pull of water. Perhaps inevitably, I left this girl in the woods for years. I was too busy hustling to connect much with myself. Too preoccupied with proving my worth. Amidst the noise and confusion of life, a cultural, religious, and familial structure stepped into my life that seemed to offer an enticing promise of stability and safety in exchange for freedom and self-discovery.  I inherently believed that I was not to be trusted. That my worth was negotiable. I needed to follow the plan. Fall in line. And I was reminded of this all through my life--in a myriad of ways.

Does this sound familiar to any of you?


Coming Home is a way of explaining the journey back to ourselves. It is fraught with pain, turmoil, renewal, loss, resilience, courage, uncertainty, and wonder.  For most of us, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. So we hardly FELT lost. We may have just felt tired or anxious or striving or numb or wrong or disconnected. Or we may have also felt strangely right and solid.


The past ten years have offered numerous life transitions and with those, a path that has led me back to myself. I have a list of five insights to share.  I offer them here tentatively, realizing that all of our stories look different. Know that I hold my story loosely--I vacillate between feeling empowered by my past and emboldened by the sense of identity it affords me-- and feeling a general distrust of any fixed perspective or story that entices me into a sense of knowingness. Life is undeniably uncertain.

1.  Structures will fall. This is a particular bummer for those of us who find an innate sense of comfort in order, or having a plan, or knowing what to expect. For me,

  • Religious structure was first to fall. Let’s call our structures towers. Let’s say they are made up of blocks. Each block represents a value. Throughout our church experience, our job was to listen and obey. Why?  The church not only supplies the value but also tells us what that value looks like in practice. We were socialized and taught where to put the values in our tower. Is it foundational? Or is it more toward the top? Obedience is a square on the religion tower. It is foundational (right?) so it goes at the bottom. And here is what it looks like in practice-”Obey the prophet. Obey your parents. Obey your leaders. Do what your told as a general rule (cause you don’t know). ”

What are some other values that were in your religious tower?

Bit by bit, this tower is built over the years. It becomes an operating system of sorts. It lives in our brains. And like a lens, it affects everything we see. The tower stands and directs our decisions. Decision after decision builds and creates a life. And that life works until it doesn’t, right? When that tower falls (and that can take days, months, or years), we can feel like we are standing amidst the wreckage of our entire lives. The landscape feels foreign. We do not recognize ourselves. And the loss can feel unbearable. This shatteredness seems to invade our consciousness at the exact moment we have officially lost all sense of how to cope and navigate the new terrain that lies ahead.

And this is just one tower.


  • In my life, I have also had my marriage tower fall. A couple of times. Each time we had to burn that baby down. This burning/cleansing has come with a crisis of sorts every time. Intimacy. Conflict patterns. They all seemed to come to light with tremendous suffering. One time we lived apart for several weeks in order to have the space we needed to begin again differently (working with a coach the entire time). Our old marriage literally had to die in these moments in order for a healthier love to emerge.

  • My parenting tower has fallen too. After competing for years as a competitive runner, all that drive and focus went into motherhood.Worked to provide magical childhoods for my children. I so wanted to PROTECT them. Red books out loud. Snuggle by the fire. Take walks in the woods. Bake. Create. And pretend. This space was a hallowed space for me. It brought me tremendous joy to honor my children’s young hearts and minds. The world we created together was beautiful. Magical, even.  But my drive to protect was doomed to fail. The world awaits. Life takes hold. And soon enough, our world was penetrated by realities that were far more painful than we had ever anticipated. I have a daughter who is the survivor of sexual assault, I have a child who suffered years of extreme, systemic bullying. The children absorbed the atmosphere (amidst our best efforts) of deep marital tumult and a public excommunication. SO protection was out the window. So was control. And expectation. The challenge and grace of parenting is that we are doing it--amidst our own process. So our parenting can only be as enlightened as we (ourselves) are. The tower we had built in childhood was not created to last. It fell hard. We left our children alone in some of their most challenging times when we failed to offer them our unconditional love and regard for them in a way that they could truly receive. We thought we were giving it. Instead, our fear and expectation only reinforced the disconnect and their feelings of shame and rejection.

