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FullSizeRender (3)“People in every disguise imaginable are taking to the streets and parading past grinningly carved, candlelit jack o’lanterns, re- enacting customs with a lengthy pedigree. Their masked antics challenge, mock, tease, and appease the dread forces of the night, of the soul, and of the otherworld that becomes our world on this night of reversible possibilities, inverted roles, and transcendency. In so doing, they are reaffirming death and its place as a part of life in an exhilarating celebration of a holy and magic evening.”

– Jack Santino, The Folklore of All Hallows

I love to tell my children the old stories of Halloween – how for at least 1200 years (and likely much longer) people of Celtic heritage were celebrating a festival of the dead on October 31st, complete with bonfires, costumes, and treats left on stoops for the wandering spirits. November 1st was the marking of a new year in the Celtic calendar, the beginning of the darkest half of the year. Harvest in, darkness falling earlier, leaves almost all tumbled off the trees, it was seen as a time when the veils between the worlds were said to be thinner and the spirits of the departed returned to frolic once more among the living.

Out walking with Braeden today we talked about what it means to return to the earth. We studied the leaves just fallen from the trees and I showed him how the colorful ones still had their sweet pliable lifeblood about them while the brownest ones were easily crumpled, crunchily turning back into the earth before our very eyes. In our bedtime stories of the past few evenings I’ve woven in how our ancestors likely were paying very close attention to the natural world and the lessons contained therein. Just like the leaves returning to earth, this is a time for us too to contemplate those who have passed to the other side before us.

FullSizeRender (6)The day after Halloween we set up our ‘Day of the Dead’ altar with photos of my Grandpa Lundin, my Grandma Rhea and Grandpa Nick, and my great great grandmother Wilhelmina. There is a photo of my father paying his respects at my grandpa McNamara’s grave in Normandy, where he died right after D-Day during World War II. It got us talking about our bodies returning to earth, and why some of us are buried in the ground. Rowan got out his drawing paper and asked me to draw a person who had “gone back to the earth.” He then drew a “hole” (which for me harkened a tree – the symbolism of which wasn’t lost on me since many of my European ancestors believed we came from trees and thus should return to earth in trees – hence the wooden coffin). Rowan added hearts around the body, and peace signs representing how those who “have gone back to the earth are thinking about peace and surrounded by love.” While explaining his drawing to his friend Emily today over a lit candle he said “here is the dead person in their cradle, back to the earth.”

Yes! Here we were, getting at what I think is part of the central essence of this ancient celebration. Like Jack Santino writes, here we are “reaffirming death and its place as a part of life in an exhilarating celebration of a holy and magic evening.” Over lollipops left over from trick-or-treating we talk about how the candy of the season should really be a reminder of the sweetness of life since we are here amongst this glorious land of the living. Luckily, the six year olds agree. “It shouldn’t just be all about the sugar.”

Today, November 2nd, is “All Souls Day,” designated as such by the Church sometime in about 1000AD as a day to honor the dead. It built upon the existing “All Saints Day” of November 1st, which had been designated in the 8th Century by Pope Gregory III, a feast day to coincide with the pagan Samhain and the Celtic New Year, with the evening before known over time as “All Hallow’s Eve,” now our current ‘Halloween.’

Of course the more ancient origins were rooted in the pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain, where bonfires were lit and people would wear costumes to ward off and confuse the ghosts traveling between worlds at this time of the year. It was seen as a liminal time, when spirits and the souls of the departed were catered to with offerings of food and drink (often ale or wine). Trick-or-treating likely has its roots here, or perhaps from the tradition of going door to door collecting food for Samhain feasts, or from the All Souls Day parades in England, where people would give out ‘soul cakes’ in return for praying for departed family members.

In a culture gone mad with candy and consumerism, I pine for the quiet thread of story that Halloween, Samhain, Day of the Dead, and All Souls Day weave together. I tell it to my children in several acts each night, and build on the themes during the day. What do we notice about nature around us? How is the darkness landing earlier and earlier and how does it make us feel? Why is it important to remember those who have passed before us? And, is there really a mysterious realm of ‘other-world’ that we cannot truly know?

For now, I tell them that this is the time of year to go inwards into the light of their own hearts even as it is getting darker. This is the time to feel our roots settling deeply into the earth, even as the leaves of our activities may be falling away. What sustains us deep below that is beyond the fruits of our labors? Where can we find life in hidden places, even when so many things are dying? These are the words I utter as they slowly drift off to sleep.

