Parenting isn’t easy business. There are weeks when I cruise along and life is smooth. There are other weeks when I’m drowning in the stress of it all. I wonder at times, is it only me? Why does this feel so difficult? Am I ill-equipped to raise three boys?
It was during one of the hard moments when I wrote the poem below. I was at my wit’s end. It was a moment of doubting my capacity to do what needs doing. None of my strategies were working. My boys were each grappling with different end of school year transitions and the accompanying unease. Daily life was full. The sibling rivalries were kicking. Separation anxiety was rearing its head. Mother’s patience was waning. Every day seemed to usher in a new fight and new difficult moments. Meanwhile, the summer heat had arrived and school was out. Energies were high and my boys’ motion was ceaseless. I found myself daily contemplating the difficult grit of raising boys. And so, this poem was born.
It’s a window into one dimension of my experience raising boys ages 3,5 and 7. Of course they are kind and sensitive and full of sweetness. They are full of imagination and energy. They defy any attempt at categorizing or containing. They also confound me daily with their intense energies and a need to bump physically against their surroundings (and one another). They wrestle. They take a baseball bat to my roses one minute (!?!?) and carefully save a spider the next. They tend the garden the next moment and then make a game of throwing pinecones or rocks at each other’s heads. One moment they are contemplatively sculpting creations out of play dough and the next they are dismantling said creations, stomping on them and throwing chunks up in the air.
On and on this goes. It’s a seamless and fast dance to keep up. When do I pick my battles with them? How do I hold together the structure needed to foster safety and clear boundaries? How do I let them run a bit free and wild while also ensuring they are decent and kind? On some days, I’m interfering all day long. “Don’t do this! Don’t do that! No! Stop!” I keep thinking: there must be a different way. But what is it?
The journey of parenting keeps me on my toes. When one thing isn’t working, its indeed time for another.
Purveyors of sharks.
You trample on life’s delicate,
You spin chaos,
You unfurl conflict.
Wielding everything as a weapon,
Your ocean of energy defies all attempt of containment.
This is the difficult grit of raising boys:
I want you to be free and wild,
But I also need you to be decent and kind.
I want you to live into the best of being a fierce protector,
defender of what is right.
I want you to use and feel your full body, while also understanding limits essential for a life of well-being and peace.
When I’m at a loss as your mother, I want the arms big enough to embrace it all.
In moments of chaos we head to the hills.
Under the sky is the space needed for all of us to breathe.
There is no problem here.
Its only that the world too often enjoys boxes and walls and so much structure –
with little boy souls needing curling and hurling and bending and unfurling,
a mirror to nature’s perfect playground where wild energies can truly run free.
“Everything is ceremony in the wild garden of childhood.” ~Pablo Neruda
The end of the school year ushers with it a flurry of ceremonial markers. May Day flower crowns are made and traditional dances are twirled around the May Pole. Its not only the opportunity to welcome spring’s lovely new flowers, but also an opportunity to participate in a yearly tradition with very old roots.
My mother-in-law joins me to watch the dances and she marvels that my oldest son’s elementary school takes the time for such festivities. She recently moved here from the East Coast – and after a lifelong career in education, she bemoans that too many schools are losing the arts, the festivals and the music. “I remember doing these dances when I was in school,” she says. But now? “Its all about the standards and the testing.” For a brief moment, we nod at how great it feels to be together as a school community, celebrating the seasons and sharing music and tradition. This, too, is important.
My middle son, Braeden, prepares to finish preschool and his class also takes time for ceremony. Not only is there a ‘graduation,’ but there is also preparation for the transition out of preschool. His class has been together for three years with the same teachers. Just a few weeks before graduation, 23 preschoolers and three teachers embark on what has been an annual tradition for over 25 years. They go on a “hero’s journey” together – which includes a field trip into the mountains where they walk a labyrinth and do practices to connect to the elements: earth, air, fire and water. They paint, sing, dance, and do simple rituals together.