  • My identity tower has fallen. My sense for who I was and what I dreamed for myself was rocked to the core. Who am I? What do I have to offer? What makes me feel alive? What is my purpose? How do I move forward?

  • My existential tower crashed abruptly in the months preceding and following my father’s death. Any assuredness or philosophical fixedness I felt-- crumbled entirely when he took his last breath. For months following his death, I would spend entire walks questioning and pleading with the universe in a one-sided conversation, “Where are you, dad? Where did you go?”


What are the towers that have fallen for you?

Structures will fall. This is an inevitable part of being awake to our own existence. We are wired for growth. We are made to evolve. But that conditioned operating system can be pesty. Especially when we have been taught, socialized, and repeatedly reinforced (or punished) to equate conformity and staying within a predetermined structure for life-- as heroic, divine, and celestial.

2. Groundlessness is part of being alive. When any tower collapses, we often experience the new and terrifying feeling of groundlessness. Noah Rasheta, the host of the Secular Buddhism Podcast has an episode called Groundlessness that brilliantly introduces the idea that to be alive is to be in a free fall of sorts. That is the reality. We are free falling through life much like being dropped off the side of mountainside cliff with no bottom. If what Buddhism suggests has merit, why are so many of us only feeling this way now?  The short answer is that our beliefs/our towers made us FEEL safe and protected. All we had to do was believe if we held onto this iron rod (and gave all our life, time, and resources to it), we wouldn’t fall. But the moment our towers fall that lens or those blinders fall too. In truth, we have always been falling like everyone else. Now, we are just aware of it. Amidst the free fall, you may feel an intense pull to immediately rebuild. You may even long for the old structure. That is normal. I invite you instead to Pause. Breathe. There are insights here in this space. You will be here again and again in life. Don’t rush to fix it. Hold tight.

How many of you have felt the feeling of groundlessness? What does groundlessness feel like to you?

Scary, overwhelming, stressful, out of control, perilous, vulnerable

Two immediate responses stemming from this new awareness of vulnerability and uncertainty-- FEAR and GRIEF/LOSS


FEAR (Elizabeth Gilbert writes a letter to fear in her book Big Magic. Let’s take a look)) See this link to play.  We will know fear as long as we are alive. Welcome it in. Fear is part of daring greatly. You will feel it. Just don’t let it drive.


GRIEF and LOSS I invite you to tend to your grief. Make space for it. Explore grief practices that work for you. After the loss of my father, I added a grief meditation given by Desmond Tutu to my practice-- every morning for nearly six months. (you can find it on my blog). By setting a time to actively grieve, I felt like the pain and sadness were able to FLOW through me. Not stick and stay. You can also write. I prefer the idea of writing freely (whatever comes to mind for a certain amount of time each day) to writing an essay of sorts. Create rituals of healing. The simple act of doing dishes is an honoring ritual where I feel connected to my dad as it is something I remember him doing with such care. Embrace pleasure. Get out in nature. Move your body. Speak about your loss with a safe person. Grief points us to what we value most. We live differently, we love differently AFTER loss.

3.  You will need healthy coping strategies. All of us could use a healthy coping skill tool belt. Can you see it? If you would rather not wear a symbolic tool belt--then how about making a list? Get intentional. Write down 10 things you can choose from when you are feeling emotionally vulnerable. Have that list accessible. Consider implementing grounding rituals that include a few of these strategies for when you are feeling frayed or vulnerable. Whatever you do.  Slow down. Simplify. Tend to needs first. Some ideas?

  • Meditation (Test out a meditation practice. Apps like Insight Timer or Calm or Headspace make meditating amazingly accessible).

  • Read books or listen to podcasts that normalize or explore the role of suffering. Expand your mind. (A few of my favorites have been Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser. Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed. A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. Magical Journey by Katrina Kenison.) Podcasts like Secular Buddhism and A New Earth.

  • Connect with pleasure. Pleasure reminds us of our own aliveness. It links us back to the beauty of the present moment (get a massage, savor dark chocolate, soak in a hot bath, enjoy healthy sex.) Pleasure heals.

  • Try Yoga. Wonderful way to exercise and practice mindfulness at the same time.

