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Planting Bulbs in Winter: A Conversation with Kemi Nekvapil
On reclaiming ambition and desire, deciding not to forgive, and taking ownership of your life
Intimate conversations with our greatest heart-centered minds.
I first learned of Kemi Nekvapil when my friend said that I must listen to her interview with. Which I did. And then quickly realized that I must read* her book, The Gift of Asking: A woman's guide to owning her wants and needs without guilt, which is life-changingly phenomenal and all about exactly what the subtitle suggests. After that I realized that, well, I must interview Kemi for Beyond. Lucky for us, she said yes!
Also lucky for us, Kemi has a new book out: Power: A Woman's Guide to Living and Leading Without Apology. Beyonders, this is a must read for anyone wanting to live a life that’s guided by love, compassion, curiosity, kindness, strength, humor, and, yes, power. A power that comes from within; a power that lifts up both the individual and the community; a power that operates as a force for good.
Kemi is one of Australia's leading credentialed coaches for female executives and entrepreneurs. A professional speaker and author, Kemi has studied at The Gross National Happiness Centre in Bhutan, trained as a yoga teacher in India, and has trained with Dr. Brenè Brown to become a Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator. She’s also the author of Raw Beauty. Kemi lives in Australia with her two teenagers and husband.
*I actually listened to it on Audible. Kemi narrates and it’s fantastic!
Kemi’s Advice on Craft
“Don’t edit as you go.” Don’t miss more of Kemi’s advice on getting down first drafts at the end of the interview!
For the purposes of your book, you made power into an acronym, the first letter of which is P for Presence. What does presence mean to you, how do we achieve it, and how do we know when we’re truly experiencing it?
We have this idea that presence means sitting in the meadow, looking at the birds. Actually, presence can be confronting the areas of our lives that are not working, and the impact that has on us or the people around us.
Presence is about taking the time and space that we need to connect with ourselves, to connect with others, and to connect with what's going on around us. Our ability to be present or lack thereof, has a huge impact on how we experience ourselves and how we experience the world. We live in a world where our presence is being taken from us all the time; it’s so easy to be distracted.
Taking ownership of ourselves is the most sustainable form of power.
How do you know when you're truly present? Do you experience it in your body?
Yes, our bodies tell us things, it’s just that we're not always present to it. We'll go: “Oh, that feels a bit strange.” Or: “The way they said that makes me feels a bit uncomfortable.” But then we go into our head: “It doesn't matter. It's fine.” And we miss what our body told us.
I was working with a client who’s practicing vulnerability. Something came up for her and she could hardly say the words. I said, “this is feedback for you that when you’re vulnerable, it’s hard for you to speak.”
So the presence is not necessarily the constricted throat or the not-constricted throat, it's the noticing?
Yes. It’s noticing what is happening in our bodies, and being present to the messages. There's a lot of energy that goes into that, if we are not careful.
The next is O for Ownership. You write: “Ownership of ourselves, including our flaws, aspirations, successes and failures, brings one of the securest forms of power. If we own who we are—our complete humanity, with all its contradictions—then our humanity can never be used against us.” I love this so much. How do we actually do this?
It’s taking ownership of our stories and then adding intersectionalities of our identity: me being a black woman, you being a woman with a brain injury, all of these different things that we have to live with, in a world that constantly tells us that we have one particular box in which we need to live and what our life should look like to people that we will never meet. There's a lot of energy that goes into that.
Taking ownership of ourselves is the most sustainable form of power, because any part that we take ownership of can never be used against us. I grew up in a series of foster families, and I had absolutely no agency over what happened to me. This manifested in my early twenties, when I was flat-sharing with a friend. I'd ask, “Why are your shoes there? Can you put your shoes over here?” My friend said to me, “You can be really controlling sometimes.” I remember feeling upset, but then I realized, yes, I can be controlling sometimes. It’s a trauma response to having no control in my home environment.