Leading up to the graduation ceremony, the preschoolers watch a chrysallis turn into a butterfly in their classroom. Its a slow process and involves a lot of patient watching. During these same weeks, they practice acting out a story. Each child begins in a cocoon, curled up in a ball. The teacher talks them through their rebirth into something new and magnificent – a butterfly! They practice acting out this story again and again – and for the graduation ceremony they share it with everyone. They, too, are now getting ready to fly…
I witness all of these moments and milestones and I wonder: what do we lose when ceremony is set aside? These traditions bring meaning and deepen an experience of community. Even at a young age, children can relate to ceremony. They can understand the gravity of a transition. Ceremonies can connect us to the seasons and the passage of time. They can carve out space for even a brief acknowledgement of change. Perhaps ceremonies and traditions can serve as benchmarks of stability and structure in what can often seem like an endless flow of ‘busyness.’
For me I know this to be true. I often wish I could slow down time. My children are growing up so fast and I know that all of these small milestones will coalesce into memories. What will stand out? Of course there will be memories from the daily rhythms. But there will also be these signposts. The ceremonies with my children remind me to soak in each moment, to take time to pause, and to talk through transitions. They remind me to take note of beginnings and endings. They also remind me that each season and period of time has its gifts and challenges. And then we can honor, celebrate, learn – and turn the page into the next chapter.
A few years ago, Rowan got a betta fish for his birthday. We had him for just under three years – and he did indeed become part of our family. “Fishy” swam in a three gallon bowl on our dining room table and would often look right at the boys when they sat down for a meal. Over the years we added bamboo to his habitat, then rocks, then driftwood. Each time we changed his water or added a new feature, he’d let us know he liked it by blowing bubbles at the surface.
The kids helped to feed Fishy and enjoyed following his movements. I knew that we were lucky to have had our fish for as long as we did – and as Fishy’s third birthday approached, I began to talk to the boys about a betta fish’s lifespan. We noted how he moved more slowly. We tried feeding him extra special fish food just in case he was nearing his end.
When we came home one April evening to find that Fishy was no longer in the land of the living, my two older sons were devastated. They immediately burst into tears and cried for what felt like a full hour. My oldest kept saying “maybe he is sleeping! Won’t he come back?” My middle son was concerned with what would happen now. Will he float to the top? Where will we put him? And also, is it okay to feel sad because Fishy had died? My youngest (age three) was the most matter of fact. With his head tilted to the side he would say, “Fishy died. He’s going back to the earth. Just like great grandma LaRue.” Each had their own response and way of processing Fishy’s death.
I had to think on the fly. I knew it was an important moment. Why hadn’t I thought more about what I would say? It was bedtime and my husband wished I had waited until morning to reveal Fishy’s fate. My two older boys were pacing around, crying and largely unconsolable. I sat on the couch and invited them to sit with me. Yes, bedtime was upon us but we needed a moment of coming together and processing both our feelings and what had just changed.
It was time to be real about life and death. It was time to lay it out bare about what would happen to Fishy’s body now, and how we could best support Fishy’s transition. We talked about how we could still send love and wish him well on his journey to another world. We talked about the mystery of death – and how we don’t know what it is like or where his spirit may be now. We talk about having done our best to be kind to Fishy during his short life. Didn’t those three years of Fishy’s life go by fast? And what can this moment teach us about our own lives going forward? There is no time to waste being kind and appreciating the things around us.
The next day I made sure that each brother was present for Fishy’s burial. We clipped a few flowers from a lilac bush and plucked a few dandelions. I explained that it is nice to offer something beautiful to honor Fishy’s life. We dug a hole and found special rocks to decorate his resting place. Rowan, who took Fishy’s death the hardest, took his time writing a note for Fishy’s ‘tombstone.’ I encouraged him to sit with Fishy’s resting place and feel whatever he was feeling. There was a space for silence.
What struck me most was how easy it would have been to have glossed over Fishy’s death. Life gets busy and I’m too often overwhelmed. And – wasn’t it only just a pet fish? Taking the time needed to do honor to the moment took effort. And yet, the boys had so many questions. They wanted to be intimate with the burial process. They each wanted to scoop Fishy from his bowl and place him in the earth. For days after they kept asking if Fishy’s body had returned to the earth. Was he still there? Was he just bones now?