FullSizeRender (4)Rowan’s drawing of a person who has “gone back to the earth, in their cradle.”

“Our deeds travel with us from afar, and what we have been makes us what we are…” – George Eliot

IMG_2080Like a slow burning candle, our lives pass – and what remains is a holy mystery to behold: the shreds of paper, the unwritten stories passed on, the recorded histories from 1000 years ago, the letters, the photos, the standing stones and cave paintings. “We were here,” they say. “This is what happened. You too will be history one day. You’ll be gone with only traces of your humanity left, imprints on time and space to be felt through story and artifacts.” And so it is with the stories of my great great grandparents settling on 143 acres in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Stories told by my father about his childhood summer at the farm take literal shape as we visit the old barn and land where the “old home place” stood. The cicadas are in full force and the place is teeming with life. I stand at the center of what would have been their home and feel outwards for a trace of what their lifetimes could have been like: hours spent on the porch, watching the sunlight in the trees and listening to the insects. Tending hearth and land. Milking cows. Making butter. Raising children. Hosting grandchildren and great grandchildren. Births. Baptisms. Marriages. Funerals. A new highway slicing their land in two.

The stories and histories of my ancestors weave behind me like threads in a braid, coming together into the braided DNA of my present moment form. The past is pulled together into what is now – cellularly as well as from a storyline perspective. In this way there is really no beginning and end – but rather a continuous thread with different points of origin. Still weaving, I marvel at the continuation of life and genes passed on to my children and wonder how to impart to them a perspective of lifespans that moves beyond our present moment expressions. Taking this on prods me into the realm of deeper and larger questions to be answered together. It takes us into a territory of mystery and spirit. Where do we come from? Why are we here? What is our journey leading us to? What is sacred about this lifetime? How are we connected to ‘place?’ When do we have to die and what happened to those who went before us?

My grandmother’s wish was to be buried at St. Paul Lutheran Church Cemetery in Parkersburg, which is why we are all here. This is where she was born and where her mother and grandparents and great grandparents are buried. We are now eight generations past and present together on the old cemetery land. We walk over the bones of our ancestors, us in full bloom standing atop our literal roots. My boys ask questions about what it means to “go back to the Earth.” We talk about the cycles of life and the bones beneath our skin. We talk about how some things are constant but how all living things do have to die. We try to prepare them for when people might cry.

It isn’t often I can take my children to a place and say “this is one of many places where you are from. This is where many of your ancestors lived and died. You too are from here in some way.” My grandmother has given us a profound gift through her wish to be buried in the old family plot. It brought us together to a place few of us know, but nonetheless represents the origins of our German family line’s presence in America. It prompted old stories, memories of childhood overnight bus trips from Cleveland to Parkersburg – and the transition from city life to the country. Some of us visited where the old home place used to be, meeting relatives who still live on parcels of that original land. It gets me thinking about what home is, and my longing for a deeply connected sense of place which is often cultivated over time and across generations. For many European Americans like myself, that experience is different now. And yet, how can I raise my children with a sense of home and place and history, even when so much of our recent family history has involved movement and migrations?

“Our deeds travel with us from afar, and what we have been makes us what we are…”

I remember the Armenian family at the passport office this summer, the father preparing to take his four teenage children to Armenia so that they could greet their homeland. He and his wife are descended from orphans, their great grandparents killed during the Armenian genocide. Our conversation is a solemn one. They are planning for a trip of a lifetime. They are learning Armenian, traveling this year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the genocide and plan to go to the spot in Armenia where they can gaze out over what used to be their ancestral homeland (now in Turkey). The conversation prompts me to reflect on the places my European ancestors are from and how many of them came to America fleeing poverty or persecution, or were forced off their own ancestral homelands, even if longer ago than Armenia’s 100th anniversary of the genocide this year…