Now, if my husband says, “You're being a bit controlling.” I can recognize its my response to feeling fearful or anxious. I have my own study in our home, and I promise you, in that room, everything is in its place! The rest of the house is a practice of surrender, and I take ownership of my growth in relation to this; control what you can control, and let the rest go.
It’s beautiful how interconnected these all are. W is Wisdom. Here you include a section on the importance of forgiveness. Can you talk us through how to forgive someone, in particular someone abusive?
Forgiveness is not so much about the other person, it’s more about us. It’s not about condoning behavior in any way. It's a question of how do I want to live in the world.
Sometimes we can forgive actions but we can't get enmeshed in a relationship with that person the way we have in the past. It’s wise to put boundaries. I can forgive you; I can love you: I understand why you are the way you are, and you do the things that you do. But for my own mental health and well-being, I need to create some boundaries and some distance.
I was wondering about your thoughts on not forgiving. Roxane Gay wrote about that for the New York Times years ago in connection with Dylann Roof.
There is incredible power in taking ownership of “I will not forgive.” We all have to make our own decisions, and not take on what others think we should do. Forgiveness cannot be manipulated, it’s either there or it’s not. Sometimes time changes everything. Sometimes time changes nothing at all.
Next up: Austin Kleon, Bryan Washington, Elle Griffin, and more Thoughts On: Writing, Joy, and Gratitude. Enter your email address to get access today!
I love that! E is for Equality. In this section, you share that you choose in each moment whether to defend yourself against every racist slight; whether you need to “prove your worth.” Defending oneself is complex. It can be necessary yet can also be incredibly draining. Is it possible to defend ourselves against bigots and bullies yet also protect our own energies?
It's always going to cost us energy if we have to defend ourselves because it probably means we've had our power taken away from us anyway. So we've already lost energy. What I think is more important if you have to defend yourself is who's the person that you can then call afterwards that's going to help you calm and rebuild your energy?
You can't go in for the fight every time. Some people do choose to until they just cannot anymore. I’ve recently read Rachel Cargle’s latest book, A Renaissance Of Our Own which is thought provoking and life affirming. She talks about going into the fight all the time trying to convince white people about anti-racism and whiteness and privilege until she just burned out. She said, “I do not have the energy to keep giving my life energy to people that are not willing or wanting or understanding. So I'm going to shift that and support Black women and girls, because that gives me energy.”
A lot of women have no idea what they want for themselves and their lives. We're socialized to be available to everyone else's needs, so we can't be available to our own needs. Boundaries are a way of wearing our dignity on our sleeves.
I love that too. R is for Responsibility. You write: “And yet when we are ready, we can choose to be responsible for our wounding and our healing, because the perpetrators are rarely going to take on that responsibility.” I get the healing, but how to we take on responsibility for our wounding?
Responsible as in I am wounded. As opposed to: I was wounded by somebody. If I can acknowledge that I am wounded, then I will take responsibility for healing those wounds because the perpetrator is not going to do that.
I deeply appreciated moments when you shared that although you’re capable of standing up for yourself, you often do so with a pounding heart and shaking hands. It’s so easy to believe that leaders and teachers such as yourself have a skill set the rest of us don’t. I remember reading MLK Jr’s autobiography and being bowled over to learn he struggled with insomnia and anxiety and often gave those gorgeous speeches on little to no sleep.
I wish we didn’t put people on pedestals. We do each other a disservice when we don’t think that someone either has or is currently going through grief and despair and success and delight and awe and that it's all part of the human soup.
As a professional speaker, I've seen a lot of professional speakers. A lot of white men in suits telling me how to live my life, like “I did this thing and so you do it, too.” I find myself thinking, “You don't know me.” It isn’t so much to do with race, more: Why are you telling me how to live my life when we’ve never met? How do you know that what worked for you will work for me? It made me realize that I wanted to be a professional speaker who doesn’t tell people how to live their lives. When I speak, I want people to walk away feeling more of who they are, not less.