I was reminded of my grandmother LaRue’s memorial service not too long ago. The great-grandchildren were the ones who immediately stepped up when the Funeral Home staff had asked if anyone wanted to place dirt on Grandma’s urn. They’d just placed her in the earth – and it was the one moment when the boys were entirely focused and present. The rest of the service had been for talking, reflecting, sharing. We’d been in the more ethereal realm of words and memories. But now – this was something tangible the boys could understand. And they were ready to participate.
Rowan and his cousin Lundin shoveled the dirt needed to fill Grandma’s slice of the earth. For me, it was the gritty part. For them, I sensed that they could grab onto this. It made sense. They knew what was happening. They were helping Grandma return to the earth. During the memorial service Rowan had been running around collecting seeds. Now, he wanted to toss them in with Grandma. He intuitively understood the cycle of life.
What if we don’t give children enough space to fully participate in the process of death and dying? What if we exclude them too often from our rituals and rites? These moments honoring both my grandmother and our pet fish reminded me that children are not only profoundly curious about death – but they are also deeply capable of understanding. And, it helps if we can give them something tangible to grab on to and participate in. For me, I needed to create the space for not only processing our feelings and questions – but also for expressing reverence and love.
Somehow, I wanted to make death our friend. I wanted to be intimate with it. I wanted to weave it into the fabric of life as being totally natural and cyclical – while also allowing the space for it to be sad and mysterious. As Rainer Maria Rilke once said, “Death is our friend, precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love…”
How can a little being influence so much?
Perhaps two and three year olds are the great unravelers –
Where all effort to maintain order is undone in the same moment of doing.
Little hands pull it apart right after bigger hands try to “fix” or “accomplish.”
Pick something up and find it then taken out.
Wash then dirty.
Roll it up and then unrolled.
Curiosity indeed lends itself to chaos…
There is no sense to be made, only surrender.
Water spills, life cracks.
Of course it is funny, too.
Wanderings in circles,
And I am utterly, unabashedly besotted.
A note to readers: Hello! It has been awhile since I’ve been posting regularly. As I mentioned a few months ago, I’ve been busy editing my book – The Invitation of Motherhood, coming soon! Meanwhile, I’m catching up to speed on the blog and you’ll see a few posts this week (along with a new look) as I finally get them online. Enjoy!
Over the years, I’ve written a bit on the amazing preschool that my boys attend in Boulder, Colorado. It has been a beacon of wisdom and insight, and I’m eternally grateful. Rooted in the tradition of Shambhala Buddhism, the teachers act based on the premise that there is a basic wisdom inherent in human experience, where bravery and fearlessness can be cultivated. Rowan, Braeden and Kienan’s first year classroom at age two was called the Tiger Classroom, the tiger referencing one of four “dignities” that Alaya Preschool founder Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used as metaphors for stages on the path toward realizing our inherent goodness. Each ‘dignity’ points to certain characteristics a practitioner develops in order to bring wisdom and compassion into daily life. At Alaya Preschool, it is never considered too early to begin instilling the human qualities of discernment, discipline, compassion and wisdom – which the four dignities point to.
Just like the contemplative educational tradition encourages, I wanted to nurture reflection, practice slowing down, and make time for consideration.
Thanks to Alaya Preschool for the following ‘Principles of Contemplative Parenting.’ On a normal weekday morning at drop off, a stack of handouts highlighting these principles greeted interested parents. The following are ones that most resonated, accompanied by short reflections on how these weave into my family life.
Children need to experience how we work with strong emotions. This one gave me a sigh of relief. I often feel bad for expressing my own ‘big’ feelings. Yet I want to be authentic and honest about my own experiences and feelings. Yes! Children do need to see how we work with strong emotions. How do we navigate our own hurt feelings? What do we do when we’re angry? We are always modeling for our children – and any moment working with emotions is a potential teaching moment.
Children do want to be the cause for the effect… So, don’t attend to negative attention seeking. I’ve often worked with trying to focus my energy on the ‘positive.’ I don’t want to get into negative cycles – but I often find myself gravitating towards ‘negative attention seeking.’ How to shift that common pattern? I try to tend to what needs tending, while being aware of overly placing attention in one area.
