Making Time for More of What Matters

Rowan’s lantern, with the constellation Orion drawn in honor of his new cousin, also named Orion.

With Thanksgiving and the holidays afoot, I find myself considering how to make time and space for more of what really matters. This time of year invites me to go inwards, to create more space for reflection, and to find time to connect more deeply. Its a time for creating or continuing traditions – and for celebrations rooted in what really matters: sharing, gratitude, creativity and joy.

One tradition that I look forward to each November is the annual Lantern Walk hosted by my children’s schools. The aim is to cultivate a space for quietness, to take pause, and also to honor the dark and colder nights of the season. We are all invited to remember the light within us, even in darkening times. The kids made their lanterns at school and learned songs to sing. Everyone was reminded that the event is meant to honor the spirit of contemplation and stillness. Cell phones off. Social personality and chatter aside. Together, during a quiet walk with lanterns in hand, we celebrate the dark, cool night, we sing a few quiet tunes, and we take note of the twinkling stars.

The event reminds me of the importance of finding stillness and moments of pause during what can be a busy season. It reminds me to shake up my family routine and get outside, even in the dark evening when I’d usually be moving us towards sleep. It reminds me to create time and space for what matters to me – even if my children might not receive it how I imagine they might. I can support the conditions for these things to arise, and then be ready too to let go into any chaos that might emerge. (Because, well, it usually does!)

This year’s lantern walk held it all. There were the quiet moments holding a hand, and there was giggling and the usual running around in circles orchestrated by my sons and their cousin. There was getting lost from one another and dropped coats and hats. There were candles blown out and tears. But it didn’t matter. We were there together in the spirit of co-creating something special and meaningful. There were moments of magic and appreciation. There was the absolute joy of my youngest son seeing the stars and exclaiming in sheer amazement: “Mom! It is real space up there!” And above all else, I was just thankful for exactly what was – remembering that essential ingredient that guides me to what matters every time: Gratitude! No matter what – just, gratitude. 

The Alaya Preschool classroom glows – and paper bags with lights greet us on the lantern walk trail.

 

 

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What about Anxiety and Dark Spaces? 5 Practices for Working with Children

Over the past months and years, I’ve often found myself in over my head as a parent. One of my boys has been recently struggling with separation anxiety – and learning how to respond and offer support has been an ongoing, often stressful journey. I’ve often felt like I’ve been wading through dark spaces, at a loss as to what to do with the big feelings being expressed. At the bottom, navigating transitions has been difficult. And – no matter what is unfolding, I believe my son is trying to tell me about his broader experience, even if I can’t yet entirely understand.

So what to do? After months of limping along and struggling, I decided to reach out for help. Since the spring, I’ve been having ongoing coaching sessions with a professional counselor who focuses on a psychodynamic approach, with an emphasis on development, attachment and neurobiology. I’ve also been exploring my own strategies – trying new things and seeing what works. Here are a few take-aways from this process.

When the going gets rough, model your own ways of coping. One of the things I often found myself doing in rough moments with all of my children was to offer verbal advice. And yet, there are times when words alone don’t help. All the chatter and suggestions and reassurances were seeming to get us nowhere. Instead, I began to describe my own feelings and experiences and share what helps me during difficult moments. What if I could intentionally model staying with my own hard feelings and give voice to what I do to stay grounded and resourced when facing challenges? “I feel anxious right now too. Goodbyes are so hard. Sometimes it helps if I move my body. Want to march with me?”

My coach reminded me that during difficult moments, our systems are often trying to find balance. When we are in balance, we are regulated and our emotions aren’t bigger than ourselves. When we aren’t in balance, we might be hyperactive or we might shut down or ‘collapse.’ We can serve our children by showing how we face difficulties from a place of regulation. “I’m feeling anxious. I’m going to shake my hands or rub my legs. Want to join me?” We can share our own challenges and how we work with them. I wanted to model staying with hard things. I began to do more describing of my own experiences and what helps. “I’m starting to feel sad and worried too about saying goodbye. It helps me when I feel my feet on the ground and take a deep breath.”