In your work as a coach, do certain people struggle to access the emotions that they're experiencing?
Yes. I find this to be prevalent in (but not exclusive to) those who work in law, medicine, engineering and academia. Anyone who’s trained to be in their head, can sometimes find it harder to be in their body. There are so many clues to listen for as a coach. If someone is always saying to me; I think, I think, I think. I might then ask, “And what do you feel?” And they’ll say, “What do you mean?”, it can be really difficult for some people to assess their feelings.
Can you be present if you're only in your mind?
Can you be present if you're only in your heart? Can you be present if you're only in your gut? I'm not necessarily sure that it's which center we're leading from, rather that we need integrate all of them.
I also love how you mention throughout the book that after events that were particularly stressful, exhausting, infuriating, you cried. Sometimes sobbed. I’m terrible at crying. Could you speak to the importance of crying?
Crying is a release. So many people hold onto the tears thinking that that’s some form of power, this idea of I've got it all together, I will not cry. There is something on the other side of those tears, and it’s generally relief. A space opens up to work out what the next step is, what the next action is, what the next conversation is.
For those of us who’ve had to be independent, who’ve learned: no one's coming to save you, you can only count on yourself, you’re trained to keep your emotions down. I was told as a foster child, “your feelings and emotions are not important here. You just need to be grateful that we’re happy to have you here.” I kept my emotions down for a very, very long time.
That fed into the idea of a strong Black woman. I’m strong so that means I can't show that I'm scared or worried or upset or anxious. For me, power is taking full ownership of our feelings and our tears.
I also cry because I practice delight and awe; I cry at beauty often as part of my being present in the world.
That's beautiful. I love how you’re on a journey with words—looking up their definitions rather than relying on the meanings you’ve been fed. This allowed you to see and know yourself differently. One of the words that stood out for me was ambitious. I feel like that’s a trigger word for a lot of women. A trusted friend described you as such and you were initially offended. Your understanding of the word as it applied to women had become entangled with being untrustworthy and deceitful. But when you pull out your Oxford dictionary you learn it’s simply “a strong desire to do or achieve something.”
I grew up with a sense of ambitious women as people no one wanted to be around. “She's an ambitious one,” was always said as a snide comment, a warning to stay away. So when this woman called me that, I felt offended. I thought we were friends. But when I discovered it meant a strong desire to do something, I realized I am the definition of ambition.
I have a strong desire to do lots of things: a strong desire to be a present parent, a strong desire to create beautiful gardens, a strong desire to work out hard at the gym. I have ambition in everything that I do, otherwise I wouldn't do it.
Reclaiming the word ambition has been great. I share it with many women. I call them ambitious and I say it in an elevating way. We need to take ownership of this word because otherwise it's used as a weapon against us—and we're allowed to have a strong desire.
You write so much about the importance of boundaries. What do those look like in practice and how to create sturdy and loving ones?
First we have to define for ourselves what matters most in our lives, then we need to protect it. Otherwise, we're just creating arbitrary boundaries that have no connection to anything that actually has any meaning.
For some clients it’s a goal or a dream, they need to put a boundary around it, because they're surrounded by dream killers. If they don't put a boundary around that dream is not going to leave the kitchen table because normally the dream killers are family members.
Yesterday, somebody asked me, how do we work out what matters? That goes all the way back to presence. We have to give ourselves the time and the space to work out not what have I been told should matter to me, not what I've been told a good mother or a good wife or a good partner should be doing—but what matters to me as an individual? That's the hardest work.
A lot of women have no idea what they want for themselves and their lives. We're socialized to be available to everyone else's needs, so we can't be available to our own needs. Then without boundaries in place around the things that matter to us, we’re the ones that become overwhelmed, exhausted, disconnected; we withdraw, we’re resentful, we’re angry. Boundaries are a generous act. It’s a way of saying: I care about me as much as I care about you. It's not eff off. Rather it’s, I need to be part of the equation here. Boundaries are a way of wearing our dignity on our sleeves.