Taking care of oneself is the best way to take care of the family. This one resonates as my growing edge. How is this possible? It is hard enough to complete even the basic tasks of a day: breakfasts, lunches, dinners. Laundry. Getting to work on time. Each of my children seems to clamor for my attention when I am with them. There are needs to be met – and there are difficult moments at school to process. It is all important – so how to prioritize? Currently, my self-care happens after the kids are in bed. I have yet to crack the nut of how to fully give myself what I need during the days without feeling I’m shortchanging my family. And – I see that if I am nourished and resourced, I always have so much more to give.
Use slogans! In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, slogans (or Lojong) are used as a mind training practice. By practicing with slogans in mind, I could better remember how I wanted to live into my family life. I took some time to create my own slogans for what I wanted to practice in my daily life. I posted them on my bathroom mirror.
Slow down. Take a breath. Take Care
Less ‘time outs,’ more ‘time ins.’ Take a break for self instead.
Did you do quiet time today?
“Time outs are better for us to take than to give to our children.” I never like giving “time outs.” And, there are times when space is needed, both for myself as well as between brothers. I’ve been trying on this idea that time outs are better for us to take than to give to our children. “I need some space!” I will often hear myself saying. In a heated moment, I try to move away and take a deep breath before responding. For my boys, I will often say that they need to take space after making a mistake (especially after making choices that hurt another brother). I am sure to invite them to come back when they are ready. I’ve also been trying the idea of a “time in.” I’ll encourage my son to stay with us all in the same room, but to sit out for a moment, taking a few deep breaths. We often “push the green button” to start over. The key is to interrupt the cycle and to infuse a sense of space.
Check posture & Speak slowly. I love these reminders. They are so tangible. When I speak slowly, I am most often speaking more mindfully and deliberately. When I’m frustrated or angry, my voice often raises and I speak faster. There is less time to consider what I actually want to say. There is more reactivity. So the pause to check posture realigns me with my intentions. If I commit to speaking slowly, I am usually speaking more kindly and thoughtfully.
Compassion: let your kindness be the guide. There are moments when I feel I’ve gone astray from my kindness. It might be the middle of the night and my three-year-old is up screaming because he can’t have the drink he wants in bed. Or it might be that one brother has hurt another and I’m angry beyond words. If I’m tired or overwhelmed on top of any of these things, it can be hard to respond as my best self. So remembering the simple word ‘compassion’ helps. It reminds me to see my children with softer eyes, and to look for the feelings behind their actions. It also reminds me to be gentle with myself.
Make quiet time part of the daily routine. Why is this so difficult on many days? I’m one who prioritizes simplicity and who values down time. And yet it can feel so elusive with three boys in tow! Even my best efforts for quietness are often thrwarted. The boys want to jump and wrestle. They want to play soccer and bike. They want to make physical contact with every object in the house. I can of course steer the energy towards quieter activities – but sometimes this is to no avail. So I model the quiet time myself. I commit to sitting on the couch and watching the birds at the bird feeder every day. I read a book and invite them to join. I practice saying no to the ceaseless activities – making sure that I’m noting that some stillness and quietness is good for me. Sometimes they join, other times they don’t. The key is for me to create this time and space.
Each night before sleep my husband and I take turns telling our boys a bedtime story. Its a tradition we started early on and for some reason it stuck. We make the stories up and sometimes they are silly and other times they are intentionally slow and simple to help transition to sleep after a full day. Sometimes the story holds a lesson. I often relate the story to events from the day – inviting a bit of reflection on anything that may be unresolved.
After a particularly choppy day, I told my boys a story about a boat on water. It had been one of those days when the emotions were running high. There had been conflict. There had been a good dose of mayhem. As I laid in bed with two of my sons, I felt completely belaugered. How could I ease the ending to what had been one of the more difficult days I’d had with my boys in a long while?
With the stories I tell, I often follow what I need to process just as much as what I imagine my boys may need to work through. The image of water came to me as I’d been flooded with emotions – and I myself felt like a boat on choppy water. How could I hang on? What was needed in order to find equilibrium after an evening of tumult?
The story slowly unfolded with the image of two boys on a boat. They were on a journey after a storm. Things had just begun to calm – and the previously choppy waters had returned to relative stillness. I began to talk about how our emotions are also like water – sometimes choppy and sometimes calm. Just like a sailor on a boat, how can we too aim to find equilibrium? How do we feel what needs to be felt but not be entirely controlled by the emotions? I ask the questions as they slowly drift to sleep.