Bring it back to the body. Bringing awareness in each moment to what is going on in our bodies is not only grounding and resourcing, but also can help to cultivate a greater sense of balance. It also helps to decrease any mental anxiety or churning. During the hard moments, I began to pay more attention to what was going on in my own body, while also getting curious about what was going on for my children. Getting to know what the body is feeling is a skill and takes practice. I began to model paying attention to my own experience in this way, and also ask questions that bring that awareness to my kids. “This moment is feeling really hard. I feel it in my chest. And, my stomach is starting to hurt. I wonder what you feel right now in your body?” Checking in with myself can also help my kids check in with themselves. I began to name my own experiences more, inviting them to join me in noticing and paying closer attention to what was going on in their own bodies.

Just breathe together. One of the main reminders from talking with my coach was around the importance of just breathing together. She would often say, “Use fewer words. Do more holding and breathing.” Just breathing together and having more physical interaction helped me to slow down and connect more. “Let’s take a few minutes to just breathe together,” I would say. These moments of breathing together didn’t always assuage the underlying difficulties, but it did offer up important moments to pause and connect, and bring us back to the simplicity of feeling our bodies and taking a deep breath together. Even for a moment, it provided a brief respite – and a reminder of how a deep breath is always available as a way to calm down.

Make concrete observations. I wanted to find ways to say “I hear you. I see you. It is hard, and you can do this.” So I started paying closer attention to the tangible things happening in any moment, and began naming those things. “I see you walking in circles right now. Are you getting nervous about school?” I wanted my kids to know I was paying close attention to them. Beyond listening to them when they were trying to communicate something verbally, I could also let them know I was really seeing them too. It helped me to connect more to what was going on in the present moment – and to also bring awareness to the concrete things that were happening. It was also a way to bring me out of my complex mental churnings about what was going on – and trying to assign stories to those things. Instead I could stay more focused on each present moment and what was arising. I could use observation statements to let my kids know “I’m with you. I’m paying attention. I see you.”

Express empathy. Connect heart to heart. My coach calls this “joining and affirming.” I can say, “you’re really hurting. That’s hard.” Or, “Wow, this feels big.” At first I was trying to connect during difficult moments by saying “I love you no matter what…I’m right here…” Then I realized that expressing empathy and connecting heart to heart is so much more than expressing only our love and appreciation. When a fellow adult comes to me with a trouble, I never respond simply by saying “But I love you!” No. I listen. I mirror back what I see and hear. All of the sudden it seemed ridiculous that I was trying to patch up the moments of anxiety with my kids by saying “I love you.” Perhaps I wanted a simple fix. Perhaps I didn’t know what else to say. I wished that love would be enough to assuage the hard spaces.

Those words of love are of course important – but more so in moments of smoothness. During moments of separation anxiety, confusion, anger or frustration, expressing empathy is better shown when I name what I see and try to join and affirm. I began to try to see the struggles wanting to shine through. “You feel scared. You feel stupid. That must feel icky.” I could say, “I hear you. I want you to know though that I don’t see you that way.”

At the heart of all of my efforts to meet my children during their difficult moments was a simple reminder. I must take the time to really listen deeply. I can revisit the tough moments to debrief and connect. I can learn from my own mistakes and fumbles (which have been many during this particular season of parenting!). In this way, we connect and reflect. We learn and grow, together. Resilience is slowly cultivated. Over time, we come to accept more gracefully that things happen that aren’t comfortable – and, we find ways to get through them. As Naomi Wolf says, “Obstacles, of course, are developmentally necessary. They teach kids strategy, patience, critical thinking, reslience and resourcefulness.” We could now at least face our obstacles together with a deep breath.

 

The Motherhood Journey: Lessons from the 8th Birthday

I came out on the chariot of the first gleam of light, and pursued my
voyage through the wildernesses of worlds leaving my track on many a star and planet.

It is the most distant course that comes nearest to thyself,
and that training is the most intricate which leads to the utter simplicity of a tune.