It’s something that isn’t often tended to in the European American experience. Many of us with European ancestry may identify with the oppressor, having come to America and stolen lands from Native Peoples. Were we meant to cross the great ocean and forget our roots and begin anew, forgetting the cycles of trauma and displacement that many European Americans endured? In the threads of my own braided history there was the French Protestant Ezell family fleeing Catholic persecution, where being burned at the stake or cut down by the sword because of your religion was the norm. There were the Delameters, also fleeing France and seeking refuge at Canterbury before finding a safe haven in the Netherlands. There were the Belgian/Dutch Walloons, also Protestants fleeing persecution and landing in New Amsterdam (New York). There were the Scottish Highland Chisholms, driven off their lands by the English and massacred at the Battle of Culloden. There were the peasants from Mecklenburg, Germany, still living in one of the last and poorest serfdoms in the late 1800s. And there were the McNamaras – the line of my name – who lived in place in County Clare, Ireland, for no less than 1,200 years, defeating every intruder until Oliver Cromwell came with his guns and cannons and enforced new tenant landlord laws, driving the native people off their lands, burning churches and evicting all but six of 200 McNamara families. They hung on for 200 more years in Ireland, Catholics punished for their religion under oppressive English “Penal Laws,” until the Potato Famine final forced them across the ocean to the tenements of New York. The story braids itself to my father, Robert McNamara, whose mother was born and buried in Parkersburg.

In Ireland, the bards or poets historically played an important role, filling the office of both historian and genealogist. They curated the stories and signposts of a family or clan, recording and sharing them across generations, handing us the artifacts that pointed to the significant impressions made over time. In this way, culture and identity were transmitted. Where we come from and where we have been was deemed of utmost importance. In today’s very different world, we as parents and elders can still play these vital roles, reminding our children of the larger spans of lifetimes, putting our current lives in perspective and context, and sharing the stories we deem important for posterity. We can inspire respect for those who have passed before us, and a sense of awe and mystery in the face of where we have come from and where we are going. What survives over centuries? What traits do we inherit from those we’ve never met but who we are related to? How did so many of us become so short-sighted? How do we maintain vital connections to our past while also shaping our future, keeping in mind what legacy we as individuals, families and societies wish to leave behind? Can we see ourselves both as the oppressor and the oppressed, thus inviting the possibility of deeper understanding and compassion for all sides? This surfaces with my children when recounting stories or histories where it is easy to fall into “good versus bad” or “right versus wrong.” Even with my own past, I feel the tendency to side with one side, and then I remember that in almost every instance my bloodline embodies both/and. I was the Viking invader and the native Irish. I was the English colonizer and the Scottish Highlander. I was the Catholic and the Protestant. I was the Patriot as well as the Red Coat, and I was also the Confederate and the Union.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once pointed to “the bards sublime, whose distant footsteps echo through the corridors of Time.” In these distant footsteps I catch faint whispers pointing to the path of integration. I ride the waves of old story and ultimately see clearly the inevitability of my and our dissolution. And yet, something endures – at least for a time. The bones in the earth, the stories across generations, the old barn, the same sound of crickets or cicadas chirping now that would have likely piped up 50 or 100 or 500 years ago too. The light across an old doorway, or the bond between a mother and her child. And age-old important questions: Are we making time to share what is most important? Are we telling the stories we want to hand down? It is a time for remembering the long term perspective of Life. What are we growing in this lifetime? What are the roots? What is worth preserving and upholding across the vast annals of time?


Dry Run Road, Parkersburg, West Virginia

In Search of La Dolce Vita

Like a tea bag pulled out of the hot water after a good steep, I re-enter my habitual life after a dream-like frolic with the ancient, devotional, artful aspects of Italy. I was there for a reunion with some of my oldest friends and we dipped into the world of slow food, fresh melons and prosciutto, local mozzarella, white wine and goat cheese, staying in a 400 year old ‘convento,’ which drew us together for three hour dinners under an old stone archway.

It was just my youngest son and I traveling and I got used to parenting only one. Attunement to his needs was more easeful. I could enjoy the simple gestures that inform the daily bonding of a mother and her child in a way that I can’t when I am balancing the myriad needs of all of my children combined. I could see him more clearly. It was an unexpected gift. This – combined with the luxury of finished sentences, time with old friends, delicious food, good coffee and the never-ending beauty of medieval stone towns, old cathedrals, vineyards and olive groves – was truly the good life.