The story is about the power of observation. The boys on the boat observe the water and full spectrum of the horizon as they also tune in to how it feels on the boat. The observant sailors have a special ability to feel the full spectrum of what is happening, but also not to be yanked like a dog on a leash by big waves or big feelings. They know how to weather storms. How? Through practice.
The story explores how to find balance in spite of storms. Some things are beyond our control – but how can we stand on deck, using our inner resources to meet what comes? What bravery is needed? And what about when confusion reigns and mistakes are made?
The boys on the boat somehow find their strong center of gravity, even when there are big waves, sharp edges and hurt feelings. There is no need to be perfect here. Boats rock. Waves roll. But then the calmer waters are restored. As the boys drift across the water, they take time to feel the full spectrum of life’s journey across the world.
My grandmother LaRue Marie Brown Lundin just passed away on Tuesday, October 18th at 11:15pm. She was 100 years old, born on May 2nd, 1916. At the time of her birth, Woodrow Wilson was president and the United States was just about to enter World War I. The automobile was still relatively new, having been around only 30 years. Motion pictures were still being produced without sound. As a teen, she would have heard about Gandhi’s Salt Marches and Amelia Earhart being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. When she was 29, she would have likely been amazed at the unveiling of the world’s first computer.
She lived through World War II and Vietnam. Her first husband walked out, leaving her to raise two little girls solo in the 1940s. She was a woman who rarely sat down until well into her 90s – and even then she would put up a fight to help with the dishes. The ham and potatoes were always perfect and served on her finest china. She had to have things done her way. She ruled the roost – and her kitchen especially – late into her years. Forks went one way in the dishwasher and spoons another. In her life she was often feisty, funny and quick witted. She was known to ride roller coasters even in her 60s. In her 80s she took a ride in a motorcycle side car with a wide grin on her face.
I was lucky enough to get to her death bed in Casper, Wyoming a few days before her passing and shared some of her last words before she fell silent on Saturday. There were so many poignant moments all at once. The wind was harsh and chaotic, contributing to my own turmoil as I balanced parenting my three young boys with my desire to sit quietly at her side. It was the familiar feeling of being splattered in too many directions – laid bare and stretched toward a horizon as vast as the Wyoming landscape my grandmother called home for her last years of life.
Her imminent death was inviting me to slow down and abide. And yet the chaotic, messy, tumultuous land of my very much alive three boys inevitably eclipsed my need for silence. Wanting to pay homage to my grandmother’s life, I took every opportunity I could to sit with her and hold her hand. Each moment of reflection felt stolen as I bounced back and forth between my grandmother’s bed and the quickened pace of parenting. The experience of holding space for my boys, holding space for myself, and also simultaneously holding space for my grandmother felt both relentless and impossible. My two-year-old tantrumed like never before. I scrambled to cook, mitigate conflict, launder and keep up with the potty training and snacks. There was a diaper here and another there. Did they brush their teeth and was I connecting enough with them? The Hospice nurse’s injunction for quiet contrasted sharply with my bundle of never-ending movement and energy wrapped in three precious boys. Where was the place for children in this liminal moment of parting? How to not drown in what felt like unconquerable chaos? It was a feeling I was well aquainted with, amplified by Death’s Door. I only wanted to focus on what’s important – but how to do that when so much calls for one’s best and most present self? I took the moments of quietness I could get, and tried to go gently.
Sitting with my grandmother, I was struck by all she worried about in her final days. In particular, the fierceness of a mother’s love and care until the very end shown through. That some of her last words were about a baby – and her “two baby girls” – sinks deep. She needed reassurance that they were okay. As my grandmother struggled, the Hospice nurses recommended a Reiki practitioner who does energy work with those dying. She did her work from a distance, only knowing my grandmother’s name. She didn’t know that my grandmother had been talking about a baby and telling us over and over again that she was ‘seeing’ a baby. And yet, the practitioner relayed that my grandmother was struggling with an early pregnancy loss. She was meeting the baby, said the Reiki master. She was talking to the lost child, apologizing. Apparently, she needed to work through this loss before she died.