The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own,
and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end… 

-The Journey Home, Rabindranath Tagore

As a mother, I’ve had many a moment where I’ve felt like a scuba diver needing to come up to the surface. Some months I don’t even realize I’ve been submerged, swimming through my days which turn into months and then years. Writing helps me to resurface and reflect – and when I do, I’m always amazed at what can go underground (or under water), forgotten for a time. 

This blog post is a perfect example. Last year, I’d come across Rabindranath Tagore’s poem, The Journey Home, and it struck me deeply. I’d wanted to take time to write about it, and to reflect on my life journey and how the path of motherhood has fit in. What was I learning? How have I grown and changed? I loved how the poem reminded me to consider my journey through life in a spiritual context. How was I leaving my track, especially with my family and my children? How was I (or wasn’t I) “coming into my own?”

With my oldest son turning 8 years old this summer, it was a perfect time to reflect on how one phase of parenting (and childhood) was closing while another was opening. I’ve been taking time to celebrate the phase of having young kids. (This period of life will pass all too fast!) I’ve also been considering lessons learned and mistakes made. I’ve lamented the moments of complaining or overly focusing on challenges. Did I soak in the sweet moments of cuddles enough? Have I appreciated the times when we’ve simply held hands? Did I yell too many times? Did I do all the things I’d dreamed of doing during these precious early years?

In some ways, the 8th birthday made me panic. It surfaced my regrets. It also ushered in a new sense of resolve. One window was closing, even while another was opening. The relationship was shifting into a new era. I better embrace it NOW.

The 8th birthday has also invited me to consider where I’m at in my path as a householder and mother. My identity has fully settled into something I could never have imagined when I was pregnant with my first son. Many months and years have indeed felt like ‘knocking at alien doors’ – the sleepless nights, the unsettledness of shifting body and personal identity, the new worries, the unchartered responsibilities. It has been a strange wandering at times – often treading new waters that have forced me out of my comfort zone and spread me thinner than the flattest of pancakes.

It has been all too easy to lose sight of my initial intentions and sense of purpose around parenting. I remember when I embarked on the path of motherhood, I’d sat across my husband over dinner at a Thai restaurant, telling him that I wanted to “induct a meaningful human experience.” I’d wanted to walk the path of Big Love. It all sounded – and felt – so idealistic then. It was before big messes and frayed nervous systems. It was before the chaos.

The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end. 

Tagore’s poem serves up a slice of the sublime. What is the innermost shrine at the end? How is my journey circling in those most revered places, even when I’m too submerged in my own orbits of familial chaos to remember? The lessons that want to shine through with the 8th birthday are waiting for me. They are like little gifts on an altar. I only see them when I take the scuba mask off and look towards the light dancing on water at the surface. They indeed are like reminders to me on my own journey – signposts that are meant to bring me home to myself again and again.

The word shrine comes from the Old English scrin, referring to a ‘cabinet, chest or reliquary.’ I imagine in my own life a place where I store my most treasured items. This place serves as a reminder of what I most want to remember. It is here where I can tuck away the deepest lessons for safekeeping. For me, the shrine holds a reminder to remember to dip into my own inner life – taking the time to digest my experience. Introspection staves off uncentered, ungrounded energy. If I roll along with the currents of my life without taking this time for myself, I lose my center of gravity and my sense of balance.

The shrine holds a reminder to also not get lost amidst all the responsibilities and all the competing demands for my time and attention. It holds a reminder to make room for the meaningful in my life.

The shrine holds a reminder to slow down in my family life even more than I already do. It reminds me about appreciation for what is, exactly. It reminds me about the deep and vast power of love, and my calling to abide in love with my children, even when I’m at my wit’s end.

Finally, the shrine holds a reminder to not hold back one bit, and to move forward whole-heartedly. What do I want to be giving to my children? What do I want to be embodying? How do I want to spend my time? How I live my days is how I live my life. Is it stacking up with my deepest intentions? How am I coming into my own as a mother as I enter my 8th year? Where am I falling short? Once again, the motherhood journey invites me to travel a steep – and beautiful – path…

Self-portrait, age 8

Principles of Contemplative Parenting, Part Two

Earlier this year I posted on Principles of Contemplative Parenting – and my reflections inspired by them. Thanks to Alaya Preschool for outlining some of these suggested points. Here I share a few more, accompanied by my experiences. After a challenging spell with my boys, these served my life like guideposts, reminding me that even when I feel lost or confused, there is always an intentional perspective that I can bring to any situation or moment.

