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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.

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“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:

Shapeshifter

Giver of Life

Bone shifter.

Doorway to the next generation of family story-

her body a vessel,

she has become Whole:

Holy,

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:

weighted,

Big.

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

dishes

carrying

holding

feeding

loving

nurturing-

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.

“I have news for you:
The stag bells, winter snows, summer has gone
Wind high and cold, the sun low, short its course
The sea running high.
Deep red the bracken; its shape is lost;
The wild goose has raised its accustomed cry,
cold has seized the birds’ wings;
season of ice, this is my news.”
– 9th Century Irish Poem

photo 4 (7)photo 2 (11)photo 2 (7)photo 4 (2)Thermopolis, Wyoming, taken earlier this week

Odin riding on Sleipnir -from the Tjängvide image stone

Odin riding on Sleipnir -from the Tjängvide image stone, Sweden

The wheel of the year turns and Winter ushers itself in today at 4:03pm. A new moon presides over a cold, dark night. I quietly mark the turn with a moment outside, turning a circle and taking in the cool air and low-hanging sun over the mountains.

Over the past few weeks as I’ve been aiming to share a meaningful narrative with my children about this sacred time of year, a letter unfolds in my mind. How to make sense of all the converging energies of the season? There is Jesus’ birth of course. And lengthening nights and shorter days. Solstice. Christmas trees. Santa Claus. St. Nick. Stockings hung. Advent calendars. Candy Canes. Gift-giving. Wish lists. The kids of course grab onto the Santa story. My son sees him at the holiday parade and yells out his wish list. “Santa! Lego Mobile Police Unit!” And just now as I write he wakes up and comes downstairs: “Mama, why don’t we get presents yet?” I tell him to go back to sleep and that tonight is the longest night of the year. “Let yourself dream a special dream about that,” I say. On Christmas they will find a small rolled up letter from Santa in their stockings. It will go something like this.

Long before I was called Santa Claus, I was called by other names. My origins are a bit mysterious – but one thing is certain: throughout Europe at Solstice (and then Christmas) time, there have been sacred men presiding over the winter festivities – the Holly King in Ireland (wearing red and green), Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Sinter Klaus, Odin, Woden, Grandfather Frost… 

In the winter, many things can’t live. But, the evergreen trees do stay green and they remind us of life, even when the other leaves on trees have died and returned to the Earth. In northern Europe, ‘Yule’ or ‘Jul’ was a popular solstice time feast and many celebrated Solstice by bringing evergreen boughs and then trees into their homes. It was a time for feasting, candles and fires. There was even a sacred man called Jolnir (meaning ‘Yule bringer’) – who also has a long beard, just like me.

I want you to know about my names that are older than Santa Claus. You see, when stories and traditions are very old, it is hard to discern exactly where and how they began. Many people think that I am Saint Nicholas – a very generous 4th C. Christian priest who loved giving coins to children. But actually one of my first names was likely Woden, or Odin, an old Germanic and Norse God. (Did you know that Wednesday is named after Woden? “Woden’s Day”).  Odin was the god of wisdom, magic, poetry, prophesy, war, battle and victory. He created the runes the Norse used for writing.  During Yule time, or the Solstice feast, he often led what was called the “Wild Hunt” – flying through the air. Two books from Iceland, the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier sources, and the Prose Edda, also written in the 13th century, describe him as riding an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir that could leap great distances (very similar to my image today. As you know, I am pulled by eight reindeer!). Other very old poetry also describes Odin and Woden as “long bearded,” just like me. Phyllis Siefker, who wrote a book about me called “Santa Claus: The Last of the Wild Men,” notes how children would place their boots which were filled with carrots, straw or sugar near the chimney for Woden’s horse Sleipnir to eat. Woden showed appreciation for this act by replacing the horse’s food with gifts or candy. So, when you hang stockings or put ‘booties’ out or plates of cookies for me and my reindeer – this likely comes from a very, very old custom.

Some people also connect me to another Norse God: Thor, who was often seen flying through the air, pulled by two magical goats named Thunder and Lightening (or, Donder and Blitzen. You might recognize those names from my reindeer that pull my sleigh). My name only became “Santa Claus” here in America through your Dutch ancestors who settled here several hundred years ago and told stories about ‘Sinter Klaas’ – a Dutch rendition of Saint Nicholas. The stories and traditions of your European ancestors traveled a long way to reach you today. They have changed over the years. Now, we celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus alongside these ancient Solstice rituals. 

You might be wondering why this is important. I’ll tell you. It is important because the surviving stories that you hear today point to your indigenous past. They point towards the traditions of your ancestors, who celebrated the change of seasons as special and important. These stories are amazing because they have survived in our memories for a very, very long time. And, if we pay attention to the surviving narrative, we can dig a bit to uncover a lesson about joyful generosity. 

Unfortunately many children are only paying attention to “getting” things, rather than giving. I have become associated almost solely with wish lists, toys, and tracking whether you are “naughty or nice.” I no longer preside with my grand authority over the sacred entrance of Winter: my long beard a reminder of old age and wisdom during a time of profound silence and transition. 

But, if children like you can slow down and pay attention to the deeper roots of things, you might actually enter my realm of magic and imagination – where snow covers the world in a bright, twinkling luster. Remember that it is a time to set intentions for how you want to live: not only what you want to get. It is a time to practice kindness, and bestow your generosity on others. It is a time to remember to be happy with what you have and to celebrate the greatest gifts of Life: love, family, the Divine spark within each of us, the return of the sunlight, and the ancient spiral path to the center of light in our own hearts. 

—————

*Click here for more musings on the origins of Winter traditions…

 

 

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