For many years I have been on a path of learning. I left school early, married young and made beautiful babies, and ultimately chose to live separately from my boys’ father after eighteen years. Caring for three young boys required a good return on time invested, so a return to study was needed to lift my qualifications and earning capacity. I commenced tentatively and managed to juggle the demands of work, study and sole parenthood. As I completed each necessary qualification and applied the learning in my vocation, I always found myself presented with new opportunities to explore, new spaces I could enter into and learn to inhabit. New identities I could try on.
When I look back on all the iterations of me along the way, the most constant knowing I have had throughout is that of the power of love. I didn’t call it love at the time … it was not until a few years ago when I was researching for my Master of Education and speaking with adults about their experiences of returning to study, that I was able to name it. Through undertaking a critically reflective essay on my own experiences of learning and stretching, it became so apparent that in all the faces of me – daughter, sister, friend, hairdresser, wife, mother, community services worker, fitness instructor and personal trainer, TAFE and teacher developer – I had unconsciously identified the power of love in supporting (or failing to support) people along their way.
In all vocations I fought for recognition in systems that took no heed of the individual and their unique strengths. Against typically outcomes-focused perspectives in education, I pushed for recognition of the need to create safe spaces where people could find themselves, so that they could succeed in learning whatever they chose to do, according to their strengths. That without these safe, nurturing spaces to stretch and grow … and fall over as is always part of true, sustainable learning … ultimate potential could never be reached. Truly fortifying life changes could never occur. I also realised that it wasn’t enough just to affect individual students in my classes – I knew I had to research ways of developing and embedding an open-hearted approach within a industry-focused, standardised education system.
Last year I read a post of Heather Plett’s on holding space. I was incredibly touched by her words, by the insights she expressed, and by the sense her words made of so much of my experience. She gave me words for something I had known but not named, and I was affirmed by the power afforded the practice of holding space for others. I held her sense-making words and continued on with researching my PhD – speaking to VET teachers (vocational education and training) about their own experiences of returning to study, and the conditions and learning spaces they identified that were catalysts to transformative change. There’s a bit of a joke in my family about the ‘shortcuts’ I take in the car when attempting to find the least stressful way to drive anywhere, and my retort is that I take ‘the scenic route’ (read … I get lost, or take twice as long!). Well, I also take the scenic route through life, and Heather’s words about holding space sat on the ‘back seat’ as I navigated my way through the disorienting landscapes of undertaking a PhD, while trying to survive life.
Before April of this year, I had never heard of The Big House. Somehow though, I received notification that Heather Plett was coming to Australia to run some workshops. The Big House's custodian Georgia had managed to whisper Heather from Canada to Australia, so I came from Melbourne to sit in circle, to learn more about holding space, to learn more about living with an open heart. My schedule for completing my PhD saw me to planning to write up my thesis in December, and I knew I had to be in Queensland in October to learn how to speak my authentic, academic truth from an open heart.
Long story short? I have just experienced the most extraordinary, life-changing ten days.
Everything about The Big House and my experience there defies words ... words can't adequately describe the sense I had of being 'held' in my time there. From the very first contact I had with Georgia, her incredibly generous spirit, authenticity and warmth invited me to immerse and make myself at home in the space. The house that she has so lovingly repurposed welcomed me profoundly and the beauty of the land and her beings took my breath away.
Georgia and Heather's magical partnership during the workshops enabled the cultivation of a space that allowed me to sit with myself to find new ways of being in the world, and I am deeply grateful for all they and my fellow participants offered of themselves as I wrestled with my resistance. I attended so that I could deepen my writing in a way that honours my emerging truths - the truths about me and my place in the world, the gifts I have to offer of myself. Not surprisingly, the path to deep change comes through allowing oneself to sit in the fire – to be confronted and disoriented by searing realities that invite subterranean soul searching.
At one point during my ten days at The Big House, Heather relayed a story as told by Mark Nepo,
“… how each of us is like a flute and each time we are wounded, a new hole is carved into us. ‘It is a simple fact that a flute can make no music … if it has no holes,” says the wise old man. “Each being on earth is such a flute, and each of us releases our songs when our Spirit passes through the holes carved by our life experiences.’”
I am still making sense of my self and my life experiences … and I am still listening for my song that comes from the holes in my flute, as carved by my life experiences. Sometimes I hear my song ring out clearly and it reverberates through my soul … and then I forget and sink back into my humanity. As I sat in meditation one day at The Big House, a thought came to me from my ancestors … even more profound now I think, as I contemplate how I will respond to a new US president and the fear that his election brings to me and to the world. Whatever I think of his values and policies, he is one of us … he is me. So how do I choose to respond to the shadow that rises in me, how can I learn to walk beside him and people like him as they are waking up? How can I live in love and create spaces where we can all learn how to live with compassion, authenticity and integrity?
All of us
We are one
We are the same you and I
We speak from across the generations
Our voice is the same
We roar for you
We roar for our babies
We roar for our men
But we are the same
We are one
Not ‘us’ and ‘them’
‘They’ are us
Be kind my dears
For they are you
We are in this together
Jennifer K Miles, 2016
My time at The Big House has left me with great gifts. It has brought to the fore previously unnoticed connections in my life, and reinforced long held truths. For example that the spaces I create for people, and that people have created for me, are spaces where we ‘hold space’ for each other as we stretch and grow in understanding … that I am part of a container of magnificent souls who are here for each other in this life. I have also learned … and am beginning to integrate … to have the courage to be me, in all my quirkiness, in all my peculiarity. And to accept others for their peculiarities as they try to make sense of this often-disorienting life. To accept others in their humanity.
Thank you Georgia, Heather and my magnificent travelling companions for the joy of holding space with you at The Big House. Thank you too for your invitation to cultivate 'brave' spaces where shadow can be revealed and where love and courage stand tall to speak their truth. I am forever changed by this shared experience and have had confirmed what I suspected to be true all along ... whatever the issue, whatever the question, love is indeed the answer.
In closing, let me reference another of the gems that Heather shared in her blog during the year – after I had already committed to being at The Big House, and as I was stepping into the second semester’s teaching at my university. My students and I speak a lot about social justice, about how our responsibility as teachers is to cultivate safe spaces where our young people can learn to exercise their voice, and find courage to speak their truth. We speak about contesting our assumptions about life; about how we have the opportunity and responsibility to take action; about waking up to our place in the bigger picture of life. Heather’s poem Waking up is hard to do is incredibly powerful reflection on this, and I have shared it widely in my learning community. The last lines ask us to consider how we can find new ways of being as we begin to wake up…
... And when you are awake,
you begin to see it all,
and you can’t look away.
And finally you see,
that when you are truly awake
and truly honest about your place in the world,
it is no longer threatening to stand by those
who are also waking up.
And your anger burns anew.
And your fierce determination rises up once again.
And this time, your love is big enough,
to hold their hurt along with your own.
And this time, your voice is strong enough,
to speak their truth along with your own.
And this time, your courage is deep enough,
to let them speak a truth that is
different from your own.
Heather Plett 2016
If love is the answer ... what is the question?