“I can’t believe I’m leaving,” she said to me as she looked intently into my eyes. “Unreal. Absolutely unreal,” she said. In her final days she said “sorry” many times. “I just have to say that.” She also told us she loved us. When I mentioned her great-grandsons were there to see her, she said “Oh wonderful!” and called them honeys.
While we aren’t sure all she was sorry for, we do know she was grappling with different moments in her life. The regrets, the love, the mistakes, the hard moments. She was worrying about her two daughters. Were her “two babies” okay? She worried about money. Was that okay too? Whatever she was working through, she held on fiercely. For days the Hospice nurses said it was the end – but her heart kept beating and her lungs kept breathing. “Are you ready to go?” we asked her on Saturday. “Yes.” I whispered in her ear that she could let go and that all was okay. “Thanks. That would be nice!” she said, with her familiar humor. Different names were spoken. She called for someone named Wesley. She asked for my brother. Was Aunt Carole okay?
The Hospice nurse called it “Terminal Restlessness.” She had only seen one other person hold on so tightly for so long while they were actively dying. For Grandma, she was actively dying for many days. She didn’t eat for almost two weeks. Some breaths had 45 seconds in between. Others, a minute and a half. At one moment I asked my two-year-old what he thought was important to remember when being with his great grandmother as she dies. Without hesitation he says “give love.” He and my four-year-old both sang sweet preschool songs to her and touched her forehead as they said goodbye. My oldest sat guard just outside, practicing his knitting – perhaps as a way to integrate the gravity of the moment.
After a while her words stopped. She couldn’t move her mouth any longer and her eyes were mostly closed. My mother and I light candles. We speculate on what she could be waiting for. She was one who was very particular about the parameters of her comfort. We awaited the constellation most supportive of her release.
Her death reminds me that more important than the dishes or the dinner or keeping up with the endless sea of daily tasks is the airing out of our mysteries and darker internal experiences. She reminds me that taking time to fully digest and integrate my experiences will pay off as I age – and perhaps as I too am faced with my own death bed. Her death reminds me of the importance of staying current and connected with our deepest troubles and doing the work required to allow them to heal. And – I’m also reminded that some things may never dissolve, even at the end. Here she was, 100 years old, ready to go but somethings perhaps left unresolved. She tries to communicate and we only get snippets towards the end. Money. Babies. The number 59. Like riddles unsolved or pieces of a puzzle without the whole, we choose to reassure her. We tell her it’s all taken care of. What’s left in the heart and mind can be released. And, if letting go is a task impossible, then blend the light and dark, lovely and difficult into one expansive, integrated gesture in the heart. I whisper into her ear that the heart can hold it all. She doesn’t have to be burdened with casting something off or letting something go before her final release – but rather she can accept, embrace and integrate. Then, let it all dissolve. We remind her again and again that she is so loved, even when she tells my mother at one moment that she can’t feel that.
Her death reminds me of the lifetimes of baggage we can carry – perhaps even to the grave. She reminds me that the experience of motherhood is one of the most important in a lifetime – and that we likely worry about our children intensely until the end. My grandmother’s death also reminds me not to waste any time in delighting in the feeling of sun on skin or wild winds in hair. She reminds me that love is the most important thing.
Death is akin to a birth – a labor of anticipation. In my grandmother’s case, it appeared that hard work and surrender was required. She had to struggle to find her final resting place. On the night that she died, my cousin Michelle had a dream. “I was trying to find her a place to sleep. She didn’t say anything. We just walked around a house, sometimes her leading me and other times I was helping to keep her steady. Every room had a fireplace, but all the beds were taken. I had to grab someone else’s couch cushions and laid them down to make a bed for her…I don’t know if I have ever dreamt about Grandma so it’s incredible that I dreamt of her on the night of her passing.”
Just before she died I saw her via a video call. Like looking into a mirror at the future, I witnessed the way in which nature and life do their alchemy of transformation on each of us. Her skin and jaw were falling towards the earth in a profound dance of gravity and release. As my grandmother held on with quick shallow breath, I wondered about the ways in which we hold and process memories throughout our lives. What happens if we don’t say what needs to be said? Is there unfinished business to tend to? When we too are knocking on death’s door, will something hold us back or give us pause? What life did we lead? And was it what was imagined or hoped for? Her eyes leave me with the silent injunction to ask again and again what is needed to come to peace with our one precious life.