Mind matters most: how we come to a situation has the greatest effect on how the situation turns out. For me, it isn’t just my mental state – but my overall state: whole body, nervous system, heart and soul. A few weeks ago I took my first weekend away from my kids with a few girlfriends. We soaked it hot springs, ate delicious food and hiked in the gorgeous Glenwood Canyon here in Colorado. Upon coming home, I felt truly restored. It wasn’t just that I was relaxed or refreshed; it was that I actually could feel again the essence of who I am most deeply. I was tuned in with myself in a way I hadn’t been for a long time. And when I rejoined my children, I could feel my own state clearly and distinctly as separate from theirs.

This might seem like an obvious need and capacity to some of you reading – but for me, I’d lost something in these past months of parenting. I’d become so spread outwards that I’d lost my capacity to subtly note when my boys’ states were overly and negatively influencing mine. So when my middle son was feeling anxious about the impending start of school and beginning to act out as a result, I too was feeling anxious and getting high strung and ungrounded. When my sons were needing to wrestle and run and jump and join with each other in conflict, I was getting swept right in to that elevated energy. I was losing my sense of balance and ease. I was literally being pulled all over the place and in the process not feeling deeply into myself. The result has been that I’ve not been able to manage difficult family moments with as much patience or skillfulness.

It took a weekend away to realize what had been happening. When I came home and greeted family situations grounded, rested and really feeling my own body and experience, I could respond more in alignment with how I most want (with compassion, kindness, patience and openness). Alternately, if I haven’t been taking time to tune into my own state and attend to my deepest sense of well-being throughout the day, then I’m scattered and unable to tend mindfully to big emotions arising or the sometimes crazy moments of chaos and conflict.

So yes – how we come to a situation has the greatest effect on how a situation turns out. The lesson here for me is to take the time needed to tune in, slow down, and notice how I’m doing (at the deep levels) before I respond to difficult and complex moments. Then, I can set the intention per how I most want to respond and let that guide me.

Keep it light, fun and no big deal, unless it is a big deal. Even then, make sure love comes through (even if it has to be the tough variety). My challenge of late is to choose what is a big deal and what isn’t. Some days it feels like I could be battling all day long setting boundaries and redirecting actions. So where do I really step in and draw big lines? Again, as I mention above, if I’m not careful I can be swept into a million nutty directions with three boys and their friends doing all sorts of things bordering on unsafe or unkind. So I make a practice of choosing my battles. Trying to catch bees with a kitchen towel? Okay. Not the best choice but I’m going to let that one go. Plowing through the neighbor’s flowers during a pretend mountain biking excursion? No way. Let’s make apology cards and buy them a bouquet to leave on their doorstep. Donning helmets and pretending to be bulls fighting via intense headbutts in a pen? Not my favorite pasttime but go for it. Taking a plastic race track, turning it into a whip, and smacking your brother full force across the legs? Oh no. Here comes the big reaction.

We all need boundaries. And yes, keeping it light and fun is the ideal. But there are moments when strong words and bigger energy is also needed. Remembering to let love shine through even in those moments is key – even if it means looping back around after the fact to connect. “We all make mistakes. But there are things we can do to be more careful…”

Children never want us to be unhappy, but they certainly do sometimes get stuck in wanting us to do the things we do when we get mad. Right now, one of my sons seems to relish in pushing my buttons. Ultimately, he needs to push me hard enough so that I give him the containment that he needs in order to release his big feelings. In his confusion, he’ll do anything to get a reaction from me. He will work every angle until he can acheive an emotional release.

The other night just before bedtime, he pulled apart one of my houseplants. He threw his brother’s lego sets. He proceeded to run around the house – engaging me in a push-me, pull-me cat and mouse chase. Nothing I said satisfied him until he finally got to the place of crying while I was holding him. But before he got to this place, he was certainly stuck in wanting to meet me in a place of reactivity and chaos. The doorway to his relaxing, connection and release was somehow rooted in wanting me to do the things I do when I get mad: one of which is hold him tightly.