  • Incorporate nature breaks. Something as simple as walking on a trail can invite our minds to step outside our thoughts. We notice the life around us. Our senses come alive. We see the repurposing of what dies, we witness the seasons as an undeniable structure of life. Does nature stay the same? It is always changing. LIKE US.

  • Exercise intentionally.  Pick a form, any form that gives to you. Don’t run if you don’t like running. Moving your body is a wonderful way to burn off extra anxiety and it also helps you sleep.

  • Practice Mindfulness-BE where you are. Back to the breath. Get in touch with your senses. That can help. What you smell. Feel. See. Notice when you feel FLOW. Painting. Running. Playing music.

  • Explore Buddhism, Stoicism to see what resonates.

  • Write. Grief is actually processed differently when we write. Writing is particularly effective at producing a sense of relief.

  • Cultivate meaningful relationships. Connect with those who SEE and VALUE you for who you are. Allow yourself moments of receiving.

  • Remember the importance of humor. Watch Ellen clips or Graham Norton Show or Bless this Mess. Anything that makes you laugh.

  • Seek support from therapists/coaches. We all need support. We all deserve support. It is hard enough--no need to add a layer of feeling alone in it.

4.  Begin Again. Create. Test Out New Ways of Navigating. Slowly Build Your Own Tower. Why wade through groundlessness and coping? Why wait to build? You are more apt to build a structure reactively out of your own discomfort if you rush it. You need time to connect with yourself amidst the fear/ grief and loss to know what you really value. Now that you have taken some time, you have the insights that you have gleaned from your coping practices. Use them.


Sunshine exercise in coaching.


Start with values inside circles (I recommend 5-7). This can feel tremendously empowering. What do you value in your life today? You may begin with values that are entirely new. You may choose to reclaim old values but change their meaning. Service or contribution is the perfect example. Same name but different meaning.

Don’t stop there.

How do these values show up in my every day? Where would I see these values? We want values in action! These are the rays in the sunshine.

Hang up this visual somewhere you can see it. This is a wonderful activity for couples or for families, as well.

Note that this tower is YOUR creation. And it is fundamentally different from your original towers in several ways.

  • Your values come from you

  • Your value tower (or marriage, identity, existential towers) are not prescriptive. Your values point you in a general direction of how you desire to interact with your reality. You can use your values to guide you when you feel unsure or are scared or overwhelmed emotionally.

  • Your values honor and reflect you

  • Your tower is not an escape from reality. It allows you to connect with yourself amidst reality.

  • Your tower (s)  will always be changing. Testing out new ideas/learning/growth are crucial aspects to the building. Our towers are ALIVE.

When my religious tower fell, I decided to build a values tower in its place. I have also rebuilt my marriage tower, my parenting tower, my identity tower, and my existential tower. You may need to rebuild more than one. Don’t rush it. Take your time to test out and explore what works for you now.

Note--This is the gift and privilege of our lives. To build a life and relationships that truly reflect us. I look at my marriage tower and feel a sense of ownership and awe at how far John and I have come. I see my parenting tower and feel a connection with my children that I never could have felt while trying to control their existence or while looking to them to fulfill me or to heal my wounds. My existential tower is something I tend to regularly as I am learning to accept that my dad is no longer here.  I will not be here indefinitely. I read a poem recently that speaks of the cherishing and loss of a loved one so beautifully called

“Separation” by W.S. Merwin

Your absence has gone through me

Like thread through a needle.

Everything I do is stitched with its color.


I try to integrate the parts of my father I cherished most into my being. So that in some way, he lives on through me. I think of his awareness of beauty in people, movies, music, nature. It was not exceptional to be on a walk with my dad and have him stop and exclaim about a bird or the sky. His love of poetry. His gentleness. His appreciation of classical music. The twinkle in his eye and the warmth of his smile. How he always offered a love that felt like an emotional bullet proof vest. His refreshing and undaunted approach as a mental health professional to help relieve suffering in those he saw.  This process of feeling loss is not neat and tidy. And I expect to always feel the loss of him in my world.