Returning home to family life with fresh eyes, I immediately feel the effects of splitting my attention amongst three. The essential questions have become: how to not succumb to scatteredness? How to stay centered and remember the simple pleasures of life? And, how to cultivate ‘la dolce vita’ here at home amidst diapers, fevers, almond butter and jelly, dinner thrown on the floor and the barrage of whines? I start with slow sips, remembering to drink in each moment at home just as I did the gorgeous light of Tuscany. Then, I weave in doing something I love each day and making sure to bring the kids along, even if they resist. I remember the nourishment of just being alive: the feeling of air on skin, the beauty of sunlight on a wall, the taste of food (even if not cooked in local olive oil). In this way, we don’t have to travel far to find the sweet nectar of being alive…

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Nataraja, The Dancer

Nataraja, The Dancer

Here is something else parenthood has taught me: Inadequacy is the great equalizer.

You might, understandably, be wondering what on earth I mean. Let me start here: The word adequate is from the Latin, ‘adaequatus,’ “equalized” – as in “to be equal to what is required.” Parenting shows me my own limitations at every turn. Daily I don’t feel equal to what is required. I don’t mean this in a self-deprecating way, I mean it practically. I can’t respond to three requests at once. I can’t do as much as I once did. For me, parenthood often feels like a constant fall on the face: a literal trip up the stairs, dropping so many balls as I try to carry too much. There is food on the wall (and pummeled into the floor). The laundry piles creep out of baskets. Work tasks take longer to check off. Phone calls go unanswered. Letters written three weeks ago are still not mailed. “Where are my keys?” “I swear that diaper was in my bag.” “Mom! Why didn’t you wash my sweatshirt? You said you would!” …

With less and less room to ‘get it all done,’ there is more and more space for humility. And, with that emerges the invitation to dance in the freedom of just being yourself, regardless of and independent of what you are able to ‘accomplish.’ Ultimately, freedom arrives when I am just myself, moment to moment. Nothing more or less, just doing one thing at a time, calmly (or not) juggling all the balls thrown up in the air. I’m reminded of Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, an expression of Shiva who dances a cosmic dance of bliss, with one foot on the ground pointing to his embodiment, with the other foot lifted in the air, pointing to release. His dance is meant to release us from the illusion of separateness. (How can we be ‘unequal’ to anything?)

So – we can be equal dancers in the seamless, never-ending field of current familial chaos. We don’t have to be thrown under the bus of overwhelm and the feeling of not measuring up. We can instead just do the Dance. And we can do it from a level, ‘equalized’ playing field. We can do it from an orientation of no-separation.

For me, the experience of feeling inadequate in the face of what life requires has rendered me smoothed out, laying me flat on my face on the ground of being. Like the priest who prostrates himself before the altar, so too do I feel utterly surrendered: splatted out into what is ultimately an experience of being equalized: “made the same in quantity, size, or degree throughout..made uniform in application or effect.”

My friend Edwige sums it up well. “I looked at this beautiful baby next to me and I just said to myself “let go, just let go.” And so I relinquished myself over to my life—and to not being able to control everything around me; I accepted that I cannot be perfectly rested any more, or perfectly prepared. I am a parent.”  I love this. Even when we are riding along the edges of overwhelm, exhaustion, or a feeling of ‘not measuring up,’ we can choose to let go of trying to control all of the outcomes and instead dance our seamless, perfect dance within life’s ongoing variables – meeting what comes with undivided attention and love.


“May Day,” a poem by Sara Teasdale (1884-1933):

Oh I must pass nothing by
Without loving it much,
The raindrop…
The grass with my touch;

For how can I be sure
I shall see again
The world on the first of May
Shining after the rain?


When the mother hears her baby crying, she puts down whatever she has in her hands, she goes into its room, and takes the baby in her arms. The moment the baby is lifted into the mother’s arms, the energy of wisdom already begins to penetrate into the baby’s body. The mother does not know yet what is the matter with the baby, but the fact that she has it in her arms already gives her child some relief. The baby stops crying. Then the mother continues to hold the baby in her arms, she continues to offer it the energy of tenderness, and during this time the mother practices deep looking. A mother is a very talented person. She only needs two or three minutes to figure out what is the matter with her baby. Maybe its diapers are a little bit too tight; maybe the baby has a touch of fever; maybe it needs a bottle? Then when the understanding comes, the mother can transform the situation immediately.

It is the same thing with meditation. When you have pain within you, the first thing to do is to bring the energy of mindfulness to embrace the pain. “I know that you are there, little anger, my old friend. Breathe—I am taking care of you now.”