I’m still working on how to free up this pattern. There are so many layers at work – so many needs and emotions – and also perhaps pure mischief, too. I try to switch up my responses, remembering my ability to be fresh and new with how I’m responding.

“We’re going to try something new” is always an option when you are in a rut with your child. Sometimes I forget that I can indeed try something new. As I’ve written about before – this principle reminds me of the Buddhist notion of “Beginner’s Mind.” I love this definition excerpted from Nithyananda Mission: “By definition, having a beginner’s mind means having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and freedom from preconceptions when approaching anything. Beginner’s mind is actually the space where the mind does not know what to do. It is that delicious state when you are sure of nothing, yet completely fearless, totally available to the moment.” Yes! “We’re going to try something new.” Such a simple invitation – and reminder of the possibilities available when stuck.

Authentic presence in itself is a complete path of parenting, containing all the wisdom, power and love we will ever need. I love this one. If I’m tuned in with how I’m doing and what I need, then I can bring more authenticity to my parenting journey and my relationships with my children. Sometimes I find myself pushing too hard to get things done, or agreeing to go on excursions that don’t serve my need for quiet introversion. I find myself at the bike park or under the blazing sun with neighborhood kids swirling around me on scooters. I love these moments, of course. But I also find that often I’m churning along, not standing up for some of my deeper needs.

It helps when I can speak clearly about where I’m at. It also helps when I can loop back around and share my experience honestly with my kids. “I was frustrated when…” “When you do that, I feel…” It never lands when I’m in a reactive moment – but it does land when I’m settled again and can be authentic about whatever has transpired and what the impacts were. It requires a bit of extra introspection and taking the time to process how we all engage in a moment together. Remembering to be authentic and honest softens many edges and helps me to relax.

Love is the answer. It doesn’t always feel quiet and sweet, but it always feels true. I love the truth here. “It doesn’t always feel quiet and sweet, but it always feels true.” Parenting has taught me that love can look a million ways, and it doesn’t always look how I’d imagined. Love can however become a larger container that we all live in, together. Love can offer the cushion of safety that surrounds us, even when we’re not feeling it directly during a difficult moment.

For me, it helps to create space to really notice my children – to really look deeply at them and hold them in an intentional light. Coming back to love, over and over again, is truly the answer. Even when I mess up and grapple with feelings of failure, overwhelm and exasperation, I remember to come back to my experience of love. From there, I find all the insight I need.

As the Alaya teachers and staff share so aptly, “Parenting is a much greater challenge that most people admit (even to themselves). The potential of parenting, in helping us grow, be happy and relax into compassion, is also more profound that we sometimes can see. Parenting is a quick and steep path indeed!”

Thanks to Alaya Preschool teacher Sita Santos for these illustrations (given to my boys earlier this year).

 

 

A Quiet Place: Finding Joy in Nature

“It will be hard to create a quiet place

where your children can find their souls. 

You must first quiet your own world

and then approach theirs. 

They are accustomed 

to the barrage of noise

and will complain loudly in its absence.

But you can find a quiet way. 

What can you do today?” 

– William Martin, The Parent’s Tao Te Ching, Ancient Advice for Modern Parents 


Photos taken in Glacier National Park, Montana and Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming – July, 2017

The Difficult Grit of Raising Boys

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.

—-

Ninjas!
Warriors!
Purveyors of sharks.
Devouring reason,
You trample on life’s delicate,
Well-mannered
Moments.

You spin chaos,
You unfurl conflict.
Wielding everything as a weapon,
You destroy.

 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.

Ceremony and School Year Endings

“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.

Creating Space: Children’s Processing of Death

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?

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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.

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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…”

Principles of Contemplative Parenting

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! 

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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.

A moment of Alaya Preschool field trip awe…Photo credit: Alaya Preschool 

Coming to Peace With Our One Precious Life

LaRue, on Lake Michigan in Chicago
LaRue, on Lake Michigan in Chicago

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.

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“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.”

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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.

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