That's so helpful. You write: “There is power in owning our own equality. There is also power in holding others as equals.” I love this!
I just read Matt Haig’s book, The Midnight Library. It’s beautiful. One of the characters in there says, “never trust anyone who speaks down to low paid hospitality staff.” What a great way to filter people! Take them to a cafe and see how they treat the waiters and the waitresses. There is inequality around us all the time and it doesn't take much, if we're present to it, to elevate someone else's equality. Sometimes all it is, is just saying thank you. If I'm in a public toilet, and the cleaner is in there, I will always thank them for their work. Because that's the kind of human I want to be.
I found myself in so many rooms where because of my race or my gender, I’m the most powerless person, or I’ve been told that I am. I can see it in others in a way that my white husband did not see when we first got together. He assumed if someone wasn't talking in the room, it's because they didn't have anything to say. And I would say, “No, babe, the ones speaking are white, privileged, entitled males that have been raised to believe that you can take up space in all of the places, all of the time.” There are people wanting to speak, but they don’t feel as safe as you do, so we don’t get their contribution.
This ties in with something you wrote that resonated with me: “For many years I heard ‘The system is broken,’ but this is a rose-colored way of looking at things. It gives the impression that there was once, in the ‘days of old,’ a system that served everyone equally, and somehow one day, or even over a period of time, that system collapsed. But let’s take off the rose-colored glasses, and confront the truth. The system was meant to be this way, nothing got broken. The system was set up for men, it was set up for whiteness. And the tragedy is that within that system, many of us have felt broken.”
For me there is power in taking ownership of that regardless of our race. If as a white person, one can say, “it's true, the system was set up for me, but that doesn't make me a bad person. That's just the truth of it.” To acknowledge, “I'm able bodied,” or “I'm cisgendered.” And so on. The power comes in owning the truth of it. Within that, what are the things that I can do to support the power of others.
I did a podcast interview recently and the interviewer said, “as a white male, I need to step back in the world and allow other people to speak and give others space. I need to listen.” I said to him, “100%, listen more, but don't step back. Just allow me to step forward, then we can stand together. I don't want you to hide; I know what it's like to hide. I don't want you behind me. I want you alongside me. Then as a collective energy, we get to make change in the world.
I don't want you to hide; I know what it's like to hide. I don't want you behind me. I want you alongside me. Then as a collective energy, we get to make the changes in the world that we want to do.
Do you have any tips regarding how to write with such honesty about your own struggles and vulnerabilities?
Put it all in the first draft. Don't hold back. Don’t edit as you go. No one is ever going to see that first draft so just get it all down. In my first draft, there was one chapter I was not sure of, but I didn’t know why. My editor said, “that chapter is like a journal entry.” So that chapter was cut, but it took me to exactly where I needed to be for the next chapter to reveal itself. Don’t be afraid of putting it all in the first draft and trusting that you'll know what needs to stay and what needs to go.
Vulnerability is hard. And especially the line between vulnerability and oversharing. But it's all a practice. Life is a practice.
So much as hard right now. Where are you finding joy?
I am finding joy in flowers. I'm now an aspirational flower farmer. My husband and I will be moving to our farm in about eighteen months. Along with my writing and coaching and speaking, I’ll also be a peony and David Austin rose farmer.
Nature brings joy and delight all the time. We must to be present to see it. America is going into winter. One of the most powerful things people can do is plant spring bulbs in the winter because in doing so, you're planting hope and delight for the future.
I’d love to know…
When we’re wounded, it can seem impossible to own the responsibility of healing ourselves. Have you ever struggled to do so? What have the results been?
I love when Kemi says, “Boundaries are a way of wearing our dignity on our sleeves.” What is the last boundary you set?
Who have you chosen not to forgive?
Who have you lifted up?