“The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things.” – Plato
My youngest son Kienan is in his second year at Alaya Preschool, a preschool rooted in contemplative educational practices founded by the late Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. When the weather is nice after school, children and parents linger to play and connect in the play yards, which are carefully created and tended. Just as spring was unfolding this month, I was able to look around and appreciate the attention to detail, the opportunities for sensory play, and the hints of magic found in carefully placed daffodil flowers or mysterious fairy doors at the base of old trees. It was one of those moments when a warm wind was blowing after a long winter and I was able to see the play space with fresh eyes.
My boys were busy scooping water and building with stones and wood. Everything mirrored nature. There were trees to climb, a wooden play structure to swing off of, a sand area encircled by tree trunks. A small bridge hovered over a rock and flower garden. After seven years of my children attending Alaya Preschool, it struck me how many happy moments we have shared in this play yard, surrounded by lovely things.
I began to consider all the ‘things’ we often hand to children. Do they need any of them? Here, there are simple pleasures. There is fresh air, there is shade. There are living things. There is space to roam and run. Rocks, sticks, stones and rough wooden blocks abound. Each play yard is graced by the trickle of running water. I remember: Let’s make time for simple play. Let’s be outside. Nature offers what we need. Let’s foster an appreciation of lovely things…
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.
“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.
“The Goddess weaves her magic through the seasons, endlessly aging and growing young. She gives birth to the wild force of Nature, unleashing her mighty child to grow, and decay – sacrificing her progeny time and again into the vast Dark, feeding the Power of Life. Ahh – time to look at what we have birthed into being this year. What did we bring forth that totally awakened our desire? What of our own creations did we so fall in love with that we married it down in the marrow of our bones? What now are we getting ready to take with us into the dark?
Fall is a time of decision, of gathering in, of choosing what to keep and what to let go. Fall now into our heart of hearts. Dive now into the deep end of the pool of ourselves. Let go of the above ground. Burrow now into our dream cave taking with us the final harvest, the essential piece that will nourish the root of our being and bring us through to our next life.”
– Miriam Dyak, Mother Tongue Ink
“She gives birth to the wild force of Nature.” The line sticks with me as I contemplate how each mother in her own way also gives birth to the ongoing force of human nature – with little ones often bringing with them wild joy and spontaneity – and sometimes wild, unbridled energy. We do a serious work bringing our children into the world – and can at times forget our own center or balance as we set aside so much in service of another.
Today’s Equinox – a time of equal lightness and darkness – ushers forth the perfect opportunity to reflect on balance. While summer offers the natural space for extraversion and generativity, the advent of this new, darker season serves up a moment to contemplate how balanced or imbalanced we’ve been. How can we say goodbye to the fruits of summer and recommit to a sane rhythm of life as the season shifts? What to keep and what to let go?
A friend once said she was so tired of reading ‘mom blogs’ that dwell on how exhausted parenting can make us and how many messes we are tasked with tending to. Her comment has stayed with me as I’ve struggled to find balance these years while these two dominant themes seem to rule my experience. Exhaustion and Mess. Should I just gloss over these overwhelming aspects of motherhood? Should I shift my focus? Even in the midst of the dishes and laundry and wet bed sheets and diapers, what do we also bring forth that inspires our creativity and inspiration? It must be about finding balance – and honoring both sides of our experience. Yes, exhausted. Yes, always a mess. Yes, zany, wild joy!
The word balance comes from the Latin ‘bi lanx’- ‘having two scalepans.’ As mothers we are always holding many scalepans, and perhaps the key is to find the grounded center in the middle while holding all the conflicting realities and responsibilities. If we tip one direction and get lost in the tiredness and the never-ending piles of housekeeping, we lose balance. If we tip another direction and get lost in work, we lose balance. And if we only play and frolic, we also lose balance. Instead, the invitation is to hold the myriad scalepans from a grounded center of perspective. Yes, I’m tired and yes I can’t stay ahead of the mess. But I can also enjoy the daily delights with full presence and appreciation along the way. I can focus fully in one area, then focus fully in another.
Nonetheless, the exhaustion and messes do serve as a significant backdrop and inform my experience of balance (or imbalance!). I am at my most balanced when I can hold the scalepans of exhaustion of mess and not let them take me down. I am at my most balanced when I remember to see through the lens of joy and appreciation. For me, the quiet moments with my children in the garden or under our grapes, or the moments dipping our toes into a creek on a hot day have most recently brought me joy. The delight has been about bringing forth a quality of life for my family which will hopefully endure into the future through sane and grounded children going on to become sane and grounded young men. Part of this is modeling a slowness and relaxedness, even in the midst of often overwhelming responsibility. When I hold this perspective while tending to the duties of caregiving and householding, I can find a more sustainable center of gravity from which to live.