5. The Idea of Coming Home --What does that mean really?


For me it means that I have reclaimed who I am in a very intentional way. Coming Home describes the process of rebuilding my identity tower.  I have a sense for what my values are. What I will sacrifice for. And how I want to spend the time that I have in this life. I have a sense for what feeds me. And what tools help me to come back to myself when I have lost my way. I no longer hustle from a place of deficit. I am inherently worthy. I listen to my own voice. And I am not afraid to question it either. This isn’t heroic. Nor is it romantic. It takes effort. And it can feel messy and frustrating at times. WHY? Inevitably, we will default to our conditioned way of thinking especially when we are scared, triggered, tired, or unconscious. We just will. It makes sense, doesn’t it? We can have compassion and understanding for how this is our wiring. And so I practice mindfulness and awareness. I listen to those I love. And I rewrite over all those default settings. Again and again. With a gentle hand. This takes practice.  It is a life’s work, for sure.

Photo by Maya Dehlin

Photo by Maya Dehlin


In Brene Brown’s book, Braving the Wilderness, she shares an interview with Maya Angelou and Bill Moyers. Maya Angelou expresses the idea,  “I belong to myself”

What this means to me is that if we are not willing and able to stand alone in our own truth (or our values), we can never truly belong. We may fit in. But with fitting in-- we are always the one being sacrificed. WE take that hit. And so I have and will continue to stand alone. I voice myself to my partner when I need to, my extended family at times, in my community. We must belong to ourselves first--before true belonging with others can ever be possible.

It has taken years to get back to that girl in the forest. The ME of so long ago. On some level she has been with me the whole time. It is never too late to come home to who we are. As I think back to that girl who loved wandering among the trees. Who felt so complete. Who felt fully alive in that space of night beneath the sky , I can see how my path has included a leaving and a coming home.  And how do I know I am home? That feeling--the one I had when I walked in the forest and felt sprawled out under the stars--is how I feel in my life. I can feel stressed. Sad. I am fully human. But at my core, I also walk with an assuredness that I belong here. As I am.

Not because I am grounded and sure. But because I now know--a bit of how to navigate and cope--amidst the freefall of life. And I suspect you are experiencing this too.  We have all likely seen our structures fall, have had a formal meeting or two or three or four with groundlessness, have had to learn to develop our own coping skills, and are amidst the noble task of rebuilding. Transitions are inevitable. They remind us that life can be thrilling. Terrifying. Merciless. Surprising. Beautiful. Poignant. Mysterious. I still don’t like pain. But I don’t fear its unique terrain like I did ten years ago--  because I have travelled it before. There is a familiarity to it. On the other side of fear and suffering lies a liberation in seeing that you have not only survived in the face of hard things. You have THRIVED.

I leave you with a final poem--

“Parachute”

by Jena Schwartz

I found myself wondering

how best to thank you

for picking up

for dropping out

for pulling it out of me

for playlists and secret notebooks

of words you pluck as if from strings

in the sky

chords you strike and covers you lift

for risking failure

in the name of truth

knowing truth wears many faces

for going the distance

for closing the gap

for a downpour of laughter

just when I thought the sky

would surely collapse

under its own weight

for running towards

and not away from

for saying yes

that aches

but tell me

tell me anyway

tell me everything

for slow hands and fast cars

for finding me

after I found myself

not a moment too soon or too late

or too anything

for meeting me here

in this tumbling empty space

and tolerating my free fall

They say the bad news is that we're falling

and the good news is that there's no ground

I say the good news is we're falling

and this may be something

we do alone

but this is not something

we do alone

I could long for a landing

or dread the crash

or I could simply say thank you

pull the string

let the winds carry me

where they will

traverse the wide-open spaces of knowing

and not-knowing

of yes

and of if

and of when

and of how

all the while

(SLIDE)

keeping my eyes peeled

for a hand on the horizon

I can take in mine

before finally

drifting

down


The first time I read this poem, I felt grateful for all the hands that have reached out to take mine amidst my darker times. We need each other. We need to share our stories. These places where we are able to feel seen and heard and valued are important and essential. It is true.

But there is another way to read this poem too. That hand I was ultimately waiting for? It was my own. I took it. I am finally home.