-From True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart, Thich Nhat Hanh

I’ve been working with difficult emotions this past year. Several relationships have unfolded in ways I don’t like – and it has been a long road in accepting what is beyond my control. Over and over again I have been bidding myself to ‘let go.’ Wishing I could simply set aside the feelings I don’t like, I imagine myself over and over again relinquishing anger, hurt feelings, disappointment, bitterness, irritation. It isn’t that I diminish the feelings or try to push them away. It is just that holding on too tightly to disappointment or hurt feelings doesn’t serve my capacity for joy and presence. A constant trying to ‘let go’ of what I dislike has left me realizing that I’ve not been living with a full embrace of what just is.

Which leads me to reflect on the notion of ‘letting go.’ First, ‘letting go’ of difficult emotions is no small – or easy- task. Trying too hard to ‘let go’ may move us more in the direction of ‘pushing away’ instead of drawing close and becoming intimate with our feelings and experience. It doesn’t mean simply setting something aside like you set aside the cup of coffee you are finished with in the morning. It is more a gesture of being open to the often slow and mysterious process of transformation, through becoming intimate with whatever difficult emotions arise. Second, just “dropping” difficult feelings when we are done with them is only a temporary measure. (“Oh, I don’t need you anymore so to the rubbish bin you go!”) Instead, we can acknowledge we’d like to be done – and then practice patience, trusting that with attention and light shed on our experiences we will eventually metabolize what needs to be metabolized. Finally, when ready: full embrace. Contrary to the notion of ‘letting go of something,’ we can actually move in the opposite direction via the alchemy of loving and intimate embrace of our full range of experience. For me, this is when the true letting go (through transformation) can occur. I can let go of expectations, standards and story lines, and tune inwards with the spirit of unflinching acceptance. And – with full embrace of our own reactions and feelings, we can be led to also more authentically embrace those who we feel have let us down. We can enter the realm of forgiveness – which inherently (and etymologically) entails a “giving up” or giving over

And why is this important? Holding on to anger and its recurring flare doesn’t serve the capacity to live from a full gesture of Love. Even with anger, as with other difficult emotions, we can hold what is real, what is happening and what has happened, in an embrace. This is life. There are things beyond our control. People don’t and won’t always act how we prefer. It hurts sometimes. And, we don’t have to hold on and fester as an ongoing habit. Instead, we can slowly turn away into something new when we are ready – as if turning away from an old, familiar friend. I may see you again – I may not. Regardless, let’s end well.


A Mother’s Body:


Giver of Life

Bone shifter.

Doorway to the next generation of family story-

her body a vessel,

she has become Whole:


Irrevocably marked.


When it is all said and done,

death calling her to another form

she will see that ‘perfect’ doesn’t matter.

Not “perfect” hips but Birthing hips.

Not dainty light spritely

but feet and legs sunk deep in Earth,

heavy with responsibility:



Vast with circle of Love.

Once again, I am blessed to have Rowan attending a school that offers inspiration and wisdom on my own path. His kindergarten teachers post a weekly slogan next to the sign in sheet where we parents sign our children in and out of the school day. This week: a slogan for the new year on ‘Windhorse’ – and a reminder to me to ring in this new year with a deepened commitment to upliftedness  in the midst of the often myopic details of parenting and homemaking…

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Of fine tuning

careful listening

slow, steady attunement to another being.

Of recalibrating what bliss means-

with once singing joints now rickety,

tired and aching from carrying a little one –

but redefining ecstasy to encompass new reference points.

No, I am not presently a master of Yoga or the Intellect,

only having plumbed the depths of my own soul.

Master of this:

The Inner realm that is also the Outer:

reflection of divine light

also known as Love,

reverberating in all my cells

and in my slow beating heart-

quiet master of my own loving, aching soul’s journey

through time and space

Nothing more, nothing less.

Just Here, simple, in love in the face of small things.

I am not a master of words.

My particular realization concerns itself with Presence,

that act of grace filling body

coming together to form spine and stomach

and eyes flashing only glimpses of Divine reality within.

Ushering forth new life,

A mother becomes master of

Chopping wood

Carrying water

doing laundry







Some say ‘mundane’

I say beating heart

full of love

resting in simple dance of Being.

Nothing more.  Nothing less,

still refining,

Like the great crucible of life that is

The Womb.


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