As Miriam Dyak reminds me, fall can be a time of decision, of gathering in and of choosing what to keep and what to let go. What are we balancing in our lives right now? How are the scales tipping? How do we stand in the center? What perspective dominates? What are we getting ready to take with us into the dark? What would like to fall away like the leaves leaving their trees?
Burrowing into the dream cave of darker days indeed does call – and a dive into the deep end our ourselves…
“People in every disguise imaginable are taking to the streets and parading past grinningly carved, candlelit jack o’lanterns, re- enacting customs with a lengthy pedigree. Their masked antics challenge, mock, tease, and appease the dread forces of the night, of the soul, and of the otherworld that becomes our world on this night of reversible possibilities, inverted roles, and transcendency. In so doing, they are reaffirming death and its place as a part of life in an exhilarating celebration of a holy and magic evening.”
– Jack Santino, The Folklore of All Hallows
I love to tell my children the old stories of Halloween – how for at least 1200 years (and likely much longer) people of Celtic heritage were celebrating a festival of the dead on October 31st, complete with bonfires, costumes, and treats left on stoops for the wandering spirits. November 1st was the marking of a new year in the Celtic calendar, the beginning of the darkest half of the year. Harvest in, darkness falling earlier, leaves almost all tumbled off the trees, it was seen as a time when the veils between the worlds were said to be thinner and the spirits of the departed returned to frolic once more among the living.
Out walking with Braeden today we talked about what it means to return to the earth. We studied the leaves just fallen from the trees and I showed him how the colorful ones still had their sweet pliable lifeblood about them while the brownest ones were easily crumpled, crunchily turning back into the earth before our very eyes. In our bedtime stories of the past few evenings I’ve woven in how our ancestors likely were paying very close attention to the natural world and the lessons contained therein. Just like the leaves returning to earth, this is a time for us too to contemplate those who have passed to the other side before us.
The day after Halloween we set up our ‘Day of the Dead’ altar with photos of my Grandpa Lundin, my Grandma Rhea and Grandpa Nick, and my great great grandmother Wilhelmina. There is a photo of my father paying his respects at my grandpa McNamara’s grave in Normandy, where he died right after D-Day during World War II. It got us talking about our bodies returning to earth, and why some of us are buried in the ground. Rowan got out his drawing paper and asked me to draw a person who had “gone back to the earth.” He then drew a “hole” (which for me harkened a tree – the symbolism of which wasn’t lost on me since many of my European ancestors believed we came from trees and thus should return to earth in trees – hence the wooden coffin). Rowan added hearts around the body, and peace signs representing how those who “have gone back to the earth are thinking about peace and surrounded by love.” While explaining his drawing to his friend Emily today over a lit candle he said “here is the dead person in their cradle, back to the earth.”
Yes! Here we were, getting at what I think is part of the central essence of this ancient celebration. Like Jack Santino writes, here we are “reaffirming death and its place as a part of life in an exhilarating celebration of a holy and magic evening.” Over lollipops left over from trick-or-treating we talk about how the candy of the season should really be a reminder of the sweetness of life since we are here amongst this glorious land of the living. Luckily, the six year olds agree. “It shouldn’t just be all about the sugar.”
Today, November 2nd, is “All Souls Day,” designated as such by the Church sometime in about 1000AD as a day to honor the dead. It built upon the existing “All Saints Day” of November 1st, which had been designated in the 8th Century by Pope Gregory III, a feast day to coincide with the pagan Samhain and the Celtic New Year, with the evening before known over time as “All Hallow’s Eve,” now our current ‘Halloween.’
Of course the more ancient origins were rooted in the pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain, where bonfires were lit and people would wear costumes to ward off and confuse the ghosts traveling between worlds at this time of the year. It was seen as a liminal time, when spirits and the souls of the departed were catered to with offerings of food and drink (often ale or wine). Trick-or-treating likely has its roots here, or perhaps from the tradition of going door to door collecting food for Samhain feasts, or from the All Souls Day parades in England, where people would give out ‘soul cakes’ in return for praying for departed family members.
In a culture gone mad with candy and consumerism, I pine for the quiet thread of story that Halloween, Samhain, Day of the Dead, and All Souls Day weave together. I tell it to my children in several acts each night, and build on the themes during the day. What do we notice about nature around us? How is the darkness landing earlier and earlier and how does it make us feel? Why is it important to remember those who have passed before us? And, is there really a mysterious realm of ‘other-world’ that we cannot truly know?
For now, I tell them that this is the time of year to go inwards into the light of their own hearts even as it is getting darker. This is the time to feel our roots settling deeply into the earth, even as the leaves of our activities may be falling away. What sustains us deep below that is beyond the fruits of our labors? Where can we find life in hidden places, even when so many things are dying? These are the words I utter as they slowly drift off to sleep.
Rowan’s drawing of a person who has “gone back to the earth, in their cradle.”
“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
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 showedappreciation 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…